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The Last NYT Public Editor?

By Andy Alexander

My Sunday column quoted Post publisher Katharine Weymouth as saying she remains committed to having an independent ombudsman, even at a time when the newspaper is losing money and the staff is being further depleted by the fourth round of buyouts since 2003.

There also has been keen interest in whether the New York Times will replace my friend and colleague Clark Hoyt when his term as that newspaper's "public editor" expires in mid-2010. (Mine runs to early 2011.) Hoyt is the third person to serve as Times public editor; the first was named in 2003. The Post has had 14 ombudsmen since 1970.

In an online chat on earlier this year, Times executive editor Bill Keller was asked whether there will be a successor to Hoyt.

“Whether we have a fourth and a fifth and a sixth public editor is a question we'll answer when the time comes,” he said. “The idea of a public editor has never won universal acclamation in the newsroom. There are still some who believe we have enough independent checks in the legion of self-appointed press critics without paying one of our own. There are still some who think a public editor does more to undermine our credibility, by poking small holes in important stories, than to shore it up.

“The other day in a meeting of senior editors I asked for an informal show of hands on the question of continuing the role of public editor. The room was about evenly divided. I'm keeping my own hand down until 2010."

Like The Post, the Times is facing financial challenges. So with that in mind, I e-mailed Keller last week and posed this question: "If the current adverse financial conditions exist for the Times in mid-2010, will the newspaper still be committed to a public editor?"

His response: "I like to think my recommendation to the publisher will be based on the merits -- the same way we decide whether to replace the Tokyo correspondent or a Pentagon reporter -- with money a secondary, even subliminal consideration.

"But I can imagine the possibility that the economic situation would loom larger than that. And, of course, if I come down on the side of those who think we no longer need a public editor, I will throw in the savings as a reinforcing argument."

By Andy Alexander  | May 18, 2009; 12:50 PM ET
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Public editors are useless. They have no control or power over editorial. In fact they are merely apologists for liberal journalists.

They are the Baghdad Bobs of the newsroom.

Posted by: RaiderDan | May 18, 2009 1:42 PM | Report abuse

"There are still some who think a public editor does more to undermine our credibility, by poking small holes in important stories, than to shore it up."


That's just the point, Keller. The "public editor" is not there to shore up stories written by disingenuous, sloppy reporters who think their stuff doesn't stink.


Posted by: waterfrontproperty | May 18, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse

I do not find anything "public" about the Times' public editor. He or she is just another Op Ed writer with his own slant on what matters and why, and usually it is a very unoriginal slant. The only difference from other Op Ed writers is his focus on the process rather than the subject of Times stories. Rarely they say something interesting. Mostly, I avoid their pieces as one of the more irrelevant parts of the paper.

Posted by: rjoff | May 18, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

To Keller I would ask if the "public editor" would or would not help senior editors, like Keller himself, avoid, say, the NYTimes' collusion with the Bush administration in selling the unilateral military attack on Iraq based on a false premise of "self-defense"?

I take him at his word that nothing fundamental will be dropped because of budget. But can the Times under his leadership really be a good public newspaper as in the old days? Easy to blame the economics and the internet, but which came first, lousy reporting or falling sales?

Posted by: walden1 | May 18, 2009 2:46 PM | Report abuse

Keep the job but eliminate the pay. Somebody will write for free just to get the extra publicity for their own blog or book. Besides, if you remove the pay there will probably be less time available to work the job and therefore fewer nick-picky columns about stuff that doesn't matter.

Posted by: blasmaic | May 18, 2009 7:22 PM | Report abuse

Hmm. Me thinks public editors are link elephants amongst the blind. I for one am not sure if I would know one if I read one? Could you provide a resume of your work at the WAPO that you are most proud of during tenure there? Seriously, I would really enjoy reading it and knowing more about what you do and what evidence I would see in order to know that you are doing your job I guess on my behalf and other reader/commenters here?

Best Regards,


Posted by: mickster1 | May 18, 2009 9:06 PM | Report abuse

Given the polarity of WAPO editorial pages and reporting (or perceptions of the reporting) perhaps there should be you should consider doing a job sharing and have 2 ombudsman. One to represent the left and one to represent right. People in the center don't need an ombudsman as they are too darn smart and intelligent to need one.

Posted by: mickster1 | May 18, 2009 9:16 PM | Report abuse

The ombudsman is not supposed to be an ex-post-facto copy editor, but an advocate for accuracy on behalf of the readership.

Invite a different critic to write a column, unpaid, each week, for the sole purpose of finding fault or failure to live up the highest journalistic standards. If the column itself turns out to be untrue, sue the writer for libel.

Posted by: donnolo | May 18, 2009 9:19 PM | Report abuse

I wasn't much impressed with the first couple of NYTimes Public Editors, but I think Clark Hoyt's doing a pretty good job. And heaven knows the Times needs someone in that role. Bill Keller and his newsroom have thoroughly mastered the art of ignoring their external press critics.

Posted by: bcamarda2 | May 18, 2009 11:54 PM | Report abuse

I believe that the NYT is good for one-thingand that is picking uo dog dodo.

Posted by: a4853916 | May 20, 2009 4:24 PM | Report abuse

There is way too much group think in the media. They sound and even start to look alike in a short time. I guess the 2nd Amendment gives them a Superiority Complex, in that they can do no wrong in defense of the Republic.

And seldom is there anything newsworthy that isn't attached to a self-aggrandizing book written by the brilliant author.

Posted by: adamnescot1 | May 23, 2009 2:25 PM | Report abuse

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