It’s been a hell of a year for the public editor of The New York Times.
The veteran journalist Liz Spayd started in the gig last July. As an independent liaison to the Times-reading public, Spayd’s job is to consider reader feedback and make determinations about the newspaper’s decision-making, ethics, and other issues.
Other journalists, especially, have been vocal critics of Spayd, saying she’s “inclined to write what she doesn’t know,” that her work has become “iconic in its uselessness and self-parody,” and that she is “squandering the most important watchdog job in journalism.” Newspaper editors and public editors frequently disagree, but The New York Times’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, has been blunt: “It was a bad column,” he said of one of Spayd’s articles in January, calling her argument in that instance “fairly ridiculous.” Then again, that wasn’t the first time Baquet challenged a public editor, well, publicly. He had his moments with Margaret Sullivan, Spayd’s predecessor and an industry darling, too. But where Sullivan was lauded for taking on systematic newsroom problems like underrepresentation of women—both in influential positions at the Times and as subjects in the paper—Spayd has developed a reputation for being more interested in ideological balance, for better and for worse.
The Times has had a public editor since 2003, when a committee of more than two dozen journalists made the recommendation in the wake of an explosive plagiarism and fabrication scandal at the paper. Other American newspapers have had ombudsmen since at least the 1960s, hired to be “privileged readers,” as Nieman Lab explained last year, “experienced outsiders who combine access and wisdom to thoughtfully critique their paper, help readers trust it, hold journalists accountable to the professionalism they know first-hand, and explain to readers how and why journalism works as it does.” Before joining the Times, Spayd ran Columbia Journalism Review and spent 25 years at The Washington Post in various reporting and editing roles, including as the paper’s managing editor.