On June 2, The New York Times’ last public editor, Liz Spayd, left her office for the final time—the news organization was eliminating the position that had been created 14 years earlier. Six months before that, Northeastern graduate student Andrew Robinson sat in Clark Hoyt’s house, interviewing the paper’s third public editor about what the job had been like.
Neither Hoyt nor Robinson knew at the time that in a few short months, the very position they were discussing would cease to be. Robinson, acting on a hunch, just wanted to chronicle the small group of people—six in total—who’d held one of journalism’s toughest jobs.
“These are the people who have to have the highest standards of journalistic ethics; I was so interested to learn about the way they did things.”
That chronicling became “The Public Editor’s Club at The New York Times as told by the six who lived it,” a nearly 8,000-word oral history published last month in the Columbia Journalism Review. Robinson, MA’18, interviewed and photographed all six former New York Times public editors over the course of six months, asking them about the highs and lows of a position in which they often found themselves at odds with their colleagues in very public ways.
The public editor is a position solely accountable to, well, the public. The New York Times described the public editor as someone who “works outside of the reporting and editing structure of the newsroom and receives and answers questions or comments from readers and the public, principally about news and other coverage in The Times.”
“It’s such an interesting position,” said Robinson, currently a student in the School of Journalism’s Media Innovation program. “These are the people who have to have the highest standards of journalistic ethics; I was so interested to learn about the way they did things.”
So, without knowing whether his work would even get published anywhere, Robinson started calling up the former and then-current public editors. He was surprised at how willing they were to talk.
“I was doing this basically on spec,” Robinson said, using an industry shortcut for ‘on speculation,’ or without the guarantee of publication. “Everyone answered, though.”
Robinson traveled up and down the East Coast to speak with the public editors in the order they held the position: Daniel Okrent, Barney Calame, Hoyt, Arthur Brisbane, Margaret Sullivan, and Spayd.
Although he is primarily a videojournalist and photojournalist, for this piece he wanted to take on the considerable challenge of writing down an oral history of the public editor position.
“I wanted it to be raw, straight from them,” he said. “I wanted to have as much of their voices in this as possible and take myself completely out of the story.”
To that end, Robinson said he had certain columns he wanted to discuss with each editor, but he otherwise let the lengthy conversations go on without a definitive direction. He also made an effort to photograph the public editors during unguarded moments in these conversations.
What he ended up with was a 20,000-word first draft oral history. “Obviously, that was massive,” he said, laughing. (For comparison, this story is 685 words.)
While he searched for a place to publish his work, several Northeastern journalism professors helped him edit down the piece.
Eventually, it was picked up by the Columbia Journalism Review, a respected organization within the industry. (Recall the publication’s analysis of a fairly fraught Rolling Stone article two years ago).
“That felt good,” Robinson said, of his publication in the CJR. “This had been a really long process—it was something I was sitting on for six months, and you know, it’s on your mind that whole time.”
The effort was worth it.
“I’m proud that I stayed true to my vision that whole time,” Robinson said. “This could have been a straight article, but I wanted to do something different, and I’m glad I did.”