The public editor, before and after

The recent news that The New York Times was cutting the position of public editor prompted me to think about my time at The News & Observer. I worked at the Raleigh newspaper twice: from 1992-97 as a copy editor and from 2001-2005 as wire editor.

For most of that time, the N&O did not have a public editor, a role also known as an ombudsman or reader representative. That changed in 2004, when the newspaper added that position and hired Ted Vaden, a longtime journalist who had served as editor of The Chapel Hill News, among other jobs.

Before Vaden’s hiring, I got feedback from readers via email, voicemail and phone calls. Some of these communications were hostile and unproductive, but some led to helpful conversations about how the newspaper operated and what we could do better. I also looked at letters to the editor for responses from readers on how we covered national and international news.

After Vaden was hired, I still received phone calls, voicemail and emails from readers. I also heard from Vaden, asking me why we covered a topic a certain way or why a story had not appeared in the pages of the N&O.

On at least a couple of occasions, I was interviewed by Vaden for columns that he wrote for the N&O addressing concerns from readers. One that I recall was about how the N&O had covered the Terri Schiavo “right to die” controversy. Some readers complained that we had approached it as a political story rather than a medical one. I told Vaden that I saw it as both and that our coverage had tried to address each angle.

His column suggested that we had fallen short. I disagreed with that assessment, but I appreciated how Vaden went about his work. He asked good questions and came up with conclusions based on evidence and analysis.

Vaden left the N&O in 2009, taking a communications job at the state Department of Transportation. The role of public editor at the N&O was lost amid a wave of layoffs.

I recently caught up with Vaden, who has left the DOT and has written columns on various topics for The Chapel Hill News in the past few years. In light of the news from The New York Times, I wondered what he thought about his time as public editor in Raleigh. Here are my questions and his responses:

Q. How did you approach the job of public editor at the N&O?

A. I suppose I tried to assume the role of “honest broker” between the readers and the paper, serving as intermediary to hear readers’ concerns, communicate them to the people inside the paper and explain the journalism of The N&O to the public. I felt that my first obligation was to the readers – to ascertain their concerns about the issues shoved into their consciousness by the paper, and to hold the paper accountable in areas of fairness, taste, ethics and professionalism.

I tried to do this in two ways – in a Sunday op-ed column that usually focused on the most controversial coverage of the preceding week and in a weekly report (I can’t remember what I called it) that I distributed by email inside the building relaying the issues large and small raised by readers during that week.

That inside column was distributed not just to the newsroom but to all 900-plus employees of the paper. I thought it was valuable for the entire enterprise to hear what the readers were saying about The N&O, and I was gratified to get a good deal of response, questions and ideas from non-editorial employees.

Q. You were public editor for five years. What did you learn doing that time?

A. I learned that it is a very difficult balancing act to straddle the divide between people out in Readerland and the journalists inside the paper. Journalists as a breed are very defensive about their work, and it was quite ticklish to bring the same kind of watchdogging to them as they did to the public.

I tried to rely on my instincts, but if anything, I erred on the side of being too critical of the paper, in order to maintain credibility with readers. Nevertheless, I’m sure I let my bias and identity as a journalist creep into my opinionating.

I believed independence was the most critical asset of a public editor, and I was fortunate that I was in the position of reporting directly and only to the publisher (Orage Quarles III), who created and appointed me to the position in the first place. He read every column before it was published. He occasionally disagreed with my conclusions, but in five years there was only one instance in which he directed me to change my column. Even then, we ended with a compromise (which I still didn’t like).

I felt that if there were not always some journalists inside the paper who were not happy with my columns, then I was not doing my job. I’m proudest that I took a critical stand early on over the N&O’s coverage of the Duke lacrosse case, even when that angered some editors.

But there were also instances of which I was less proud, when I wasn’t forceful enough. I still remember a comment from one reader that I wasn’t “tough-minded” enough. Ouch!

I thought it was very important for the public editor to stay in close touch with readers. Over those years, I developed a database of 300-400 readers whom I would survey regularly to get a sense of broader opinion of coverage that I could relay to the newsroom and discuss in the column. The newspaper also created a Reader Advisory Panel that met every month with me and different journalists from the newsroom. Both the journalists and the readers learned from those interactions. I think it still functions.

Finally, it’s a mixed legacy to say that I was the first and (presumably) last ombudsman of The News & Observer. It was bold of Quarles to create the position – to open the paper to regular criticism. But it was a sad commentary on the state of journalism even as early as 2009 that the role of in-house critic was one of the first positions to be determined to be dispensable.

I agree with Vaden that the role of the public editor was valuable. His presence in the N&O building was a reminder that it was the readers that mattered most. Unlike their emails or voicemails, he could not be ignored.

In lieu of a public editor, The New York Times says it will look to social media for reader feedback. It will certainly find plenty of it there, starting with tweets from the president. But how will journalists hear signals amid the noise? Will they fail to hear alarm bells as they tune out the trolls?

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