Why Margaret Sullivan left the public editor job at the New York Times


“You need to be an outsider” to report on the Times, Sullivan says on the latest Recode Media.

When Margaret Sullivan became the public editor of the New York Times, after 32 years in print journalism, all the previous journalists to hold the job had only stayed for a couple years, on average. As she discovered, there’s a good reason for that.

“When I got to the three-year mark, I realized there’s a reason this job has a pretty tight term limit,” Sullivan said on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka. “You need to be an outsider, you need to have an outside perspective.”

The public editor is tasked with keeping a check on the rest of a newspaper’s staff, by reporting on how they do their jobs. Sullivan’s successor, Liz Spayd, has been in the news recently for criticizing her colleague’s tweets about President-elect Donald Trump.

“For the most part, people would say, this is a necessary evil,” Sullivan said of the public editor job. “If you did it well, there was a lot of respect about it. They wouldn’t like it if it came to their door, but in general, I had many people saying, ‘I’m really glad you’re doing this, keep it up, keep us honest.’”

But she recognized by that three-year mark that going into the Times headquarters every morning colored her columns: “People start to feel less like subjects, and more like colleagues,” Sullivan said.

You can listen to Recode Media in the audio player above, or subscribe on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

  • Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with the movers and shakers in tech and media every Monday. You can subscribe on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.
  • Too Embarrassed to Ask, hosted by Kara Swisher and The Verge’s Lauren Goode, answers all of the tech questions sent in by our readers and listeners. You can hear new episodes every Friday on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.
  • And finally, Recode Replay has all the audio from our live events, such as the Code Conference, Code Media and the Code Commerce Series. Subscribe today on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.

If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on iTunes — and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Peter. Tune in next Thursday for another episode of Recode Media!

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