Closing the book on the public editor?

Position’s resources would be better spent elsewhere

After my year-long tenure as the first public editor of the Argosy, I’m recommending against the hiring of another one next year. If my recommendation is heeded, this is the second-last public editor column that will grace the pages of the paper for the foreseeable future.

Last year, the position was envisioned as a way to have an experienced senior editor from past years continue their involvement with the paper. The former editor-in-chief and I had several conversations about the possibility of designing a role for someone like me, who had worked as both an editor and a reporter and wanted to stay involved in the paper without taking on the workload of a senior editor. The resulting specificity of the role is both its strength and the reason it can’t really continue to exist.

There are not many experienced reporters and editors who decline to continue working at the paper. And many of those who do decline would rather cut and run, not stick around for a few hours a week without being allowed to help with the editing or reporting processes.

The major reason I’m advocating the cutting of this position is that it has made me a lot less useful to the actual doing of journalism than I otherwise would have been. I had hoped to be able to advise the news section on story angles and make suggestions during the editing process for the first few editions. As an inexperienced reporter, there is nothing more useful than a pre-publication critique and guided editing session, in which the editor and the reporter sit down and consult with one another on what the piece is supposed to be doing and how it can do it better.

It also should be said that the public editor position shouldn’t be filled unless there is a candidate who has enough experience with the paper to take it. Most of the time it’s pretty straightforward and easy to fulfill the expectations of the position. These columns aren’t particularly hard to write, and whenever I notice a mistake continuing from week to week in the pages of The Argosy, I would talk briefly at our staff meetings about headline writing or the importance of starting the reporting process early. I haven’t yet had to launch a serious investigation of wrongdoing this year or field a major complaint, but I think it would have been quite difficult.

The position of public editor is ideal for a substantially sized large media organization which can hire an experienced editor – usually a former EIC – from another smaller organization to critique the decisions made by the editorial team. I don’t think any student journalist is really equipped to do the job—least of all a student journalist whose school offers no program in journalism.

The ombudsperson responsibilities of the position will need to be shuffled around, probably to the office manager or even directly to a member of our board. The EIC or the managing editor would in fact be better suited to communicate with the public through a column that explains some of the editorial decisions made in the newsroom. Ultimately I think the forced distance between the public editor and the rest of the newsroom simultaneously makes it difficult for the public editor to consult with other editors and reporters, and doesn’t make much sense in a newsroom of 30 people.

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