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November 25, 2003

A Public Editor for an Internet Public

For the majority of readers, the New York Times is now an online newspaper with a print edition. Suppose the new public editor began with that fact. Something surprising--even radical--could emerge. Of course it's all speculation...

There is a story in this sequence of events, which I am still figuring out.

July 30: Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, says he accepts the Siegal Report’s primary recommendations, including the ombudsman, about which the Report has friendly advice: junk that word, ombudsman. Go with public editor instead. Keller, who was thought to be skeptical about the position, buys in.

But only to an experiment: one year and we’ll evaluate it. (Later expanded to 18 months.) It’s big news for a time in press land: “Times Relents and Hires Ombudsman.” But a few details get lost. The Times does not have an ombudsman; it has a public editor. There’s different music in those words. Also, the Times has not officially created the position yet. It’s created an experiment to see if it works. An experiment can be many things, turn different ways.

August 28: Keller has an exchange with Geneva Overholser, (here and here) former ombudsman at the rival Washington Post, former Times woman herself, now a professor of journalism at Missouri, who has thought hard about the issue. Overholser applauds the Times for announcing the position, and criticizes the Times for not protecting it properly from internal pressures.

Meanwhile, Keller elaborates on his doubts. He specifically questions the Post’s model for an ombudsman. (I wrote of their exchange.) Rather than protect it from all internal politics at the Times, the thrust of the Post’s model, Keller sees the public editor as a kind of political position in itself. He claims the right to hire and fire, which means Keller could, in theory, kill the column critical of Keller and sack the one who wrote it. A Saturday Night Massacre. Outrageous? Not at all, he says.

If I pick someone good, I have to grant a wide berth. A pro is going to know that. If I fire someone good, I have an immediate crisis on my hands. The whole newsroom is going to know that. Want this to work? Let me have my person, not the publisher’s. If I put real support behind the public editor, it is that confidence—not a contractual device—that gives the holder of the job power and protection. Keller, it seems, does not want the Times to copy what’s in place elsewhere (especially at the Post!) He wants to figure out a different way to do it.

October 4: An apparently unrelated development. Len Apcar, Editor in Chief of the Times on the Web, speaks to a conference on weblogs at Harvard Law School (Dave Winer’s blogger.con.) He says he wants to start a new Times weblog, but is not sure what it should be. He came hoping to get some ideas. Apcar wants to begin with someone already licensed to have opinions, like a dance critic is. And the approach should be Times-like. He mentions campaign 2004 as an opportunity to experiment. (Here’s my report from the Apcar visit.)

Apcar drops into his presentation a fact that startled me. There are now more users of the Times online site than there are readers for the print edition— by a good margin. Think about it for a moment. Through all of Times history, the delivery platform has been the same. There have been advances, but not in the basic pattern of a mass-printed, mass-distributed daily broadsheet.

Now, without anyone taking much notice, new conditions—building since the day computers came to newsrooms in the 1970s—have swept over journalism at the Times. The historic passage has been made to a majority Net public. From at least one perspective, what academics call “reception,” (the people at home and what they do with the product) the flagship of the American fleet had morphed from a printed newspaper with an online edition, to an online newspaper that publishes on paper too. This is not necessarily the view the Times has of itself, however.

October 6. After the conference, weblog pioneer Dave Winer publishes an essay, “If the Gray Lady Could Blog,” explaining some of the key differences in how weblogs work, and recommending an approach: “I’d start a Times blog to cover the campaign weblogs.” (Read the rest here.)

October 16: An interview with the Times’s well-known technology reporter, John Markoff, is posted at Online Journalism Review. He is dubious about weblogs as the future of journalism, although we should “give it five or 10 years and see if any institutions emerge out of it.” It may prove no more consequential than CB radio, he says. “People will find that, you know, keeping their diaries online is not the most useful thing to with their time.”

When enthusiasts of the form ask if he’s going to start a weblog, he says: “Oh, I already have a blog, it’s, don’t you read it?’” A final curiosity in the interview is this description of a likely future for Markoff and colleagues: “I assume that there will still be a paper, that I’ll still be writing for paper and they’ll still be killing trees a decade from now, although that’s mostly on the basis of the failure of the first and second generation of electronic books.”

