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New York Times Creates New Public Editor Position

The move is the latest effort as the paper strives to restore its damaged credibility following the exposure of a former reporter’s extensive fraudulent work.

“What we are out to do is raise our accountability for the management of our people, and acknowledge that it is inseparable from the making of our journalism,” Bill Keller, the paper’s new executive editor, said in a staff memo.

Keller said the public editor would “have license to write about issues of our coverage, and to have those independent, uncensored commentaries published in our pages.”

The public editor will review reader complaints and ensure that editors address reader concerns. The public editor will recommend corrections, editors’ notes and other measures, Keller said.

In addition to the new ombudsman position, The Times will also create two masthead-level positions: a standards editor toreview compliance with the paper’s rules; and an editor to examine newsroom hiring and promotion practices.

All three jobs will be “refined and filled within the coming weeks,” Keller said in his five-page memo.

Creation of the new positions came as a result of an internal review conducted by a 28-member committee, led by Assistant Managing Editor Allan Siegal. The committee issued its recommendations in a 57-page report, known as the Siegal Report, which is available on The New York Times’s Web site.

The Times formed the committee in the wake of a scandal involving the extensive journalistic fraud and plagiarism committed by former reporter Jayson Blair. Following Blair’s resignation May 1, The Times disclosed that the 27-year-old reporter filed at least three dozen plagiarized or fabricated stories between October 2002 and April 2003.

The Times’s publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. called the Blair scandal, which led to the resignations of executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd, “a low point” in the paper’s 152-year history. Raines and Boyd received strong criticism for not catching Blair’s chronic errors, plagiarism and fabrications. Newroom staffers also complained that the two top editors promoted Blair, despite his questionable work record.

As the newspaper struggled to restore reader trust and staff morale, The Times authorized the Siegal committee to “conduct a comprehensive review” of newsroom policies.

“Behind the Blair story… lay a misguided pattern of tough supervision and lenient forgiveness that led to retaining him, and in fact promoting him, when at several points he was demonstrating that he was not yet ready to join the staff of The New York Times,” wrote three outside journalists who sat on the committee.

The three journalists concluded “a series of management and operational breakdowns made it possible for a junior reporter in his mid-20’s to get past one of the most able and sophisticated newspaper editing networks in the world.”

Accordingly, the Siegal committee recognized problems in the newsroom management, urging for “a permanent climate of discussion and collaboration” and the need “to make us conspicuously accountable to readers and the public.”

The committee acknowledged that The Times has “traditionally resisted” suggestions to follow other newspapers in appointing an ombudsman.

“We worried that it would foster nit-picking and navel-gazing, that it might undermine staff morale, and worst of all, that it would absolve other editors of their responsibility to represent the interests of readers. Indeed, some papers have found their experience with ombudsmen disappointing, and have dropped the system,” Keller wrote in his memo introducing the report.

But, Keller concluded, The Times would “profit from the scrutiny of an independent reader representative… A pair of professional eyes… can make us more sensitive on matters of fairness and accuracy, and enhance our credibility.”

The public editor position will have a one-year term, as recommended by the Siegal committee.

At the end of the term, the newspaper will evaluate the position and decide whether it should continue or be adapted, Keller said.

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