A Promising Start for the New York Times' New Public Editor

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Neither a writer nor a reader, she'll serve as a kind of MC in a big online conversation.

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The New York Times got a new Public Editor last week. Her name is Margaret Sullivan, and the range of her responsibilities is immense: She must investigate the paper like a media reporter, account for its standards like an ombudsman, and answer reader mail like an old small-town editor-in-chief. She also must -- in something both now completely pedestrian and yet, in 2012, still totally remarkable -- write for her blog and tweet.

And she's also written (and perhaps this is more remarkable in 2012) a print column. It ran in the paper's bulky Sunday Review packet, and, within it, she both laid out her goals for her two-year tenure and slid in this little pearl of a paragraph:

In their 2010 book, "Blur," Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel suggested a number of roles for journalists in the Internet era. Two that I find especially intriguing for the public editor are "smart aggregator" and "forum organizer." I'm working with the news presentation experts here to find new ways to make the public editor's Web page a village square for discussion. I intend to blog frequently and to use social media outlets like Twitter to expand the sphere and invite other voices in.

My emphasis there, because, consider those phrases: Smart aggregator and forum organizer. One creates a space for conversation and finds willing parties; the former ties together disparate posts and articles from across the web into something larger than their individual parts.

This enumeration of roles signals the way that Sullivan is thinking about, accounting for, and addressing the public. Because between those two tasks, she's implying that she will create a conversation -- and a community around it -- of a type most at home on the Internet.

It's a conversation we're so familiar with now that we may miss its most salient aspects. A big online conversation occurs across media. It happens in blockquotes and tweets, in comments on blogs and Facebook posts. To paraphrase Matt Thompson, NPR's manager of digital initiatives, it thrives not in individual updates, but in the stream; it treats readers and Twitter followers not as subscribers, but as community members.

It's a form of conversation that, crucially, elides conversation into community

So the magic Sullivan is working here transforms things two-fold. She serves the public by having a conversation in public, and then turns the public into a community by treating that conversation (between lots of different folks) like it's an online community itself. Public to conversation to community.

This model for a conversation-centered community, it should be said, is nothing new. In its focus on thoughts upon thoughts and texts upon texts (and tweets upon tweets!), it recalls old debates between Renaissance humanists, and, indeed, most academic or legal dialogues since. But now it's a conversation that is, in a way, public, for, through Twitter and comments and old-fashioned email, it's open to non-scholarly Times readers (maybe we should redub them members) who can now deign to join in.

There are hazards here. The conversation Sullivan's trying to foster isn't quintessential or perfect in any way: it's not a community in the small-town sense, and it'll probably be as much a theater of conversation as a true forum.

But I still think it's important that the nation's largest paper is committing to creating this kind distinctly organized, aggregated and mostly textual conversation around its publication and for its readers. Far from just throwing open its comment section, its pledging to make something edited and honed, and for that it needs an editor who (true to the term media) is in the middle of things -- who finds common threads across writing, opens debates where she can, and weaves together an old establishment with new forms and genres. 

That, I think, is exactly what Sullivan wants to be. For what's title of her first column? My Turn in Between the Readers and the Writers.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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