October 27: The big announcement comes. Keller picks his person, Daniel Okrent, who is not on the Times staff and never was. He’s a writer at Time magazine and a book author. Also created an award-winning magazine, New England Monthly. Keller tells the staff in an e-mail that the job required someone “smart, curious, rigorous, fair-minded and independent” with the “reporting skills to figure out how decisions get made at the paper, the judgment to reach conclusions about whether and where we go astray and the writing skills to explain all of this.” As Keller will later explain, he came to see the value of an outsider in the position.

“I can ask stupid questions,” Okrent tells Newsday. “Presumably, there’s no conventional wisdom that I automatically buy into because I have a history in the place.” Alex Jones, former Times reporter and author of a book on the Sulzbergers, describes another sense in which the job is political: “Whatever he says that is critical of the Times will be amplified tremendously by the enemies of the Times.” Popular blogger Jeff Jarvis, an evangelist for the form and also president of says: “Dan should make himself into the Times’ own blogger. I don’t mean he should start a blog. I mean he should take on blog attitude: skeptical, wry, pestering.”

October 31: Robert Kohn, author of a book advancing the liberal bias charge at the New York Times, (Journalistic Fraud, it is called) says in a letter to Romenesko that Okrent deserves a chance to show that he’s serious about rooting out the more outlandish cases. “From [his] credentials, it is far from clear whether Okrent would recognize clear examples of liberal bias, or even feel the responsibility to look for it in the Times. Yet, he may surprise us.”

November 11: Jeff Jarvis gets a note from Daniel Okrent saying he’s “counting… on the blogworld to keep me on my woulda/coulda/shoulda toes.” Turns out he’s reading Buzzmachine, the Jarvis weblog.

November 23. Keller says in an interview with Howard Kurtz that he too is reading weblogs, in part for what they say about the Times. Kurtz: “One striking thing about Keller’s style is that he doesn’t dismiss criticism of the paper out of hand. ‘I look at the blogs… Sometimes I read something on a blog that makes me feel we screwed up. A lot of times I read things that strike me as ill-tempered and ill-informed.’” That quote lands on the front page of Romenesko and at About the choice of Okrent, an outsider, Keller tells Kurtz: “Maybe we were a little too closed off to how the world sees us… The more I interviewed people, the more I realized it would be more interesting to listen to someone who hadn’t grown up in our culture.”

So here we are, November 25. Readers, I have presented you with a series of signs, an edited chronology of events and opinions. Each supports multiple interpretations. The inventors of Movable Type anticipated this. It’s called the comments section. Use it and tell me how you read the above.

Commentary and Analysis:

When I look back four months to the announcement of the public editor’s position, things are tending toward a logical conclusion— logical to me, that is. Okrent is the one Apcar was looking for to break ground and start a true Times weblog. The public editor’s position can be the first constructed around its weblog— and by making the weblog work, you build a new model for the position. This fits with Keller’s experimental attitude. It also plays to Okrent’s strengths as a writer because a good weblog is usually one person, talking to you.

Without question, Okrent should write the semi-regular column planned for The Paper, as Markoff and others call it. In fact, the weblog is ideal for testing and perfecting the arguments that will appear in those columns— his biggest platform. But he needs a platform of another kind, where the public can interact with its own editor at the Times. The weblog is a nifty machine for that. It also solves some of the political problems inherent in the position.

For example, here is author Bob Kohn’s extended column, attempting to put Okrent on notice about sniffing out liberal bias. Kohn serves as illustration for one group of Times critics, conservatives for whom the liberal bias of the New York Times is not only matter of record, but a matter of faith. Groups like this cannot be ignored and they cannot be obeyed. They should not be dismissed. Nor can they be seen as disinterested. They can make trouble. (See 10,000 cancellations at the Los Angeles Times.) They can make noise. And there are others like them at many points on the political dial. Handling your most indefatigable critics is part of the job. Excuse my lapse into hype, but the weblog is brilliantly designed for the problem at hand.

Okrent can point to a “we’re watching you” column like Kohn’s, and from there he has multiple options. He can simply point to the item. He can pair it with another link. He can link to it and respond— respond short, (a sentence or two) medium, or long. Here’s what they say, and what I think.

Simply by doing what ordinary webloggers do— find a link, write an entry, and click publish—Okrent can take public notice of criticism aimed at the Times. He can alert the readers of his weblog: here’s what our critics say. But taking notice of ideological critique is not the same thing as agreeing with it. Nor does it dismiss. Or ignore. A new range of flexible responses is created. By linking Keller is just saying: examine this, Times public. I did.

