NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan: ‘The job should be done by an outsider’

Margaret Sullivan says the public editor position at The New York Times needs to be filled by an “outsider” — and that’s why she doesn’t expect to stay beyond the end of her four-year term in 2016.

Sullivan, the fifth public editor of the Times, signed up in 2012 for four years in the post with the option to extend an additional two years as well. Although Sullivan said on Saturday in an interview at the International Journalism Festival that she is planning to leave when the term is up next year, she noted she hasn’t completely ruled out extending her run.

“I actually don’t expect to stay beyond the four years,” she said. “I think that the job should be done by an outsider. And the more you stay and stick around, the less of an outsider you are. So I’ve never thought of it beyond the four years — I mean, I’m not ruling it out — but I would be doubtful.”

In the public editor job — the Times’ phrase for an ombudsman, a gig that’s increasingly disappearing in the media world — Sullivan is tasked with handling questions and comments from readers about the news and reporting produced by the Times. Sullivan works independently from the paper’s reporting and editorial structure and shares her take on issues of the Times’ journalistic standards and integrity in blog posts and columns.

During her tenure, the most challenging ethical issue she’s covered so far has been the Times’ Middle East coverage, she said.

“After last year’s war in Gaza, there was a tremendous amount of mail that came to me and protests that came to me both from the people who felt the Israeli government was getting a bad deal from the Times and people who thought that the Palestinian cause and people were not being represented accurately,” she said. “It’s the very definition of a no-win, but ultimately, after setting it aside over and over, I decided I needed to take it on in a bigger way.”

Sullivan then wrote a long piece engaging with the issue, “The Conflict and the Coverage.” It begins with her telling readers that “this is the column I never wanted to write.”

“I just tried to deal with the issues on both sides and to try to draw some conclusions. I don’t think that it was the greatest piece in the world, but at least it let people know that I was grappling with these issues, that the Times cares about fairness and accuracy in this realm,” she said.

As for her legacy as the Times’ fifth public editor, Sullivan said it’s simple: “I just hope that readers feel like they had an advocate and a voice.”

Watch the full interview with Sullivan below for more.