Critical Thinking: Should College Newspapers Hire a Public Editor?

By: , Editor & Publisher


“Many media organizations have a public editor on staff, and the University of Toronto’s student newspaper, The Varsity, recently hired its first one. Should other college newspapers follow suit?”

Nikole McKibben, 24, senior, University of New Mexico (Albuquerque, N.M.)

McKibben is a journalism major. She is a news reporter and advertising representative for the NM Daily Lobo.

Some major newspapers like The New York Times have a public editor who acts as a liaison between readership and the newsroom. Typically, this person is the biggest critic of editorial content. They may also address concerns that readers may have about content. However, some tend to think time and resources are wasted on the position, or that it provides no realistic value to the team.

I see having a public editor at a college newspaper as the perfect way for young journalists to flex their creative muscles, and engage with student readers in an effective and unique way. In other words, this person can be the glue that cements the audience and the newsroom together. This is how you create loyal readers and build a sustainable brand. Consistency is particularly hard on campus newspapers because most students only attend college four to six years, and are unlikely to keep reading once they leave.

Ideally, the public editor position at a college newspaper would be held by a person with a lot of experience as a reporter in the field. The candidate would also have to familiarize themselves with the college newsroom in order to ensure that the newspaper stays relevant, engaged, and transparent. Ultimately, creating a consistent, effective news team is the best way to engage readers.

If the NM Daily Lobo had a public editor, the person would be responsible for writing editorials based on the newsroom’s recent content. Topics could include breaking news, letters to the editor, or political cartoons. Another responsibility of the public editor could be to measure reader engagement through social media and surveys, which are effective ways to determine the perception your newsroom is giving. The position should give personality and clarity to the newspaper, making it more personable.

Some may argue that a public editor blurs the lines between the promotional side of media and the newsroom. Though if the public editor can effectively create an environment that fosters discussion on content, there should be no concern regarding where the newsroom’s loyalties lie. The public editor should provide transparency for the student paper, not a veil to cover it. If looked at as a long-term investment, this position could increase the quality of your college newsroom.

Bob AshleyBob Ashley, 68, editor, The Herald-Sun (Durham, N.C.)

Ashley started his career at a weekly as a high school student. He has worked at papers in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and was editor of the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer while in Kentucky.)

Over the course of my journalism career, I’ve watched the enthusiasm for a public editor or reader advocate ebb and flow among newspapers. Throughout, I’ve inclined toward a view that I’m unsure newspapers—or their readers—benefit from a public editor.

I fear the public editor can be a convenient way for top leadership of a newspaper to avoid dealing with hard questions—or just inconvenient questions—from sources, readers and other constituencies.

And with no real power to effect change, the public editor can be something of a dead end, perhaps giving a reader some assurance she or he has been heard, but not really attacking whatever root problem or institutional lapse may have led to the complaint.

That’s not to say public editors—and there have been many great ones at some of our finest newspapers—have not provided thoughtful reflection and the very skepticism about journalists that we as journalists bring to our daily craft.

And my reservations don’t necessarily suggest that a public editor might not provide a valuable function at a college newspaper. College journalists are plunging into a news delivery world that is undergoing dizzying change. Our audience as news organizations is expanding and has the potential to expand even more—but in ways virtually unknown a decade or more ago.

And the price of entry into the world of news dissemination has shrunk to practically zero, so news—or, too often “fake news” or at least news subject to none of our longstanding efforts at validation—can land on our tablets and phones with oceanic volume.

Could a public editor at a college newspaper provide a valuable bridge between audience and news organization? At a time when young men and women are forming news-consuming habits that will persist into adulthood, can a public editor be a conduit who helps affirm the values of sober newsgathering and distribution to skeptical audience and help young journalists hear more clearly those concerns?

A while back I wrote in my newspaper that the idea of helping students attain “news literacy” was “gestating in many places as educators and others try to help news consumers not only identify “fake news” but also recognize the through-the-looking-class fake charges of fake news popular with, among others, our new president.”

If a public editor could help in that endeavor, it could be a pioneering initiative that could translate more broadly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *