New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson announced Monday that Margaret M. Sullivan, editor and vice president of The Buffalo News, will replace Arthur Brisbane as the paper’s public editor.
Speaking on the phone from Buffalo Monday afternoon, Ms. Sullivan told Off The Record that she had lusted after the gig for years.
“Now that there’s going to be much more of a digital job,” she said, “it’s a very good fit for me.”
She described the Times search as broad and the vetting process as lengthy and thorough.
“It was not a slam dunk,” she admitted.
A post created in the wake of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal in 2003, The Times’s public editor serves as a liaison between readers and newsroom. He or, for the first time since the position’s creation, she, answers reader questions and critiques newsroom decisions in a biweekly Sunday column.
In an internal memo announcing Ms. Sullivan’s appointment, Ms. Abramson said the position will expand “to keep pace with The Times’ multi-platform presence.” The public editor will now engage with readers “in a more timely way,” she wrote, by way of a social media presence, a blog and a web page, in addition to the print column.
After praising Ms. Sullivan’s reporting credentials (she created The Buffalo News’s first investigative team), Ms. Abramson lauded her digital bona fides.
“She’s a regular blogger and is comfortable with social media,” she wrote.
Ms. Sullivan told Off The Record that she began her Buffalo News blog, called SulliView, as an experiment late last year, when she was itching to do more writing and “immerse herself in the tools journalists had.”
“Whatever the digital platform may be, you can’t understand it until you do it,” she explained.
She has used SulliView as a platform to explain why a tough Romney article landed during his Buffalo fundraising weekend (total coincidence), engage in a live chat about an impending digital subscription plan and simply riff on the late Nora Ephron, Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi, and Pitchfork-beloved lo-fi group Youth Lagoon.
She sees the new public editor blog as “a digital village square where the conversation can be outside in real time.”
To outsiders, the rise of social media and reader feedback has only made the job of public editor more difficult. Her predecessor, Mr. Brisbane, received a social media lashing for one controversial article, “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?”—including a parody Twitter.
In May, The Washington Post reported that he would step down after two years in the job and not pursue his third year contract option. (“I am grateful to him for his unwavering integrity and commitment to our readers,” Ms. Abramson wrote in her memo.)
But if the public editor has become something of a punching bag for media watchers, Ms. Sullivan isn’t concerned.
“I’ve learned in my job as top editor that you have to roll with the punches, have some equanimity and know that whatever the crisis du jour is, there will be another one soon,” she said.
In taking the job, Ms. Sullivan leaves her hometown paper, where she started as an intern 32 years ago and has served as top editor for twelve. The paper will conduct a national search for her replacement.
Prior to being named the first-ever Times ombudswoman, Ms. Sullivan was the first woman to hold the top job at The Buffalo News.
“It seems to be my fate,” Ms. Sullivan said of her repeat glass ceiling breakings. “I’ve read the analyses that there are relatively few women opinion columnists, maybe I’m making a step in the right direction on that one.”
Ms. Sullivan, who has a son in law school in Boston and a daughter at New York University, said she is looking forward to relocating to New York City for the position. She also offered a word of hope for the small newspapers currently being snapped up by mogul and philanthropist Warren Buffett, owner of the The Buffalo News, since 1977.
“There are very few better places to be in journalism than in a paper owned by Warren Buffett,” she said.
The paper of record being one of them, it seems.
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