Wednesday, March 23, 2016

1620 Public Editor Number Five

Not public enemy, public editor.  

The New York Times has a peculiarly personal relationship with its readers.  Surely you know people who refer to it as “my” Times.  You don’t get that with a lot of other papers.

Many readers are invested in their local papers, even in the internet age.  But when was the last time you heard someone refer to “my Atlanta Constitution” or “my Denver Post?”

People have been writing scathing, scalding or sympathetic letters to the NYT for more than a century.  And to handle the inquiries and critiques, the Times created a new position, the public editor.

There have been five of them over the years, starting at the time they had to overcome the Jayson Blair fake news/fake interviews/fake datelines problem in 2003.

They don’t last long.  And the current and highest profile one, Margaret Sullivan is about to leave. She’ll become a media columnist for the Washington Post.  And she’ll do it months before the expiration of her contract.

Sullivan has almost 40 years experience in print, though she looks younger than her resume would lead you to believe. She was the boss at a paper in Buffalo, NY before joining the Times in 2012.

And she says the move is voluntary, that she had “always thought of (public editor) as a job...” with a shelf life and an expiration date.

Imagine the pressure as she deals with readers who think they run the world and writers and editors who actually do.

The business of news is based on throwing journalists in a slow cutting wood chipper.   Whittle ‘em down and scatter the chips. Editors are no exception. It’s painless until it turns into heart disease or migraines. And when the job amounts to soothing the public and while at the same time soothing the hierarchy, or explaining one subset to the other, the public editor is caught in the middle between groups that think they know it all but disagree.

So what the Times and other large papers have done is create a target.  And, yes, after a target is hit a few thousand times a year, it gets ragged.

Sullivan shows no sign of raggedness. She’s easy and interesting to read, has and uses access to the people of the “my Times” crowd who don’t and is no shy little wallflower.

So maybe she fears Early Onset Ragged Target Syndrome or maybe she just got a better deal from the Washpost.

She’s a tough act to follow. And whoever follows her as public editor number six knows that.

--This week marks the 25th anniversary of four year old Connor Clapton’s fall to his death from a high floor window in New York. This was an accident some say was completely avoidable. Those same people resent father Eric Clapton’s cashing in on it with the release of “Tears in Heaven,” a terrible song repurposed from a movie Clapton was scoring.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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© WJR 2016

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