The New York Times’ public editor will leave her role on Friday as the newspaper cuts the position entirely.
Liz Spayd, the paper’s sixth public editor, was under fire from some staffers for what they considered overly critical columns about the paper’s news coverage, including one earlier this year that suggested the Times failed to report in 2016 everything that its reporters knew about allegations of Trump campaign contacts with Russia.
"The responsibility of the public editor ― to serve as the reader’s representative ― has outgrown that one office,” Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. wrote in a memo to staff. “There is nothing more important to our mission, or our business, than strengthening our connection with our readers. A relationship that fundamental cannot be outsourced to a single intermediary.”
Spayd, a former managing editor of The Washington Post, was in the middle of a two-year contract, set to expire in 2018. The Huffington Post first reported on Spayd’s departure.
Spayd said in an email to POLITICO that she will write a final column. In a statement to the Columbia Journalism Review, she said: "The Times is reimagining itself in all sorts of ways, and the decision to eliminate the public editor’s role is just one part of that. I’m honored to have been among the six who’ve sat in this chair, and to be among those who tried to keep a great institution great, even as it made the inevitable stumbles. I imagine all five of my predecessors would agree that while it can be an unusually stressful job, it’s also one that’s highly rewarding."
Internal complaints about Spayd had been rumbling for months. Though all public editors are, to a certain degree, unpopular within their own newsrooms, the disapproval with Spayd was particularly pronounced.
Times editor Dean Baquet called her piece on the paper’s coverage of Trump and Russia "a bad column."
Other staffers objected to a piece criticizing young reporters for tweeting indiscriminately, while still others citing "unnecessary" columns like one chiding the Sports section for favoring features over news and game stories.
"There’s this extra edge to it,” one Times reporter said, referring to the animosity toward Spayd.
"I’ve never seen it like this," said an editor.
"Some people in the building think, with Twitter, do we even need it?” the reporter added.
That’s the direction the Times is going in — letting the public serve as the public editor, a position created at the Times in the wake of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal in 2003.
“[T]oday, 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,” Sulzberger said in the memo. "We are dramatically expanding our commenting platform. Currently, we open only 10 percent of our articles to reader comments. Soon, we will open up most of our articles to reader comments. This expansion, made possible by a collaboration with Google, marks a sea change in our ability to serve our readers, to hear from them, and to respond to them.”
One source familiar with the decision said it had nothing to do with complaints about Spayd or her performance.
But the decision didn’t sit well with one former public editor — former Buffalo News editor Margaret Sullivan — who suggested that only a dedicated staff member could fully hold editors’ "feet to the fire."
"I can’t say I’m surprised to see NYT ending public editor position, especially in a time of newsroom cost-cutting and position-trimming,” Sullivan, now a Washington Post media columnist, tweeted. "The one thing an ombud or public editor can almost always do is hold feet to the fire, and get a real answer out of management. The role, by definition, is a burr under the saddle for the powers that be.”