Was what happened to local journalism inevitable? Or was there a moment where things could have gone differently?
Traditional media companies could have responded to the changes much more nimbly. There was a whole thing about “Should we or shouldn’t we charge for the content of the paper?” For a long time, local newspapers decided not to. It never made any sense, because it costs lots of money to produce this journalism. We were very slow to take advantage of the particular strengths of the internet in a way that might have made a real difference. The kind of work we do now — some newspapers, including The Times and The Post, present things in a way that’s much better than the way they’re presented in print. But for the longest time, newspapers, especially local newspapers, were just shoveling their content onto the web and expecting people to like it. It was smug. It was slow. And it hurt us.
Does some blame lie with the Wall Street-backed companies that have become newspaper owners?
Hedge-fund ownership is one of, if not the, worst developments that have occurred for newspapers. These companies don’t care about journalism. They care about strip-mining what’s left for whatever profits can be squeezed, not with an eye to a sustainable future but with an eye toward next quarter’s balance sheet.
How do you look back on your four years as public editor of The Times?
I’m sure this may sound sappy or sentimental or pandering or something bad, but I really found it to be a privilege. I approached it as a service that I wanted to do as well as I could. And it was very tough, at times, to come into the building every day and feel part of a great institution, but also know that your role was to critique and, to some extent, to find fault. But I tried to keep in mind that the people I was really working for were the readers of The Times, so that it wasn’t about making people within the institution happy.
The Post also did away with its ombudsman. Are outlets well served by having such a position?
Some places are. I think for very large, influential media organizations, it is a service to the readership to have someone in that role. I see it as unfortunate, but not a tragedy, that these roles have been discontinued.
What have you made of the pushes in newsrooms to have better representation of previously marginalized voices, as well as to rethink journalistic objectivity?
It’s extremely important to have real diversity, not tokenism, in newsrooms. You get different important perspectives and internal criticism and points of view when you have a diverse population in the newsroom — at the top levels, too. I was proud at The Buffalo News to name the first person of color, a Black man, Rod Watson, to newsroom management. I was also very proud to name a woman, Lisa Wilson, as our executive sports editor. She was one of only a few women sports editors in the country, not to mention a Black woman. This is a needed corrective, and overdue.