News & Politics

Don’t Expect Margaret Sullivan to Write Just Once a Week at the Washington Post

margaret sullivanNew York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan will join the Washington Post as a media columnist, the Post announced Monday. She’ll write a weekly column that will “encompass everything related to digital media, and how that transformation is affecting people’s lives and work, along with journalism, news literacy, privacy and free speech, and media personalities,” executive features editor Liz Seymour told staffers in a memo.

Sullivan will work in the newsroom, and she says that while the plan is for her to write just once a week, her new job will include “lots of other things, I hope, because I don’t write just once a week.”

“I enjoy being in the mix frequently,” she says.

Sullivan significantly raised the role of public editor at the Times since she took the role in 2012. There, she was supposed to write every other week but hit the ground with a blog post on her first day and began ombudspersoning immediately, taking on Nate Silver for challenging Joe Scarborough to a wager and the Times itself for hiring a CEO implicated in a British media scandal. Her energy for being tough on the Times never flagged, even after she announced late last year that she wouldn’t serve another term as public editor: In late July, she took the paper apart for missing the story of Flint, Michigan’s water supply, dismantling objections that it was a matter of resources:

After all, enough Times firepower somehow has been found to document Hillary Clinton’s every sneeze, Donald Trump’s latest bombast, and Marco Rubio’s shiny boots. There seem to be plenty of Times resources for such hit-seeking missives as “breadfacing,” or for the Magazine’s thorough exploration of buffalo plaid and “lumbersexuals.” And staff was available to produce this week’s dare-you-not-to-click video on the rising social movement known as “Free the Nipple.”

Sullivan is the former editor of the Buffalo News and has some DC connections–she attended Georgetown University and lived here during grad school; her son, now working in the public defender’s office in Buffalo, lived here for a summer as well. She offers Apple’s clash with the FBI as an example of something she’d like to cover and says David Carr’s former media column for the Times is something she’ll give a lot of thought to as she gets this one off the ground: “You can’t write a media column without thinking about how David Carr would have approached it. Nobody can be like David Carr, but I can do it my own way.”

The Post already has a few people on the media beat–Erik Wemple, who writes for the Post‘s opinion shop but still does reporting (including on the Post), Paul Farhi, who covers media for Style, and Callum Borchers, who joined the Fix blog last fall to cover the media of the presidential election.

“Margaret has been doing one of the most awkward and painful jobs that anyone can do in this industry,” Wemple says by phone. The Post, unlike the Times, has no public editor or ombudsman and relies instead on a reader representative who does not engage in activities anyone would recognize as media reporting. Sullivan says she has no plans to report on her employer–“if something came up that directly involved the Post I wouldn’t go out of my way to avoid it, but I wouldn’t seek it out either,” she says. But, she says, “This is not in any way a public editor job. I just want to make that clear!”

Sullivan says Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. offered her the opportunity to stay for another two-year term, but “I told him I was very appreciative of that but I felt like the public editor should have an outsider’s perspective.” After three years, she said, she was losing that.

“It’s been a privilege to do this, and I really appreciated the chance to do this,” Sullivan says of public editing, “but I want to be on the other side of the fence again.”

Here’s Sulzberger’s memo to Times staffers about Sullivan’s departure.

The Washington Post announced this morning that they have appointed a new, very high-profile media columnist, Margaret Sullivan.

As many of you know, Margaret’s four-year term as public editor was scheduled to come to an end in August. She will now depart sooner than expected, but the difficult task of replacing her is already well underway and this job is a great one for Margaret, one that she is clearly qualified to do well.

When ​she ​ was appointed public editor in 2012, we hoped that ​Margaret would take on a more active role as the initiator, orchestrator and moderator of an ongoing conversation about The Times’s journalism for the benefit of our readers. She has done that and more. She has ushered the position into a new age.

The role of public editor is not the easiest to hold here, or I suspect anywhere. The very nature of the job sometimes puts the person holding it in conflict with some of us, both in the newsroom and even in the executive ranks. Margaret could be tough, but in my view, she has always been fair. She has lived up to the mission of the job, to represent readers and respond to their concerns and to hold this institution to our values. She has my deep appreciation and affection.

​We ​will be in a position to name Margaret’s successor very soon. In the meantime, there will be ample opportunity for all of us to wish her well as she has agreed to stay on for a number of weeks. And, given the role ​Margaret is to assume, ​I expect many of us ​will continue to be in regular contact.

Please join me, along with Dean and Andy, in thanking and congratulating her.

Arthur

 

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.