In the weblog way, the public editor is an elevator. He can elevate what critics—and articulate readers—are saying, but also what journalists at the Times say back. Some of the most faithful readers of the weblog will probably be the editorial staff of the New York Times. They too can write for it. It’s as easy as sending Okrent an email, (put this in your blog) or Okrent asking a Times journalist for one. “Tell us, culture editor, how do you decide what’s worth reviewing?”

The weblog becomes the place where voices from the reading public, and voices from the editorial staff, are placed artfully into conversation by the presiding voice of the editor. Because the medium is so flexible, the possibilities roll on. Suppose Keller is interviewed bi-weekly by Okrent. The archive of those interviews would help meet one of the Siegal Report’s key recommendations: more transparency for decision-making at the Times. (The Report is here.) “Maybe we were a little too closed off to how the world sees us,” said Keller. The beauty of a weblog for Okrent is that it opens out, into the world where the Times is seen by others.

Okrent is the kind of test case Len Apcar was seeking: a Times-person already licensed to give his views and draw conclusions. More than that, the public editor is the one position that has to be interactive with the public— that’s the whole point. An effective machine for that (better than newspaper columns, plus emails, calls and letters) is the modern weblog— built to be interactive with users and with other information on the Web. The opening is there for the Times to make the form even better.

Second, a weblog has a voice and multiple streams for that voice to enter. Okrent was hired to write in an original way about the most powerful newspaper in the most powerful country in the world, and he has special rights to find things out from the people who run it. That’s awfully good weblog material.

Third, the weblog is a compiler and saver of stuff that has potentially large archival value because it explains the Times to itself and to the public. And one definition of the public editor’s job is just that: to explain the public to journalists at the New York Times, and to explain the journalism of the New York Times to its public.

When Len Apcar told the Harvard conference that the reader base was now majority Net, he understood that this was a revolutionary thing, and also no big change at the Times. For both are true. From the user’s side, a radical shift has occurred. The Times on the Web joins in a far different information ecology online— still exploding with change and variety. (Consider how Times journalism is now available, up-to-date and for free, in every capital around the world, a huge boost for the paper’s influence and power internationally.) So using the Times is not the same, the user base is not the same, and the direction of change is toward multi-media and discontinuity with the printed page— although not completely so.

In the view of those Apcar was addressing—weblogging’s advance guard—the day had essentially passed for “audience” thinking. In the skull there was to be no more audience, and no spectator theory of knowledge (which could include The Reader, and all notions of service built up from there) describes well the world one is immersed in online. Dan Gillmor and I, talking about a book he is writing, discovered we had come up with similar-sounding terms to denote the ex-audience, transformed into information actors on the Web. He started calling them the Former Audience, just to have a name to write with. I was using the People Formerly Known as the Audience.

To Gillmor and me (and many others who think this way) “audience” does not account for what people are doing when they draw value from Web journalism. But we’re both immersed in it. We have weblogs. Times journalists are immersed in the writing and editing of The Paper, the famous print edition. That’s the mother ship; everything feeds off it. Of course, all involved know the paper’s online edition is popular, and getting bigger. No one doubts its importance. But the organization of work and content flow is still with The Paper. So too are psychology, mythology. Thus: no big change, really.

This is what Markoff meant in saying: “I’ll still be writing for paper and they’ll still be killing trees a decade from now.” It is a press-centric view, but there are good workplaces reasons for it. For the majority of the Times-reading public, however, Markoff isn’t “writing for the paper” now, in 2003, let alone ten years from now. Seems to me the public editor, Daniel Okrent, should meet that fact head on by getting online himself with a new kind of weblog. There he may discover the different user politics alive in the more participatory, active, and globallly connected public on the Web.

In a brief conversation at the blogger’s conference, Len Apcar said he agreed that the Times was very conservative about making changes to its journalism. “In a strange way that it makes it more radical,” he added. And therein lies the excitement of the experiment: a public editor for the Internet public of the mighty New York Times.

Some PressThink posts that bear on this post:
The Siegal Report, a Triumph of Self Reflection at the New York Times
Flagship Turns: A Public Editor for the Times of New York
Times Web Editor Goes to Harvard in Search of Something
When the Learned Rant at the Times

Weblogger Henry Copeland has the facts and figures about online readership surpassing circulation of the print edition in Sep. 2002.

Posted by Jay Rosen at November 25, 2003 9:28 PM