The big media news yesterday was the New York Times‘ sudden elimination of its public editor position, established in 2003 to serve the public and instill trust after the Jayson Blair fabrication scandal. The Times essentially fired its current public editor, Liz Spayd, announcing she will be out at the paper tomorrow, despite having a year left on her contract.
iMediaEthics contacted Jeffrey Dvorkin, former executive director and former president of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, an international organization for ombudsmen, to ask his perspective on the surprising news.
“The elimination of the public editor’s position at the New York Times is a mistake, in my opinion,” Dvorkin, a former NPR ombudsman, told iMediaEthics by e-mail. “The public has always held the position in high regard, even if news management sees this as a position that has no or little value [or] an easily eliminated cost.
Despite the Times establishing a Reader Center to respond to readers and the oft-cited access to reporters via social media, Dvorkin argued, “It is wrong and short-sighted to assume the Internet can act as an effective media critic.”
Dvorkin explained, “Public editors operate on behalf of the readers by bringing accountability on specific subjects to the institution. Management tends to assume that critics on the web are basically uninformed and thus, can be easily ignored and dismissed.”
We asked Dvorkin if breaking a contract with the ombudsman with a year left could create a chilling effect given that one of the core principles of an ombudsman’s contract is to ensure independence from the news outlet and prohibit being fired, regardless of what the ombudsman writes or concludes about the news organization. “It’s very short sighted.” he said. “The public editor role was never widely accepted at the Times.”
When asked if he’s seen this before, Dvorkin noted to iMediaEthics, “I do know that news organizations have been able to dismiss an ombuds if there is sufficient economic justification. That seems to be the reasoning behind the Times’ decision.”
iMediaEthics wondered if the economic motive The Times associated with the firing was a fig leaf given that there was one year left in her two-year contract that the newspaper is obligated to pay her for. Dvorkin said, “I agree.”
iMediaEthics has also written to the current president of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, Esther Enkin, for her take on the New York Times‘ actions and the possible impact on the industry. We have not heard back from Enkin, but will update if we do.
The Boston Globe‘s public editor position was eliminated in 2013 after its then-ombudsman left for a job as a political spokesperson, as iMediaEthics reported. The Globe editor at the time, Marty Baron, denied firing the ombudsman.
Also in 2013, The Washington Post ended the public editor or ombudsman role, when then-ombudsman Patrick Pexton’s two-year term expired. In his place, the Post appointed a readers representative, Doug Feaver.
Feaver left the Post after less than a year “for personal reasons” and his deputy, Alison Coglianese, took over the role.
Despite her abrupt firing, Spayd is still scheduled to appear in October at the American Society of News Editors’ 2017 annual conference on a panel, “Fake news and political reporting: Showcasing Liz Spayd, The New York Times public editor” and former Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, now a Washington Post media columnist, among others.
iMediaEthics e-mailed the ASNE executive director Teri Hayt, who told iMediaEthics this afternoon, “Liz Spayd’s appearance will continue as currently planned.”
In a statement given by Spayd to Columbia Journalism Review, where she was former editor and publisher, Spayd commented on the Times‘ decision to end her job:
“The Times is reimagining itself in all sorts of ways, and the decision to eliminate the public editor’s role is just one part of that. I’m honored to have been among the six who’ve sat in this chair, and to be among those who tried to keep a great institution great, even as it made the inevitable stumbles.
“I imagine all five of my predecessors would agree that while it can be an unusually stressful job, it’s also one that’s highly rewarding.”
UPDATE: June 3, 2017, 11:38am EST: Added new information about ASNE panel.