Does The New York Times’ Reader Center Truly Replace Its Public Editor?

The New York Times recently found itself under fire when it published a profile of the “White Nationalist Next Door” Tony Hovater featuring details like Hovater’s politeness and his affinity for “Seinfeld.” Readers railed against the Times for normalizing white nationalism and giving Hovater’s neo-Nazi ideas a platform.

Enter the Reader Center.

The Reader Center allows reporters and editors to explain their reporting and editorial decisions. The new section serves as a platform for reporters and editors to address readers’ questions and concerns about Times’ coverage.

In an article in the Times’ Reader Center the following day, Marc Lacey, the national editor at the Times, responded to criticism of the profile and offered a defense of the decision to publish it. The reporter who wrote the profile, Richard Fausset, reflected on the experience of profiling a neo-Nazi in a personal essay posted on Times Insider, a subsection of the Reader Center.

Hundreds of thousands of people read it,” Lacey wrote in an email interview with MediaFile, referring to his article in the Reader Center. “It was an effective way to reach many readers and to explain our reasoning, in more detail than a tweet or Facebook post allows.”

But the response left some readers wondering if the Reader Center was an adequate way to respond to reader complaints, especially on a matter like normalizing white nationalism.

Over the course of 14 years, six different public editors served as an independent audit on Times’ coverage, investigating ethical breaches and questionable editorial decisions and lending the paper an extra seal of credibility. Six months ago, the Times shifted that responsibility from the public editor to the readers by eliminating the public editor and introducing the Reader Center.

But with no independent journalist checking the Times’ reporting from inside the Times building — with access to every Times reporter and editor just an elevator ride away — is the Times truly addressing the criticisms leveled against its reporting? Two former New York Times public editors say the Reader Center is a poor substitute for the role they filled.

The Reader Center explains and at times is defensive,” said Dan Okrent, the Times’ first public editor, in an interview with MediaFile. “But it never indicts when there might be an indictment called for.”

Margaret Sullivan, who served as public editor from 2012 to 2016 and is now a media columnist at the Washington Post, views the job of the public editor as unique and said in an email to MediaFile that the Reader Center was “not a true replacement for the public editor.”

“It’s better than no mechanism. It may be better than a poor ombudsman; but it is definitely not better than a highly competent ombudsman,” Sullivan said.

Arthur Sulzberger Jr., current publisher of The New York Times, announced the elimination of the public editor in a memo to the newsroom in May, saying the responsibility of the position had “outgrown that office.” With readers constantly interacting with reporters on social media, reporters and editors can use their newsfeeds to keep track of feedback without going through a third party like the public editor. The Reader Center recently opened applications for an exclusive Reader Center Facebook group for readers to discuss the news and “provide feedback on Times coverage,” according to the announcement.

“But today, our followers on social media and our readers across the Internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be,” Sulzberger wrote.

Okrent disagrees, and believes that social media creates even more of a necessity for a public editor.

”When you have a chorus of people, nobody has authority,” said Okrent. “A public editor doing his or her job well has both the authority and the ability to cut through the static.”

Erik Wemple, a media columnist for the Washington Post, also expressed skepticism towards social media. Interviews that take place over email or social media are always subject to the whims of the person answering the questions, said Wemple, allowing the Times to choose what it wants to answer and what it wishes to avoid. “It’s a form of accountability, but not an extreme one,” he said in an interview with MediaFile.

David Folkenflik, a media reporter at NPR, agreed that the Reader Center is less of a vehicle of accountability.

It’s different for an editor to  refuse to talk to an ombudsman for a column of his or her own institution than for someone to just simply not decide to write an essay for the Reader Center,” Folkenflik said in an interview with MediaFile.

The Reader Center has certainly taken on important issues, with articles on the editorial board’s decision to call on readers to speak to their representatives against the Republican tax bill, explaining the terminology used in reporting on sexual harassment and assault allegations and explaining why only some Times articles are open to reader comments.

In a way it’s a little bit more like doing public relations,” said Kevin Lerner, a journalism professor at Marist College, in an interview with MediaFile. “Whereas having the public editor, the way that position was set up, they were entirely independent of the newsroom.”

While the public editor answered to the publisher, he or she did not answer to the newsroom. That independence gave the public editor the freedom to publish harsh criticism of Times’ coverage. Times staffers generally answered questions posed by the public editor who, with an office in the Times building, could knock on any editor’s door and demand answers.

“You’ve got to remember that the public editor was right there in the building and that was what the public editor really brought,” said Wemple. “Some person in there who is just really sticking it to them, that’s the job, that’s what it should be.”

Both former public editors emphasized the independent nature of the role from the newsroom.

“Openness is always good for journalists,” Okrent said. “If they know that they are being looked at by somebody with credibility and who has the ability to reach their audience then presumably they might behave a little bit better.”

“It’s easy to ignore the tweeting masses or the letters to the editor or the comments,” Sullivan wrote. “But it is not easy to ignore an internal watchdog, which is what the public editor is.”

Being the New York Times, the newspaper will always be subject to criticism from readers and pundits.

“There are so many media critics following the New York Times. I don’t think that the Times gets any less scrutiny because the public editor isn’t there,” Wemple said.

Still, there are drawbacks to taking the go-to critic out of the building, some of which we may not know until the next time the Times is forced to address a scandal. Folkenflik believes the vacancy leaves the Times in a precarious situation given its status.

“I think that when something goes wrong, as it inevitably does with a news organization that big and that important and that ambitious, they will be less well-placed to address it.”

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