The New York Times is terminating its public editor position, shifting its focus to reader comments and social media conversations. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. announced in a memo that the paper has outgrown the need for the role as more and more readers provide criticism online. The Times plans on expanding its commenting platform, and current public editor Liz Spayd will leave the paper on Friday.
“There is nothing more important to our mission, or our business, than strengthening our connection with our readers,” Sulzberger Jr. wrote. “A relationship that fundamental cannot be outsourced to a single intermediary.”
The decision, which mirrors similar ones made at The Washington Post and other organizations, comes at a time when the Times is trying to improve its digital operation to help offset a declining print business. The Times Company reported earlier this month that it saw a 19 percent increase in digital revenue, but an 18 percent decrease on the print side, the lifeblood of the paper. As a result, the company is offering buyouts to editors and reporters to funnel more resources to the remaining staff.
With this in mind, the public editor job, created in the wake of 2003’s Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal, was perhaps always in peril. Complicating matters more is the fact that Spayd, who took the job last July, has been roundly criticized for publishing work that’s been called everything from “insipid” by The Outline to “disastrous” by New York magazine.
In her place, the Times will look to the recently launched Reader Center, which will, according to an earlier memo, respond “directly to tips feedback, questions, concerns, complaints and other queries from the public.”
But how viable a solution that will be is unclear. Moderation is already a murky, grueling task, and Twitter is well known for trollish behavior overwhelming civil discourse. For starters, how will the Reader Center respond to comments, tips, and tweets from trolls sending death threats? How will it manage organized harassment campaigns?
Meanwhile, it can’t be denied that the public editor can be effective at serving readers, thanks to their access to decision-makers. In response to the announcement, former Times public editor and Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan tweeted:
3. The one thing an ombud or public editor can almost always do is hold feet to the fire, and get a real answer out of management.
— Margaret Sullivan (@Sulliview) May 31, 2017