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'Columbia Journalism Review' Hires Its Own Public Editors For 4 Major Outlets

Jun 14, 2019
Originally published on June 14, 2019 7:40 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The ombudsman, or public editor, is becoming an endangered species in the media world. This is a journalist whose job it is to serve as a voice of the news consumer. ESPN ditched its public editor last year; The New York Times the year before that. The Washington Post got rid of its ombudsman back in 2013. Now the Columbia Journalism Review is reviving the job. This week they announced the appointment of four new public editors. Kyle Pope is the CJR editor in chief and publisher. He joins us now to talk more about it. Welcome to the program.

KYLE POPE: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So you guys have hired four people to do this job. And who are the news outlets that you're going to be focused on?

POPE: So we've got four. We're focusing on The New York Times, MSNBC, CNN and The Washington Post. And we're trying to do it exactly the way that it was done before everybody fired their public editor. And you know, the keyword in this is public - so really, taking complaints, ideas, questions from viewers and readers, who now really aren't being served. Most of these news organizations have fallen back on this view that, like, if you just go to Twitter, you can get feedback on what's going on at these places. And as you and I know, if you spend any time at all on Twitter, it's a very, very, very inadequate way to sort of address serious issues going on in the media.

So we thought, let's hire some people who really know these places, let's hire some people who know what they're talking about, and do what public editors do. But we're doing it from the outside and not from the inside.

CORNISH: I want to tease out that criticism a little more because you're right; when The New York Times eliminated their public editor, the publisher wrote to staff that readers on social media had become, quote, "a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than any one person could be." Doesn't he have a point?

POPE: I think it's a sort of fake approach to watchdog journalism. I mean, for one thing, in most of these cases, the managements of these newsrooms don't respond. So this stuff happens on Twitter, people complain about it, there's, like, a - there's a hubbub, and then everybody moves on. And the paper or the network never has to actually defend itself or say why they did what they did. And that's the thing that we're going to try to fix.

CORNISH: Right. I mean, one of the jobs of a public editor is not just to decide whether a call was right or wrong, but basically to peel back the curtain on how journalists made that decision. And in the past, I guess they kind of had some level of access to the newsroom, right?

POPE: Yeah.

CORNISH: But your public editors won't have that; they're going to be outsiders.

POPE: You know, we don't know yet, actually. It's - we've only - you know, we're a week into this. We don't know who's going to do what. I mean, my sense, knowing these organizations, is that some will get really involved with us, and others will try to ignore us. But we have to remember, even when these places had in-house public editors, they often didn't get any information, either. So even when they were sitting in the newsroom, they often were blocked. So I don't know that it's going to be that different. And again, it depends on the story, and it depends on the place.

CORNISH: In the end, why do you think public editors are important in this moment?

POPE: You know, people don't trust media, and they don't trust journalism. And I think this is actually a terrible time for these organizations to sort of pull back. I think there's been an instinct, as the press has been attacked, to sort of huddle together. You know, it's like, everybody's against us; we're going to close inward. And I think it's exactly the wrong thing to do.

I think now is the moment where we need to answer tough questions, we need to explain ourselves, we need to sort of give the rationales about why we're doing what we're doing. And I think the public is hungry for this. I don't think they'll dismiss it out of hand. But I think sort of closing people off is not helping this trust problem that we have in media.

CORNISH: Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. He spoke to us about his new public editor's initiative. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

POPE: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: And we should note that NPR does have a public editor. You can reach her at npr.org/publiceditor.

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