Kathy English admits that her job is often considered the worst in journalism. As the Toronto Star’s public editor for the last 12 years—a position first implemented in 1972 by Beland H. Honderich, then-chair and publisher of the Star—her inbox is crammed daily with readers’ complaints about typos, misrepresented sources, disagreements over columnists’ opinions, and requests to unpublish stories. In January 2019 alone, she received 1,022 complaints, which public editor associate Maithily Panchalingam felt was a “slow time,” English says. Out of those complaints, 363 required either an investigation or some sort of action resolution, which often involves questioning the judgement call of a time-crunched editor.
As public editor—or ombudsperson at some publications, although it’s been argued that ombudspersons are more independent of management than public editors—English is the readers’ representative in the newsroom. She addresses complaints and errors, ensuring the publication is kept accountable to its audience, while also writing a weekly column on her deliberations and ethical issues within the industry. To maintain objectivity, English operates outside the newsroom structure, reporting directly to the president of Torstar Brands. She is often forced to remind reporters and editors, “I’m not here to defend you. I’m here to question the journalism on behalf of our readers.”
But the public editor is a position in decline. Currently, there are only four full-time public editors/ombudspersons in Canada, stationed at the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, CBC and Radio-Canada—Patricia Graham was the fifth but retired from Brunswick News Inc. in November 2017. “After the 2008 recession when newsrooms really started cutting back in a major way, it was one of the first positions to go,” English says. A stark realization considering the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer reported that only 61 percent of Canadians trust traditional and online journalism.
In February 2013, the Washington Post replaced its public editor with a reader representative—cutting the weekly column and installing a newsroom employee in the place of an independent contractor. Katharine Weymouth, publisher at the time, wrote in a column that the position had become outdated in the digital world due to the responsiveness of social media. And Marty Baron, the paper’s executive editor, pointed out that there was stiff competition for resources, especially when Patrick Pexton, the Post’s last public editor, devoted 25 to 30 percent of his time each week on his column rather than interacting with readers.
In June 2017, the New York Times followed suit, cutting its public editor position in favour of a Reader Center to deal with emails and social media comments. The Times first introduced a public editor in 2003 after the Jayson Blair scandal when it was discovered he had been plagiarizing other publications and fabricating sources. Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the Times, announced the cut in a memo to the staff. “The responsibility of the public editor—to serve as the readers’ representative—has outgrown that one office,” he wrote. “Today, our followers on social media and our readers across the internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be.”
Both the Washington Post and the New York Times have stated that its entire staff should be accountable to readers on social media. “The Reader Center is the central hub from which we engage readers about our journalism, but the work will be shared by all of us,” Sulzberger wrote in his memo.
Former CBC ombudsperson Esther Enkin, however, says this isn’t an adequate response. “Thinking that Twitter or social media is somehow a replacement is just insane to me. When was the last time you read anything really reasonable in a Twitter feed?” The trouble with relying on social media, Enkin says, is that quick responses are expected. “The whole thing about this process is that it isn’t rushed.” The public editor takes the time to deliberate on all aspects of an issue to ensure their decision aligns with the publication’s standards and practices.
Since the 2016 U.S. elections, both English and Enkin have also noticed a greater number of polarized complaints with nasty tones. “I think there’s just an empowering of attitudes and things that might have stayed a little more under the surface are now right out there,” English says. Enkin describes the anger she’s seen around the politics of race and identity as “quite striking.”
Enkin agrees that this anger, in part, stems from readers feeling marginalized. As social media replaces the human contact of the public editor, more and more readers are left feeling unheard. She gives a specific example of when she received an email from a tiny utility company in Southern England with a complaint about their gas bill, they’d sent it to Enkin looking for action. “In some ways, it’s funny,” she says. “In some ways, it’s sad that people really don’t have anywhere to go these days.”