Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The public eye

leave a comment »

Last month, the New York Times announced that it was eliminating its public editor, an internal watchdog position that dates back over a decade to the Jayson Blair scandal. In a memo to employees, publisher Arthur Sulzberger outlined the reasoning:

The responsibility of the public editor—to serve as the reader’s representative—has outgrown that one office…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. Our responsibility is to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them, rather than to channel their voice through a single office.

We are dramatically expanding our commenting platform. Currently, we open only ten percent of our articles to reader comments. Soon, we will open up most of our articles to reader comments. This expansion, made possible by a collaboration with Google, marks a sea change in our ability to serve our readers, to hear from them, and to respond to them.

The decision was immediately criticized, as much for its optics and timing as for its underlying rationale. As Zach Schonfeld wrote for Newsweek: “The Times’s ability to hold the [Trump] administration accountable relies on its ability to convince readers that it’s holding itself accountable—to convince the country that it’s not ‘fake news,’ as Trump frequently charges, and that it is getting the story right.”

This seems obvious to me. Even if it was a legitimate call, it looks bad, especially at this particular moment. The public editor hasn’t always been as empowered or vocal as it should be, but these are problems that should have been addressed by improving it, not discontinuing it entirely, even if the Times itself lacked the inclination to do so. (Tom Scocca observed on Politico: “Sulzberger seemed to approach the routine duty of holding his paper accountable the same way a surly twelve-year-old approaches the task of mowing the lawn—if he could do it badly enough, maybe people would decide he shouldn’t have been made to do it at all.”) But I’m more concerned by the argument that the public editor’s role could somehow be outsourced to comments, both on the site itself and on unaffiliated platforms like Twitter. As another article in the Times explains:

We have implemented a new system called Moderator, and starting today, all our top stories will allow comments for an eight-hour period on weekdays. And for the first time, comments in both the News and Opinion sections will remain open for twenty-four hours.

Moderator was created in partnership with Jigsaw, a technology incubator that’s part of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. It uses machine-learning technology to prioritize comments for moderation, and sometimes, approves them automatically…The Times struck a deal with Jigsaw that we outlined last year: In exchange for the Times’s anonymized comments data, Jigsaw would build a machine learning algorithm that predicts what a Times moderator might do with future comments.

Without delving into the merits of this approach or the deal that made it possible, it seems clear that the Times wants us to associate the removal of the public editor with the overhaul of its comments section, as if one development were a response to the other. In his memo, Sulzberger wrote that the relationship between the newspaper and its readers was too important to be “outsourced”—which is a strange way to describe an internal position—to any one person. And by implication, it’s outsourcing it to its commenters instead.

But is that really what’s happening here? To my eyes, it seems more likely that the Times is mentioning two unrelated developments in one breath in hopes that we’ll assume that they’re solutions to the same problem, when, in fact, the paper has done almost nothing to build a comments section that could conceivably take on a watchdog role. In the article on the partnership with Jigsaw, we read: “The community desk has long sought quality of comments over quantity. Surveys of Times readers have made clear that the approach paid off—readers who have seen our comment sections love them.” Well, whenever I’ve seen those comment sections, which is usually by mistake, I’ve clicked out right away—and if these are what “quality” comments look like, I’d hate to see those that didn’t make the cut. But even if I’m not the intended audience, it seems to me that there are a number of essential factors that go into making a viable commentariat, and that the Times has implemented none of them. Namely:

  1. A sense of ownership. A good comment system provides users with a profile that archives all of their submissions in one place, which keeps them accountable and provides a greater incentive to put more effort into what they write. The Times, to my knowledge, doesn’t offer this.
  2. A vibrant community. The best comment sections, like the ones on The A.V. Club and the mid-sized communities on Reddit, benefit from a relatively contained pool of users, which allows you to recognize the names of prolific commenters and build up an identity for yourself. The Times may be too huge and sprawling to allow for this at all, and while workarounds might exist, as I’ll note below, they haven’t really been tried. Until now, the comments sections have appeared too unpredictably on articles to attract readers who aren’t inclined to seek them out, and there’s no support for threads, which allow real conversations to take place.
  3. A robust upvoting system. This is the big one. Comment sections are readable to the extent that they allow the best submissions to float to the top. When I click on an article on the Times, the column on the right automatically shows me the most recent comments, which, on average, are mediocre or worse, and it leaves me with little desire to explore further. The Times offers a “Reader’s Picks” category, but it isn’t the default setting, and it absolutely needs to be. Until then, it might get better policing from readers simply by posting every article as a link on Reddit and letting the comments live there.

It’s important to note that even if all these changes were implemented, they couldn’t replace a public editor, a high-profile position with access to the thought processes of editors and reporters that no group of outside commenters could provide. A good comment section can add value, but it’s a solution to a different problem. Claiming that beefing up the one allows you to eliminate the other is like removing the smoke alarm from your house because you’ve got three carbon monoxide detectors. But even if the Times was serious about turning its commenters into the equivalent of a public editor, like replacing one horse-sized duck with a hundred duck-sized horses, it hasn’t made the changes that would be required to make its comment sections useful. (Implementing items one and three would be fairly straightforward. Item two would be harder, but it might work if the Times pushed certain sections, like Movies or Sports, as portals in themselves, and then tried to expand the community from there.) It isn’t impossible, but it’s hard, and while it would probably cost less than paying a public editor, it would be more expensive than the deal with Google, in which the paper provides information about its readers to get an algorithm for free. And this gets at the real reason for the change. “The community desk has long sought quality of comments over quantity,” the Times writes—so why suddenly emphasize quantity now? The only answer is that it’s easier and cheaper than the alternative, which requires moderation by human beings who have to be paid a salary, rather than an algorithmic solution that is willing to work for data. Given the financial pressures on a site like the Times, which outlined the changes in the same article in which it announced that it would be offering buyouts to its newsroom staff, this is perfectly understandable. But pretending that a move based on cost efficiency is somehow better than the alternative is disingenuous at best, and the effort to link the two decisions points at something more insidious. Correlation isn’t causation, and just because Sulzberger mentions two things in successive paragraphs doesn’t mean they have anything to do with each other. I hate to say it, but it’s fake news. And the Times has just eliminated the one person on its staff who might have been able or willing to point this out.

Written by nevalalee

June 16, 2017 at 8:54 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: