Byron Calame’s term as the New York Times’ second public editor ends soon, and with Women’s Wear Daily reporting Executive Editor Bill Keller’s intention to appoint a new PE, * the question of the day is, whom should he hire?
Keller’s first public editor was utility genius Daniel Okrent. Okrent has edited magazines, worked top jobs in book publishing, written books, and harvested a few journalism fellowships along the way. Most of the slop written about the press (current company included) has the shelf life of a pot of coffee, but Okrent’s Times columns read very nicely outside the topical storm in which they were written. See for yourself by reading Public Editor Number One: The Collected Columns (With Reflections, Reconsiderations, and Even a Few Retractions) of the First Ombudsman of the New York Times.
Okrent approached the job as a critic, not as an administrative-law judge, which was Calame’s tendency, and he capitalized on his occupational ignorance of the newspaper business by asking Times reporters and editors the sort of stupid questions readers wanted answered about how the paper worked. Calame’s four decades at the Wall Street Journal left him sympathizing too often with the newspaper rather than its readers. One Calame column actually reported the Times news staff’s thoughts about its readers! Another investigated the ethics of offering corporate discounts to Times employees on its internal Web site without asking if any of the discounts were real deals. (In my judgment, none of them were.) Like many ombudsmen, Calame assumed the voice of a writer who thought the standing title of his column was “What I Would Do If I Were Editor of This Newspaper.”
That said, I applaud Calame for driving the ball with his woods rather than chopping at it with a wedge in the last few weeks. On March 25, he paid a critical return visit to Kurt Eichenwald’s piece about child porn that he found so wonderful in a January 2006 column.
Okrent accomplished more with his ignorance than Calame did with his wisdom, which shows that experience isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. The Times understands this intuitively, routinely assigning thirtysomething reporters to cover vital and complicated beats they know little about going in. If the Times thinks young reporters are good enough to cover war or LBOs, why shouldn’t a young writer be good enough to occupy the public-editor throne?
My choice for public editor No. 3 would be somebody who is under 40, whose worldview hasn’t been Lasiked blind by decades inside a newspaper newsroom, and who writes the way fire ants bite. A drumroll, please, for my nominations, which appear in no particular order.
Elizabeth Spiers: She has the sass and the gas. Only a few inches taller than 30 years old, Spiers has already collected a lifetime of business and journalistic success. Founding editor of Gawker and former editor in chief of Mediabistro.com, she knows the press and finance. Currently runs her own Web-media company. Big question: Can the Times afford her?
Joshua Green:Don’t hold Green’s J-school degree against him. Currently at the Atlantic, Green specializes in serious, long-form political journalism (see his brilliant piece on Hillary Clinton), although his inner doofus found expression at the Onion in the mid-1990s before it became all the rage. Green’s skills at cutting through crap, getting the story, and writing fluidly would make him a great PE. Big question: The Times bans public editors from future employment on the paper, so would it really want to eliminate Green from its future talent pool?
Larissa MacFarquhar: Big think, small think. High culture, low culture. Politics, neurophilosophy. Commerce, fashion. As far as I know, MacFarquhar hasn’t written about the press, but her work in The New Yorker (and Lingua Franca before that) proves she can master any subject over a weekend. Big question: Would she find ombudsmania too petty a beat to walk?
Michelle Cottle: Okrent had a better run than Calame in part because he didn’t mind making newsroom enemies in the line of duty. Cottle, as pleasant a person as you would ever care to meet, has similar pluck. Tough reporter. Fine writer. Inquisitive mind. Can punch inside or throw a deadly roundhouse. Big questions: Same as Green’s and MacFarquhar’s.
Joshua Micah Marshall: One of Web journalism’s stars, Marshall is the best reader of the bunch. Armed with an X-acto knife, he cuts promising shoots out of banal daily newspaper stories, transplants them into a hydroponic bed at Talking Points Memo headquarters in New York City, and cultivates them into scoops. (See his work on Trent Lott and the U.S. attorney firing story.) Don’t hold his Ph.D. against him. Big question: Marshall can do greater damage to the New York Times from outside its walls than from inside, so what’s his motivation?
Your nominations? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Disclosures: I know Green better than I know Cottle, Cottle better than I know Marshall, Marshall better than I know MacFarquhar, and I hardly know Spiers at all, although I have a close relationship with her Earthlink e-mail spam blocker. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Correction, March 29, 2007: The original version of this article mistakenly said that the term of public editor is 18 months. The first public editor did serve 18 months; the second, two years. (Return to the corrected sentence.)