While news outlets like the Washington Post and Kansas City Star have lost their ombudsmen in recent years, a Canadian college newspaper, The Varsity from the University of Toronto, just appointed its first public editor, Sophie Borwein.
Alex McKeen, the paper’s editor, told iMediaEthics by e-mail The Varsity had been thinking about appointing a public editor for about a year. “The Varsity has long been the definitive source of campus news at U of T (we were established in 1880) and maintaining the trust of our readership is essential to our ability to continue to produce high-quality, courageous journalism,” she wrote. “Implementing a Public Editor is our promise to readers that their questions and concerns about the work that we do will not only be taken seriously, but will also have a place within our paper. I hope and believe that this will result in thoughtful discussion, and greater mutual understanding for our readers and journalists.”
In terms of the job’s structure, McKeen told iMediaEthics:
“Our newspaper comes out in print once a week, and I have let Sophie know that she is welcome to have space in our paper for every issue (or online throughout the week as the case may be). We have not set any quotas for her columns, but we’ve discussed that two per month would be a good target. Of course, this may change depending on the volume of emails she received from readers and other factors. We are all new to the role here, and very much looking forward to figuring out exactly how it will work at our paper. “
Borwein explained to iMediaEthics she and McKeen “expect there to be a steep learning curve associated with integrating the public editor position into the newspaper.” As the days and weeks go on, and based on reader reaction, the role will be shaped.
“For the next little while, I think the plan is going to be to see what kind of direct responses I receive,” Borwein e-mailed iMediaEthics. “After that, the plan is to write a more regular column (likely in the realm of two columns a month). Of course, there will be a lot of flexibility to this, depending on the issues that arise, and the responses that they merit.”
Borwein said she has chatted with public editors for other publications, but not university papers because “it isn’t entirely clear that there are many other universities (in Canada or elsewhere) that have public editors.”
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“At this point, all I can really stress is that this is going to be a work in progress, and I think a learning experience for everyone at The Varsity,” Borwein added. “But I am also optimistic it will be a positive step forward for the paper. Given current conversations about trust in the media, I think it is a great time for The Varsity to make this move.”
Borwein introduced herself to The Varsity’s readers in a column. Her term runs during the spring semester — Jan. 1 – April 30, she told iMediaEthics, and she noted, “I was not previously involved with the paper. When I applied to the position, it was made clear to me that, because of the nature of the public editor position, they were looking for someone with some distance from the paper. ”
In her own column, McKeen wrote about the decision to appoint a public editor, noting that because Borwein is a PhD student and not an undergraduate, she is able to straddle the line between being a member of the campus community and separate from the paper.
“As I see it, the next wave of journalists are working at newspapers like The Varsity, and the next wave of informed citizens are reading them,” McKeen wrote. “We strive to always provide a high standard of journalism in keeping with our Code of Journalistic Ethics, and we know from the many engagements our team has with readers that they care a lot about our adherence to those standards. The appointment of Sophie as our Public Editor is our latest commitment to transparency with respect to our journalistic standards and practices that our readers rightly demand from us, and should continue to demand of media organizations throughout their lives.”
According to McKeen, Borwein was picked by “two members of The Varsity’s masthead, and two members of our Board of Directors, and she reports to that same committee.” The Varsity placed an ad for applicants, McKeen told iMediaEthics.
While we rarely hear about student media outlets having public editors, iMediaEthics has previously reported on Cornell University’s student newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun, which has a public editor.
Hat Tip: Kathy English –