The New York Times Is Offering Buyouts and Getting Rid of the Public Editor Position

A dark shade of Gray Lady

There’s a lot of news coming out of The New York Times today, and it’s mainly bad: the paper is offering buyouts largely targeted to editors, having those editors who remain combine editing and copy editing duties, and is getting rid of the public editor position.

Liz Spayd, who was named public editor in May 2016, was supposed to remain in the role until 2018, but instead will remain in the role until Friday. When she leaves, she will have been the sixth and last in a position the Times created in 2003 following a scandal that involved reporter Jayson Blair, who the Times discovered had been plagiarizing and making up accounts for his stories.

The justification for this decision, according to a staff memo from publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., was that “the responsibility of the public editor – to serve as the reader’s representative – has outgrown that one office.” According to Sulzberger, it’s a task that should now be taken up by all staff. “When our audience has questions or concerns, whether about current events or our coverage decisions, we must answer them ourselves,” he wrote. We find it a strange contention in a business that does not reward the type of self-reflection that leads journalists to criticize their own publications. That’s what the public editor has been there to do, from the pages of the Times itself.

Our responsibility is to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them, rather than to channel their voice through a single office.
-New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

According to the memo, Sulzberger believes that the public editor role is dated. “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. Our responsibility is to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them, rather than to channel their voice through a single office.”

The solutions he offers instead are greater engagement with reader comments, whether on the site or on social, and opening up more Times articles for comment, from the 10 percent of articles on which readers can comment now, to most articles. Sulzberger also pointed to the new Reader Center the Times announced yesterday. Led by Hanna Ingber, the center will look at ways to improve engagement and respond to readers, help reporters build community, and improve transparency around “how we explain our coverage.”

The buyouts the Times is offering represent an effort to “shift the balance of editors to reporters at The Times, giving us more on-the-ground journalists developing original work than ever before,” according to a memo by executive editor Dean Baquet and managing editor Joseph Kahn.

It will accomplish this by merging the role of copy editors and “backfielders,” a home-grown term that refers to those who edit for content. “One group of editors will handle all aspects of a story, with a separate set of eyes looking over their shoulders before publication,” write Baquet and Kahn.

Baquet and Kahn write that reporters can also take buyouts if they are so moved, especially if their focus is mismatched to changes happening in sections like Business Day, Metro and Styles. “Everyone should visit his or her department head to have a frank conversation about the future,” write Baquet and Kahn. Except those who work on graphic, video and digital design teams. We suppose they could also discuss their future, but in the present are not eligible for buyouts. If there aren’t enough employees who go for the buyouts, layoffs could be in the Times future.