Margaret Sullivan, the Buffalo News’ editor-in-chief, announced on Monday that she would be leaving the News this summer to become the New York Times’ “public editor” – a position formerly known as “ombudsman”. I wish her well in her new position.
It does, however, raise some questions about the News. The Buffalo News performs a valuable public service, and it’s Buffalo’s only daily newspaper. What does a public editor do, exactly?
“The role of the public editor is to represent readers and respond to their concerns, critique Times journalism and increase transparency and understanding about how the institution operates,” the media group said in a statement.
“With the vast changes in journalism in recent years, the new public editor will seek new avenues for that mission.”
Sullivan will continue to write a print column, “but she will focus on a more active online role: as the initiator, orchestrator and moderator of an ongoing conversation about The Times’s journalism,” the statement said.
That will include a blog and Web page on NYTimes.com, along with an active social media presence.
Given that New York is a three-daily-paper town, the residents of the city get choices in terms of the type of paper, coverage, and editorial voice they want. The Times transcends that, however. It’s the closest thing we have to a national daily paper of record. The Buffalo News is shrinking. It regularly trumpets that it remains “profitable”, but in the past 10 years or so, it’s lost an entire roster of talented writers, and its online efforts are sometimes successful, sometimes bizarre, and inexplicably unintegrated with the more youthful and vibrant Buffalo.com outlet.
To this day, Sullivan misapprehends what the Buffalo News is in this new media environment. The News is poised to erect a paywall because it believes that it is in the newspaper printing business rather than the journalism and information business. It will be charging 99 cents to obtain online something that costs 75 cents to buy in paper form; that’s 99 cents for something that’s free to distribute versus 75 cents for something that involves paper, ink, trucks, and a wide distribution network. That’s fewer eyeballs looking at the content, looking at the ads accompanying that content.
I don’t get it. The paywall, and its regressive, absurd pricing structure, further cleave the paper from the community it serves. No one wins – combat decreasing physical circulation by decreasing online circulation? That’s the job qualification for a public editor? Chats that Sullivan has hosted at the Buffalo News’ website revealed nothing along the lines of a public editor role, merely defense for the alleged impartiality of certain columnists and coverage.
We’re reminded that the News remains profitable; that Papa Buffett remains supportive. Profitability is maintained despite a drop in circulation, because veteran writers would rather take a buy-out than stick around. The News prints lots of things for a fee on their state-of-the-art machinery, including the New York Times.
But Sullivan’s new job – why exactly doesn’t a one-paper town have an ombudsman? Isn’t the News’ duty to its readers somewhat higher, given that there is no print competition? Or is that duty alleviated because of occasional criticism or analysis from online competition like Artvoice, Buffalo Rising, or Investigative Post?
After all, most people buy the News for the coupons. The coupons. Isn’t that a damning indictment? Doesn’t that discourage the talented writers who remain at the News, who have been recently placed in new, high-profile beats, or sent out to report on goings-on in suburban town halls, muscling in on the Bees’ turf? How long did Janice Okun stick around expounding on the relative pros and cons of booth dimensions? How many more times will Bob McCarthy repeat his patent bullshit about Chris Collins being scandal-free and fulfilling all the promises? How many more times will Donn Esmonde – nominally retired – write glowing profiles of the newest and best thing said or done by the Elmwood intelligentsia?
It will be interesting to see how the Buffalo News changes after Sullivan’s departure. Change is inevitable because I don’t think the paywall is going to fix anything. I also believe that the News is in the business of journalism, not in the business of printing a paper. It should be spending money and using resources to create a 21st century newsroom and a product that is less reliant on coupons and gimmickry, and better integrates itself into the networks of people, groups, and neighborhoods that make up WNY.
The internet shook the newspaper business to its core. Very few, if any, papers, have adapted well to that shift to the new media landscape. Sullivan kept the paper afloat under monopolistic market conditions. Buffalo.com is unable to integrate with BuffaloNews.com – banner ads promote each in the other. What is your opinion of the Buffalo News? Do you buy it? Subscribe? What reporters do you appreciate and follow? I enjoy the work of Tim Graham, Matt Spina, Denise Jewell Gee, Andrew Galarneau, Aaron Besecker, and Steve Watson, to name a few.
You go to the Newseum in Washington, and you get the very real sense that it’s a museum honoring the relics of pre-internet news gathering and dissemination. As people shift from paper to computer to tablets, the Buffalo News has been playing catch-up, oftentimes frustratingly so. We criticize the News because it’s the only game in town. Because it’s the only game in town, it has a duty to be better; more responsive, accessible, and transparent to the community it serves.