Margaret Sullivan is a national treasure. That’s because The New York Times is a national treasure, and Sullivan is its public editor: the best to fill that role in its history. (I almost added the caveat “admittedly short,” but no: The Times has had a public editor for over 10 years! Daniel Okrent, the first — and second-best — inaugurated the office in 2003.)
Sullivan’s writing and reporting — and it is reporting, truly, the thorniest kind — is both (a) entertaining on the level of prose and ideas, and (b) important on the level of policy and (seriously) democracy. She has proven beyond a doubt that a public editor can be more than a cop or a scold. At her best — and again, to underscore: Sullivan is the B-E-S-T — a public editor is like one of those mid-air refueling planes, sustaining an organization’s highest hopes for itself.
Not every news organization has a public editor, of course. In the case of legacy organizations — your newspapers, your cable channels — I suspect it’s hard to justify a whole FTE (and a senior FTE with real intellectual and organizational horsepower, at that) when the content she produces won’t be widely read. In the case of new media companies — your BuzzFeeds, your Vices — I suspect the role seems contrary to the move-fast spirit of the Internet.
Additionally, I think in both cases there’s this fairly realistic reservation: Sure, sure, the Times is a national treasure, but nobody cares about the inner workings of our organization.
Well, I think that, at this moment in history, we are all pretty interested in the inner workings of BuzzFeed. It certainly positions itself as a company we ought to be interested in. I’m not talking about its latest valuation or the size of its audience; I’m talking about how it fits into our culture. “BuzzFeed is the social news and entertainment company,” the company tells us. The social news and entertainment company. There’s a Times-ian ambition there: The Times is, after all, the newspaper.
I’m bullish on BuzzFeed. I like their loose, anarchic spirit; I like their inventive story formats; I love their recent hires. But I don’t think it’s snarky or scolding to say that BuzzFeed as a whole is more often than not…complicated. I mean, of course it is! Atop a bubbling viral cauldron, they are building a super legit news organization. That is complicated .
And so, in 2015, in recognition of that complexity, and as a sign of maturity and confidence, BuzzFeed will hire a public editor. None of its peers — Gawker, Vox, Vice — would ever dare to do it, which of course will make it even more attractive. BuzzFeed alone will see the role properly, as an opportunity:
- to give readers a glimpse into its guts, and the palpable energy there;
- to answer forcefully its snarkiest critics (and yes: if and when those critics are right, admit it, and take action; that’s part of the bargain);
- * to have fun;
- * and most importantly, to make its reporters, editors, and producers better at what they do, and prouder of what they do.
BuzzFeed’s first-ever public editor will be smart. She will be hilarious. She will deploy gifs as nimbly as anybody else on staff. But beware, feckless meme slingers: She will take no bullshit and suffer no fools. She won’t be a hater — never that — but she will have an unwavering compass, and she will make BuzzFeed a better, stronger, more serious place.
Maybe every other Thursday, she and Margaret Sullivan will get drinks.
Maybe it will be awesome.
Robin Sloan is the author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24‑Hour Bookstore.
from Nieman Lab http://ift.tt/1z05Tk4