Advice to the New York Times Public Editor: Reconstitute Editorial Debate


Dear Ms. Spayd:

I just looked at some readers’ comments on a Ross Douthat article. I think there were 958 altogether. The number, and my reactions, provoke a suggestion.

My reactions, in brief:

  • Readers and NYT editors seem to share a preference for meanness. I read through the first batch of comments — that is, those rated most highly by readers and editors — and saw surprisingly few that didn’t evince some need to stick in the knife, as distinct from seeking a dispassionate grasp of divergent perspectives.
  • Meanness often seems to arise from emotion and/or ignorance. In this case, many readers unsurprisingly appeared to approach the topic predisposed and without much inclination toward self-doubt. In other words, the comments section seemed designed to feed a degraded form of public debate.
  • I observed considerable redundancy.
  • The format essentially prevented constructive dialogue. For example, it did not offer a breakout feature that would enable readers to respond to specific Douthat remarks, inline or alongside his original text. It did not even allow for discussion threads.
  • Nobody is going to read 958 comments. At a certain point, one wonders, what’s the purpose? If it is to let readers vent, then why close the comments section? If it is to do something constructive with alternate viewpoints, then why let that database go unexamined?

My suggestion:

  • The traditional editorial format combines assertions of varying relevance and quality on multiple issues. As such, the format encourages impossibly tangled disagreements among actual and would-be readers. Readers lacking time, sophistication, or desire to tease out the author’s various threads of reasoning or belief are left with the need to accept or reject the editorial’s multifarious assertions as though they were of one piece. This does not promote critical thinking.
  • Those tangled disagreements are generally unpopular. Notwithstanding partisans’ apparent need for endless reassurance that their side is right, the larger public tends toward disgust with such matters — with, especially, politics and the media. People don’t like being frustrated. It does not necessarily have to be that way. In an era of Facebook and other media monopolies, it is not patently ridiculous to suggest that the Times could aspire to a Cronkite-like reputation.
  • It would make sense to tend toward a more concise form of editorial, focused more narrowly on a single issue, displaying more awareness of previous discussion, with less hubristic pretensions of writing large on a tabula rasa. Imagine, for example, an editorialist retained to provide running updates on a single issue: “After our last installment, Reader Mark Stone said the highways in his state are in much better condition than in other states because of that state’s tax policies. Today, we will look at how state taxes affect highways.”
  • If you are aware of the StackExchange family of discussion forums, you may realize that they continue to spread into new topical areas. Someday, they may replace traditional newspapers. That could be for the best. Educated readers may be especially inclined to appreciate an approach to issues that encourages participants to pose concise, nonredundant, highly specific questions and to offer civil, responsive, effective answers.

The suggestion is, in brief, to remove the Times from the old world of unavoidably distorted editorial and news content that seems designed to irritate people, and to position the Times instead as a trusted beacon of truthseeking. Don’t let Paul Krugman, for example, reduce himself to the level of a gospel preacher or a broken record. Instead, impose editorial discipline obliging him to come to grips, succinctly, with actual reader responses, floated to the top through a StackExchange-like system of comment vetting, advancing a kind of economic discussion informed by what different varieties of Republicans actually think.


Ray Woodcock


* * * * *

Note: the Times replied with an email informing me that the Public Editor role had been eliminated. Apparently that happened about six weeks earlier. My browsing suggested that Liz Spayd had committed some serious blunders, but that the office of Public Editor did nonetheless reflect senior management’s past awareness that the paper remained liable to commit its own serious mistakes. In place of the Public Editor, the Times evidently experimented with a so-called Reader’s Center. As far as I could tell, at this point that Center seemed virtually defunct. The email pointed me to various points of contact, but did not mention the Center.

Ideas in this post are related to those in another post.


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