About six weeks ago, I got a phone call out of the blue from a New York Times editor who told me that I had been recommended to be a candidate for the open Public Editor job at the Times. My first reaction (outside of shock) was to be honored that they would consider me, but I also felt pretty satisfied running three websites for PBS.org that were growing stronger each season.
Being the Public Editor at the Times means being on the front lines of criticism of the Times’ journalism and giving voice to honest complaints from readers. While ombudsman/readers’ rep jobs were disappearing along with the downturn in all newspaper jobs, there’s still a measure of pride and independence in having a role that is separate from the newspaper’s regular org chart, being paid by the paper but not answering to most of the hierarchy there.
So, honestly, I was torn. The job required picking up and moving to New York, while I am very happy with my life in San Francisco. The job would give me an even bigger, more public platform for my views on bringing in readers into the news process. I would have to find someone to run MediaShift in my absence, which would be a tall order. I would be working for one of the top news organizations in the world (though there has been turmoil at the top of the Times).
But what if I could have my cake and eat it too? What if I could transform the job of Public Editor into a Public Board, where I would help lead a diverse group of Board Members who were located around the world and helped give feedback — and helped with editorial input throughout the chain of command at the Times?
So I sent along this blueprint for how I envisioned broadening the role of the Public Editor. (I realize other strong candidates such as Craig Silverman and Dan Gillmor have done the same by posting their visions.)
Here was my idea:
NY Times Public Board
I would serve as the Chairman of the Public Board, or leader or editor or whatever you want to call me. I would ultimately be the last word, but I would work in collaboration with other Board members who would represent the diversity of all NY Times readership, online and in print. That means we would have a diverse group by age, gender, place and culture.
We might have a younger woman based in Europe, a senior citizen based in the Bronx, myself in San Francisco and a middle-aged African American in Nebraska. Our views would be diverse politically, culturally and socially. The idea is that we would be able to speak for all the readers, and represent them to the Times in a more comprehensive way.
As Chair of the Board, I would make final determinations and help organize the team. The Board might have 5 to 7 members, working part-time. I would work full-time, continue to live mostly in San Francisco but could be in New York at the newsroom for one week per month.
Beyond the Board
While the Board would be the ones responding to readers, meeting with them on a regular basis (in person and virtually) and writing on the blog (a group blog, with reader submissions as well), we would create a larger NY Times Reader Collective, modeled on the successful Public Insight Network) at American Public Media. The idea here is to create a larger group of NYT fans who can give feedback on stories, help generate new stories, and use their own knowledge as sources for stories. If there is already an existing NYT fan base or database, it could be better leveraged by the Public Board.
More Than Feedback
While the purview of the Public Editor has traditionally been as a reader representative and someone who helps give feedback to reporters and editors on stories that have run, the Public Board’s charge would go beyond feedback. Not only would it represent readers on day-to-day articles, but it would help the Times understand what readers want in the Times’ evolution into a digital-first news outlet.
In other words, while the Public Board will be watching out for reader concerns in the current time frame, it will also be collecting feedback on how the Times can better serve its readers in a more holistic way. This means bringing more reporters and editors out to public meetings, bringing readers into the editorial process, getting more input on story generation, and creating a better feedback loop so that the public becomes part of the news gathering process.
In a nutshell, I would hope to not only help the Times do a better job responding to reader concerns, but actually give the readers a stronger voice in how the Times operates.
In the end, I got a call telling me that I hadn’t made the cut for the final round. An editor told me that they understood that I didn’t really want to move to New York, which was a requirement for the job. And the biggest factor against me was … they were going to hire a woman for the job, they told me.
Now, I could be upset that this was a kind of reverse discrimination, but in reality, I also believe the Times should try for diversity in this position, and fully supported them in hiring a woman as Public Editor. (All previous Public Editors were older white males.) I keep a sharp eye on diversity in all my hires here at MediaShift and am proud of our record of bringing on women and people of color — not to mention our coverage of diversity issues in new media).
I didn’t come into my current job as editor of The Buffalo News with a gender-driven agenda and I won’t do that when I start working at the Times. At the same time, I certainly care about such issues as pay equality, sexual harassment, and child care. I do like to see women represented in the news media — in images, in quotes, in stories — and I know that they are often underrepresented.
My hope is that Sullivan will represent the concerns of all the Times’ readers, casting a wide net to readers all over the country and all over the world, regardless of their gender, background or political point of view. And while she might not have the same digital pedigree as some of the other candidates, I hope she will take some of our proposals to heart and experiment with ways to get more reader input into the Times.
Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian and fiancee Renee. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit. and Circle him on Google+