The NYT doesn’t need one public editor, it needs a hundred

The New York Times (s nyt) recently appointed a new “public editor” — the ombudsman-style position that is designed to be a liaison between readers and the management of the newspaper — and so far, former Buffalo News editor Margaret Sullivan has been getting pretty good reviews: she is engaged, she takes advantage of social media well, and she is broadening her reach in terms of what she will tackle or comment on. But the more I think about her job, the more I keep coming back to one thing: Why does the NYT only have a single person who engages with readers around what the paper is doing? Why can’t more of the paper’s existing editors and writers do that? In the long run, I think the Times (and plenty of other traditional media outlets) would be better off if they took that approach.

I don’t want to give the impression that I think having a public editor is a bad idea, because that’s not the case at all. The NYT and other newspapers who have this kind of ombudsman role are at least trying to do a better job of interacting with readers and paying attention to issues that involve the paper, which is frankly a lot more than some publications do. And the New York Times has tried hard to structure the job so that it can remain independent while still being part of the newspaper: the public editor is appointed by and answers to the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., so that he or she can criticize the editorial side of the operation without (theoretically) having to worry about keeping his or her job.

Since she took over the role, Margaret Sullivan has made a point of involving not just editors and writers at the paper, but also pulling in comments from interested readers and other outsiders on Twitter, and linking to as many different sources of reaction to the NYT’s behavior as possible. As she describes her job in a recent post:

“I intend to blog frequently and to use social media outlets like Twitter to expand the sphere and invite other voices in. I’ll also sometimes comment on journalism outside The Times, both for comparative purposes and because I think it will interest readers.”

The role of an editor should be public by default

All of that is good, and so far Sullivan has done an admirable job of responding to criticism about a number of topics, including why the Times didn’t do more on its front page about the anniversary of September 11 and also the coverage of gender issues. She talks to the editors involved and gets their reaction, and that is valuable — but why can’t we hear from those editors directly? If readers are complaining about a lack of coverage of a certain issue, or the way in which the newspaper is leaning to the left (as departing public editor Arthur Brisbane alleged in a controversial post just before his departure), why can’t an editor who is actually involved in those decisions respond somewhere?

There are some great examples of New York Times journalists who interact with readers and critics directly all the time, using Twitter and other outlets including their Tumblr blogs. Media reporter Brian Stelter is one: not only does he use Twitter extremely well, but he has also done some pretty interesting stuff with his Tumblr blog during breaking-news events such as the tornado last year in Missouri. As I argued at the time, that kind of effort breaks down a lot of the walls that still exist between “traditional” journalists and what Jay Rosen has called “the people formerly known as the audience,” and I think that is ultimately a good thing.

Assistant managing editor Jim Roberts is another example of someone who is trying hard to use Twitter as a way of listening to readers and outside sources, and of interacting with them as well. As he described in a recent interview with Talking Points Memo, the benefits of doing this are many-fold: Not only do journalists get a better sense of what kind of reaction their work is getting, but the paper as a whole benefits — since it is seen as being interested in what readers think and in engaging with them. Says Roberts:

“I often keep an open feed of @NYTimes mentions, just so that I can see what our readers are talking about. I think that’s a really, really valuable piece of real-time feedback. There are quite often things I see in there where people are either praising, or, you know, in some cases, criticizing our work that I think is very valuable for me to know as an editor.”

Connecting with readers isn’t just nice, it’s essential

This kind of engagement is more than just a buzzword, or some touchy-feely recipe for social-media success: As I tried to point out recently, newspapers and other traditional media have to spend more of their time trying to get to know their readers better if they are going to rely on them for an increasing amount of their revenue — which papers with paywalls like the New York Times are essentially doing. How better to build that relationship than by interacting with and responding to readers directly? If Margaret Sullivan is the only one who does this, then Margaret Sullivan is the only one who will have a relationship with NYT readers.

I can almost hear editors at newspapers everywhere saying: “We don’t have time to interact with readers — we are busy focusing on our journalism, and we are already overworked.” This was a constant refrain when I worked for a newspaper as the online “community editor,” and it continues to be a standard fall-back position in the industry. But does it really take that much time to do a search on Twitter and respond to comments now and then, or to write a blog post to say that you are listening and you have given readers’ concerns some thought? Couldn’t you miss another layout meeting or some refresher course on headline writing to do that?

One of the things that blogs are good at — and blog-derived new media outlets like The Huffington Post (s aol) — is speaking directly to readers whenever there is something worth discussing, and editors at plenty of online outlets do this routinely. There may be the occasional pissing match or overly emotional response, but that comes with the territory. And even if it occasionally goes too far, it is better than the ivory-tower style institutional response that people routinely get from their newspapers. That approach is not doing newspapers any favors as they try to fight the ongoing decline of their traditional business models.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Rosaura Ochoa and jphilipg