Thursday, March 29, 2007

The New York Times Should Pick a Young Dark Horse for Public Editor

Slate's Jack Shafer wants the New York Times' new public editor to be under 40. And I think he's right.

Jack says it's because his or her "worldview hasn't been Lasiked blind by decades inside a newspaper newsroom, and who writes the way fire ants bite."

And I say he's on the money (AJR's Carl Sessions Stepp thinks so too). But I think his list of suggestions goes a little too extreme, reflecting a desire to steer toward the Web without concern for actual editing psychology.

(As a side note, I don't always agree with Shafer, but I do read his columns often, and I'm always impressed with his handle of history and ability to shape an argument. I think he's one of the finest writers out there.)

Though Shafer's list mentions some qualified journalists in magazines and newspapers (Joshua Green, Larissa MacFarquhar, Michele Cottle), it also emphasizes the first honorary blog class of media: Elizabeth Spiers of Gawker/Dealbreaker fame and Joshua Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo.

And you know what? Those are some stellar big names in the industry. But as an ombudsman? A public editor? I don't know. Just because you write opinion all the time and got famous for it doesn't mean you're qualified to do it and do it well.

Let's take Spiers as an example. When I met her, she seemed far less concerned with editorial pursuits than with business models, and she mentioned that business was her groove and not gossip. Spiers will make a fine publisher - hell, she already is on that track with Dead Horse Media - who is savvy to editorial feel. But as a public editor? Spiers made her name spitting bile for Gawker, but I don't know if she's really cares to critique the many aspects of The Times for the benefit of The Times. For her, the question isn't whether The Times can afford her, the questions are whether she'd really care to backtrack to old habits and whether the Times is getting the best bang for its buck. She won't be afraid to step on toes or cut them off entirely- but will she be right?

And that's just one of Shafer's examples. I think Shafer's sentiment behind the suggestions is great - look to the web, look away from the old guard - but I must caution that we needn't swing all the way over so quickly. It's as if Lockhart Steele hired Howard Kurtz to be Gawker's public editor. How would Alex Balk feel then?

In my opinion, I think the Times should hire an unknown; a dark horse. I don't think you're going to find a solid opinion in someone's clips - I think it will have to emerge from a lengthy conversation about the paper. After all, why would a great reporter translate into a great ombudsman? Wouldn't a good editor be better?

And how do bloggers fit into the mix? I certainly don't think calling out Anna Wintour through a gossip blog necessarily qualifies someone to critique coverage on the war in Iraq. So really, you need to find someone who cares passionately about journalism, without getting caught up in the mundane or the profane.

Let's go a step further: How should a journalism degree fit into this? Should we move to elect people who have had guaranteed exposure from an Ivory Tower? Should The Times just hire Jay Rosen and be done with it?

It's not an easy decision no matter what. So frankly, I think The Times should have a big write-off: open the field to all comers, make them all write on a specific issue, and see how they do. Then pick your editor.

A public editor needn't have star power - just a critical eye and a fluid pen.

EDIT: Gawker, of course, came up with their own list in response to Shafer's column - not surprisingly with their own staffers and favorite punching bags.

1 comment:

matt said...

Really, you should always agree with Shafer. I mean, I do. Always.