February 22, 2016 Last Updated 7:18 am

Washington Post nabs NYT’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, as media columnist

Sullivan, who has been critical of the NYT’s repeated use of anonymous government sources, was the paper’s fifth public editor or ombudsman

The New York Times has lost another major talent: Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s popular public editor. Sullivan’s contract was to run out in August but the Post signed her up to become their media columnist in a preemptive move.

Margaret Sullivan new york timesSullivan started with the Times in 2012 and has proved to be one of the best public editor’s the paper has had. She was the fifth public editor, or ombudsman. Previous public editors had been Daniel Okrent and Byron Calame, Clark Hoyt and Arthur Brisbane.

“Margaret is a superb journalist who has witnessed the dramatic changes in our industry up close through her work at the Times, where she writes a column twice a month and blogs frequently on reader concerns and Times journalism,” said Liz Seymour, executive features editor She has been public editor for three and a half years, longer than all of her predecessors, and has surely been the most digital. As anyone who has been a public editor or ombudsman can attest, it’s a tough job. And she has been fearless in her approach to it.”

Arthur Sulzberger Jr. broke the news to staff, though not before the Post had announced their hiring (how awkward):

“The role of public editor is not the easiest to hold here, or I suspect anywhere.” Sulzberger wrote in a staff memo. “The very nature of the job sometimes puts the person holding fit in conflict with some of us, both in the newsroom and even in the executive ranks. Margaret could be tough, but in my view, she has always been fair. She has lived up to the mission of the job to represent readers and respond to their concerns and to hold this institution to our values. She has my deep appreciation and affection.”

The move does not come completely as a surprise as Sullivan announced at the end of last year that when her contract was up she would not sign up for another term as public editor if asked.

Things may have come to a head when Sullivan severely criticized the NYT its use of anonymous government sources following a story that implied that law enforcement had missed signs that the San Bernardino shooters had pledged allegiance to ISIS through social media – they hadn’t, their conversations had been private. The leak looked like a dig at the Obama administration.

“The Times needs to fix its overuse of unnamed government sources,” Sullivan wrote in December. “And it needs to slow down the reporting and editing process, especially in the fever-pitch atmosphere surrounding a major news event. Those are procedural changes, and they are needed. But most of all, and more fundamental, the paper needs to show far more skepticism – a kind of prosecutorial scrutiny — at every level of the process.”

“Two front-page, anonymously sourced stories in a few months have required editors’ notes that corrected key elements – elements that were integral enough to form the basis of the headlines in both cases. That’s not acceptable for Times readers or for the paper’s credibility, which is its most precious asset.”

“If this isn’t a red alert, I don’t know what will be,” Sullivan wrote.

Sullivan will be sorely missed, not only because she was an excellent public editor, but because the NYT also lost their media columnist David Carr one year ago in February to illness, and the paper’s media coverage has not recovered.

Sullivan was previously editor of The Buffalo News. She is a graduate of Georgetown University and of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

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