Imagine your first two months as an editor at The New York Times.
You sell your house and car in Buffalo, move to the Flatiron District, plunk down in the Times newsroom and one by one take public swipes at your new colleagues—the incoming CEO, the celebrity profiler, the foreign desk in war-torn Libya, the nation’s most popular political forecaster.
“The role of public editor isn’t to be a friend,” Margaret Sullivan, the Times new public editor and first woman to hold the title, told The Observer from her office in the third-floor newsroom.
In a short time, Ms. Sullivan has taken what was previously a low-profile emeritus post for pre-retirees and transformed it into a bully pulpit of sorts. Rather than filing biweekly print columns like her predecessor Arthur Brisbane, she is tweeting, blogging and interacting with commenters. She has modernized the role of the public editor—a curious job, to be sure—and put more than a few ink-stained noses out of joint.
“There is a joking, gallows humor when Margaret walks by someone’s desk,” said Times standards editor Phil Corbett. “People will say, uh oh, what did I do wrong?”
Last week, Ms. Sullivan went after statistician Nate Silver, the Times’s highly prized electoral statistician, for challenging Morning Joe’s Joe Scarborough to a $1,000 bet on an Obama victory. Even though the money was going to go to charity, and Mr. Scarborough didn’t take the bait, Ms. Sullivan argued that betting on the outcome of a news event was unseemly for anyone at The Gray Lady.
“It’s also inappropriate for a Times journalist, which is how Mr. Silver is seen by the public even though he’s not a regular staff member,” Ms. Sullivan wrote in her post.
War broke out over the comments and tweets—it seemed that Ms. Sullivan hit a nerve with Mr. Silver’s cult-like fans by suggesting that he was benefiting from his association with The New York Times, rather than the other way around.
Times writers and editors were among those on Twitter publicly disagreeing with the new public editor. While there were some enthusiastic fans, the majority of wags accused Ms. Sullivan of going too far. “Nate Silver aka @fivethirtyeight is a credit to the New York Times. Period,” tweeted Times Magazine editor Hugo Lindgren. The comment was retweeted 115 times.
“I knew the Nate Silver topic would be hot, but I was a bit surprised by the volume and the vehemence,” Ms. Sullivan said. “ Nate is a rock star, and his fans are very protective.”
Created in 2003 after Jayson Blair was caught fabricating and plagiarizing stories, the position of the Times’s public editor has always been a bit awkward. The point is to hold the paper accountable to readers, which sometimes entails spanking colleagues as well as higher-ups in very public ways.
Daniel Okrent, the first to hold the post, was known for his brusque take on WMDs and Judith Miller. His successor, Byron “Barney” Calame, came to the Times from decades at The Wall Street Journal. He argued in favor of newsroom transparency in online forums. Next in line was Clark Hoyt, who worried about the preservation of the Times’s quality on the internet.
Which brings us to Mr. Brisbane, formerly a reporter and editor at The Washington Post, the editor and publisher of The Kansas City Star and a senior executive at Knight Ridder; a public editor who never seemed comfortable with the internet or the position in general. Seen as cranky, old-fashioned and out of step, he announced his retirement last spring.
Previous public editors split their time working from home and from far-flung offices in the Times Building; none were a fixture on the newsroom floor like Ms. Sullivan has become. Rather than issuing pronouncements from afar, she invites reporters to stop by her office, letting them “relax” by agreeing “that we’re off the record unless we specifically agree to be on,” she told The Observer.
Several reporters we spoke to had only good things to say about their new resident tattletale, even on background. She inspires respect, yet despite her open-door policy and the occasional lunch with reporters and editors near the Times Building, nobody wants to get too relaxed.
“Everybody understands that the public editor has a precarious role at the Times,” Ms. Sullivan said.
Ms. Sullivan came to the job after 12 years as a managing editor and editor in chief of The Buffalo News, and immediately jumped in. Barely a month into the job, Ms. Sullivan took Times Magazine writer Andrew Goldman to task for a misguided tweet at novelist Jennifer Weiner. The Times responded by suspending Mr. Goldman for a month, and clarifying its mostly common-sense social networking policy.
Then she raised the thorny issue of how much incoming Times CEOMark Thompson knew about a pedophilia scandal that occurred during his tenure as general director of the British Broadcasting Company—and questioned whether the new boss was fit to lead the company.
She broached the problematic practice of letting sources approve and change their quotes. There were posts about Libya coverage and about the use of the term “illegal immigrant.”
Then there was the Nate Silver blow-up, which likely won’t be the last time she finds herself in the center of controversy. “There are times when people disagree, but overall, everyone seems happy with Margaret’s willingness to hear people out and her openness,” Mr. Corbett said. “Being the public editor is tough. If everyone in the newsroom is happy with her, then she’s not doing the job.”
Even Mr. Silver defended the ombudswoman on Twitter, something Ms. Sullivan acknowledged in a response the following day that addressed Mr. Silver’s “hundreds” of defenders.
“I’m not a fan of what she says, but I love the way she says it!” Reuters blogger and media watcher Felix Salmon told us.
When Mr. Brisbane announced he was retiring last spring, the Times decided to find someone who was more socially engaged and internet-savvy. The paper envisioned a revamped position that was part blogger, part print columnist and a lot more work, like many journalism jobs these days.
“Two times a month in print wasn’t keeping up with the conversation anymore,” said Mr. Corbett, who led the hiring committee. “The conversation was happening on blogs and Twitter, and the public editor would weigh in two weeks later.”
Back in 2003, when the Times created the position, blogs were for gossip, social networks were Friendster, and the Times was above it all, despite Mr. Blair’s folly.
But a lot changed in nine years.
Ms. Sullivan had been interested in the position for some time, and after 12 years running The Buffalo News, she said she was ready for a change. Her kids were out of the house—her son is at Harvard Law School and her daughter at NYU—so when she read in a May 21 post on Eric Wemple’s Washington Post blog that Mr. Brisbane was retiring, she said the timing just felt right.
“I always thought the role of public editor would suit me, because I’m interested in media and liked the idea of being a reporter again,” Ms. Sullivan said.
After two rounds of interviews, Ms. Sullivan came downstate for a final round of back-to-back meetings with publisher Arthur Sulzberger, managing editor Jill Abramson and opinion editor Andy Rosenthal.
“It was one stressful day,” Ms. Sullivan said. Mr. Sulzberger called and offered her the job 10 days later.
She met with Mr. Brisbane over the summer. Although he didn’t give any specific advice, he did warn the incoming public editor that it was a tough and often thankless job.
Ms. Sullivan put her house on the market and began apartment-hunting in Manhattan. She looked at the Upper West Side, but settled in the Flatiron District, a neighborhood with the advantage of fewer run-ins with Times writers and editors.
And all the better to explore neighborhood spots, thanks to a “cheat sheet” to Chelsea restaurants that an enterprising reporter provided her with (because really, what is a better way to get in good with a public editor who is new in town?). A self-described “inveterate concertgoer,” the ombudswoman recently saw Jack White perform at Carnegie Hall and has tickets to see Alex Clare at Irving Plaza next month.
As a goodbye present, the staff at The Buffalo News got Ms. Sullivan memberships to MoMA and the Whitney. She is remembered there as “feisty” and “courageous” for her public apology to an angry community association after the paper published the criminal records of shooting victims, said Lee Coppola, a former Buffalo News reporter.
We asked Ms. Sullivan: does she ever worry about making mistakes?
“I’m afraid of factual mistakes and spelling errors on Twitter,” she said, “but I don’t see myself as the kind of person to pop off.”