People should perhaps be cut some slack in their first months on the job, but Liz Spayd, the new public editor of the New York Times, is a long-time journalist with a good deal of experience. After a stint as the managing editor for digital operations at the Washington Post, she became the editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. Nevertheless, her first column for the Times, which was published in Sunday’s paper, is a travesty.
The public editor job’s is to examine the Times on a regular basis and respond to readers who are upset about various aspects of the paper’s journalism. Neither of these functions demands something like the utterly misguided first column she has penned. You might think that amid a general dumbing down of news coverage and with local newspapers losing circulation, the Times’ commitment to quality journalism is all the more necessary and urgent (and even strategically sensible). But Spayd essentially argues that the Times needs to become more focused on the desires of its readers, whatever those desires may be. She seems unaware that there is a difference between giving readers what they want and ensuring that readers receive the best news coverage possible—the latter being the purpose of a newspaper, including a digital one. This distinction, which really signals Spayd’s confusion about the point of her own role as a representative for readers, is a worrying sign for people who care about the paper.
Here is how the piece begins:
Most journalists I’ve worked with have a reflexive aversion to interacting with readers. They subscribe to the view that editors and reporters have the most cultivated sense of which stories are most important, and which subjects most worthy of attention. Expecting them to consider the opinions of readers when making such journalistic decisions would be akin to asking an artist to produce a masterwork to accommodate the taste of a benefactor.
There are numerous problems here. For starters, I know very few journalists who have a “reflexive aversion to interacting with readers.” And anyway, “interacting” with readers is not the issue that the rest of the paragraph addresses, and has nothing to do with the claim in her second sentence. It is indeed true that most journalists think they have a sense of what is important. But there is a reason for that: Journalists are paid to have such a “sense.” It is our job. If I am talking to an investment adviser or a plumber, I would hope that he or she would be happy to “interact” with me about his or her work. I would also hope that he or she knows more about investing or plumbing than I do. Spayd’s phony populism is bizarre coming from a journalist. If the reporters and editors at the Times don’t know journalism better than the average person, then why are they being paid to make journalistic decisions? Why was Spayd being paid to make them at CJR?
It is also willfully naïve to think that readers don’t already play a role in determining the paper’s coverage. Resources at every journalistic outfit are in some way allocated based on what readers care about—that’s why expensive foreign bureaus are often the first to get hit when cutback time comes. Is Spayd psyched about that?
The biggest problem with Spayd’s column is that she never really wrestles with the implications of her own questionable argument, which she puts forth after that opening paragraph. As she writes:
Keeping a good distance from readers worked fine over the last century of newspapering. But now that the monopolistic era of print is giving way to an accelerating stampede of digital, the relationship between newsrooms and their audiences is in a period of manifest change.
This paragraph also raises numerous questions, none of which she attempts to answer. Why is this “distance” no longer possible? Is it purely a matter of economics? If so, is it Spayd’s job to worry about the economics of the paper? And if it isn’t purely economics, then why will this style no longer “work fine?”
The rest of the piece continues with Spayd’s bizarre focus on the Times’ need to attract more readers—which is of course something the Times wants to do, but there are clearly other people at the paper thinking about this, and it’s not the job Spayd was hired for. She quotes Susan Chira, a deputy executive editor, as saying, “If we don’t do this, we can’t do anything else. We have to have a broader audience to fund what we do.” So Spayd gets to work examining the ways that the paper can please its audience more directly and thoroughly, but again, none of these ways have to do with, say, ensuring a quality newspaper. Her first complaint, for example, concerns the fact that not enough articles allow readers to comment on them. After writing that the paper is trying to move in the direction of more comments, she adds that the speed at which it has done so has been hindered by “other newsroom priorities.” I’m not sure what those other priorities are, but to spend your first column focusing on something like a comments section is another sign that Spayd’s priorities are bizarre and even—this will sting—out of touch. (Today many outlets are actually disabling their comments sections, as the Times itself has written about.)
Spayd then writes:
And despite the need to pull the audience closer, only a relatively small number of newsroom staffers devote a portion of their day to reader concerns. Besides the comments team, there is the corrections desk, which often deals with readers. There is the letters editor, whose team engages with readers who trend older. There is the audience team, which among other key functions monitors user behavior on social platforms. And there is the office of the public editor, me as of last week, and my assistant, Evan Gershkovich. That’s about it.
Horrors. There are only several teams dealing with readers! But Spayd’s problem is not simply that the paper has been slow to interact with readers; no, it has also failed to understand their tastes and desires, both in terms of content and means of accessing that content. But aside from some clichéd thoughts, which she dutifully trots out—in case you were wondering, yes, Spayd has a paragraph about what millennials want these days—she never explains what those needs are. (Her complaints concern pointless things like the Times’ fogey-ish use of “courtesy titles before people’s last names.”) Spayd concludes:
Success may require a gospel-style conversion to convince 1,300 journalists that what wasn’t a priority in the print age is crucial now. I hope they are successful, as I am one of the converts. I no longer believe that listening to readers leads to dumbed-down journalism, if handled well. Think of pioneering comedians like Jon Stewart, arguably his own brand of journalist. He created a whole new genre of delivering the news. His incisive wit and brilliance enabled him to convey, in one entertaining spoof, what reams of reporters missed through more dutiful stories. The audience had a need, and Stewart found a way to fill it.
If this paragraph is anything to go by, Spayd doesn’t know exactly what the Times should do going forward and also has never watched the Daily Show. (Jon Stewart was good because he gave viewers what they wanted? Huh?) The greatest service the Times can give readers remains a version of the quality paper it has been putting out for a very long time. You might even say that this was and is the paper’s niche. Though of course the paper should continue to evolve and adapt to changing technology and times, becoming something much different is unlikely to work and might even damage what Spayd would surely call its “brand.” (To give you some sense of Spayd’s taste, she tweeted on Saturday that Politico writer Mike Allen, “showed us all … what digital journalism should look like.” This is the same Mike Allen who lets sources write items for him and tells interview subjects, or their representatives, what he is going ask before conducting interviews.)
There are many flaws with journalism and journalists, and readers deserve the best possible news coverage and commentary on whatever device they use to read it. A public editor who wanted to keep the Times’ staff on its toes would be a great service to the paper’s subscribers. Spayd seems to view her job differently, though, which is a real problem. But who cares what I think? If Spayd is popular with readers, I’m sure she will consider her work a success.