May 31, 2017 Last Updated 1:15 pm

The New York Times to eliminate Public Editor position as part of layoffs to edit staff

Liz Spayd, who started just last summer, will be leaving the paper as of Friday — additionally, there will be a consolidation of backfield editor and copy editor roles

This is really bad news regarding The New York Times, seen by many as the gold standard of daily newspapers: they will be eliminating the Public Editor position, with frequently criticized Liz Spayd leaving the paper on Friday.

The news has many in the publishing business shaking their heads, worried that the NYT is making a serious mistake. After all, the position was created following the paper’s 2003 plagiarism scandal, and comes only months after the paper completely mishandled its coverage of Hillary Clinton’s email server coverage.

The news was first broke by Michael Calderone at HuffPost.

The news about the public editor broke before the NYT publicly announced that it would have more staff cuts that would drastically cut into the editing function. The current system of “backfielders”, who make structural changes to the organization of a story, and copy editors would be replaced with a single group of editors who will now be responsible for all aspects of a story.

“Our goal is to significantly shift the balance of editors to reporters at The Times, giving us more on-the-ground journalists developing original work than ever before,” wrote executive editor Dean Baquet, and managing editor Joseph Kahn in a staff memo.

“The responsibility of the public editor — to serve as the reader’s representative — has outgrown that one office,” publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said in a memo. Our business requires that we must all seek to hold ourselves accountable to our readers. When our audience has questions or concerns, whether about current events or out coverage decisions, we must answer them ourselves.”

This really makes no sense, the reason for the public editor role is precisely to question when this doesn’t happen, and more often, to begin that questioning. Instead, now that it is clear that other newsroom layoffs are taking place, it appears that the main motivation is cost cutting. But some sort of explanation why this position would be cut must have been needed, the paper believed.

Liz Spayd, who was brought on last summer, will now be the last public editor, not making it through her two year term. The previous public editor, Margaret Sullivan, was widely thought to have done an excellent job, which requires the person to doggedly question the journalism of the paper. This necessarily leads to conflicts, so it was not terribly surprising that Sullivan moved on to The Washington Post following the end of her term. Spayd has been criticized since being hired, but eliminating the position seems like the wrong response, especially given that the position of internal critic is always going to be a difficult one.

Sullivan said today of the position that the “role, by definition, is a burr under the saddle for the powers that be.”

Others weighed in, as well.

“The announcement today that The New York Times will be offering buyouts and eliminating editors— including the Public Editor — is devastating for our members and grave news for the state of journalism,” said Grant Glickson, President of the NewsGuild of New York, in a statement delivered to TNM. “The Times is supposed to be a leader in our industry, and though we’re heartened to hear that they intend to invest more in reporters and content, it comes at an unfortunate cost.”

The move comes after the NYT announced that it had established a “Reader Center” to be run by Hanna Ingber.

The NYT appears to be taking a clue from other papers that have chosen to move commentary about stories to social media. In many cases, the magazine or newspapers has decided to shut down comments completely, arguing that this is where commenting really belongs. But many would argue that this is actually a cost saving measure, saving the publisher the costs of moderation or updated commenting software. Here, the NYT does not say it will shutdown comments, but rather is eliminating a staff position.

“The public editor position, created in the aftermath of a grave journalistic scandal, played a crucial part in rebuilding our readers’ trusts by acting as our in-house watchdog. We welcomed that criticism, even when it stung,” Sulzberger Jr. said. “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. Our responsibility is to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them, rather than to channel their voice through a single office.”

Note: This story was updated as news of the copy editing layoffs were made public.

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