THE PUBLIC EDITOR: A reintroduction and defense of the fresh-faced reporter

By JACOB TOOK | September 5, 2019

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The News-Letter is proud to introduce The Public Editor, a platform acting as a bridge between our readers and editors.

A few weeks after I started writing for The News-Letter, I covered a speaker who visited campus. Afterward, when I asked a person nearby if I could interview them for a few quick thoughts, they gave me an icy glare and answered, “Sorry, but I don’t talk to people from The News-Letter.

There I was, a fresh-faced reporter with almost no experience, unsuspectingly reckoning with the consequences of the mistakes of editors long-gone. And it wasn’t the last time I encountered such hostility. At The News-Letter, we have to reckon with our predecessors’ mistakes while we make our own.

In three years, I’ve seen editors frantically try to mediate angry readers through email, on the phone or in person — and I’ve been that editor myself more times than I’d like. I’m no stranger to that gut-sinking, we’re-gonna-get-sued feeling.

When News-Letter editors make mistakes, their priority is handling the situation quickly to address the most immediate concern. They refer to journalistic ethics, often guided by the way national newspapers address errors. When things get really sticky, the Student Press Law Center has a legal hotline. We take the established best practices of journalism seriously and hold ourselves to a high standard, but we’re students, not seasoned professionals.

Mistakes, even minor ones, really build up. If we settle on band aid solutions, like compromising on some changes a reader wants to see or issuing errata, we’re not getting to the root of the problem. It’s no wonder we’ve lost the trust of some readers — if the answers to their concerns feel slap-and-dash, fixing the immediate problem without a commitment to make sure it doesn’t happen again, then we’re not really talking to readers, listening to them and improving our practices based on their concerns.

Well, we weren’t. But we realized we needed to be, and we created the Public Editor, my new position, to do just that. My job is to listen to my fellow readers and make sure News-Letter editors don’t just hear our concerns, but take them seriously and build on them effectively.

Who am I again? 

I’ve always been a writer, but I joined The News-Letter on a whim. In high school, I realized I was queer and that meant a lot of people were trying to legislate my existence, so I started following politics, which meant following the news. I sat and watched CNN with my mom while I wrote my college applications, and never once did journalism occur to me. I really thought I’d ride my English major all the way through to a PhD.

Many of you know me. Our dedicated readers, even those who don’t know me personally, might recognize my name. To date, I’ve written almost 130 articles for every section of the paper and worked with dozens of editors. As a sophomore, I was a News & Features Editor (which meant spending a lot of time in the hot seat as readers scrutinized our coverage), and I supervised last year’s day-to-day production as a Managing Editor.

But I’m done with all that! Now, I’m an aspiring journalist teetering on the edge of graduation. I study English, Writing Seminars and Russian and work at LGBTQ Life. I love Baltimore City, proudly voted for Elijah Cummings last November and follow local news media ranging from The Baltimore Brew to WYPR’s Out of the Blocks.

I have to admit, I’m pretty progressive. At my most radical, I support a universal basic income that includes reparations and breaking up monolithic companies like Amazon, Facebook and Disney that have a chokehold on American economic development. But I also grew up on a ranch in rural Texas, so I’m no stranger to conservative ideas. And I’m not afraid to call bullshit when I see it — I support sweeping political efforts to end gerrymandering, get money out of politics and other reforms that send both Democrats and Republics cowering away with tails between their legs.

First and foremost, my training as a journalist has taught me how to listen to people to understand them, whether or not I agree with them or know what they’re talking about. I’ve learned to ask questions that challenge authority. Most importantly, during my time as a reporter on campus, I’ve learned that Hopkins students are a diverse group of brilliant people driven to work hard every day by passion and audacious thinking.

So what will I do as Public Editor to represent all those different readers — all of you?

Well, listening to you seems like a good starting point. I can call The News-Letter out all I want, but if I’m not responsive to all my fellow readers, then I’ve failed. For the first time in two years, I’ll pick up the paper on Thursday morning without knowing what to expect inside. I’ll read each issue, noticing its strengths and shortcomings. And then I’ll turn to see how readers like you respond.

I’m aiming to hold The News-Letter accountable, but I am also fallible, and I’ve been immersed in the behind-the-scenes of the paper’s production for so long that it feels strange to step back. As the year gets underway, I’ll rely on you to hold me accountable. Keep your eyes peeled for a draft Memorandum of Understanding defining this role, which I’ll make public before long. Beyond that, engage with me — make yourself heard.

This is not a public relations role. The good, the bad and the ugly — nothing will escape my purview. Sometimes, we have to roast the ones we love to make them better. I won’t be spinning anything to promote or defend The News-Letter, unless I deem that defense truly warranted. 

For a moment, though, let me defend the fresh-faced reporter, the kind we’re about to send all over campus after we (hopefully) get some signups from the student involvement fair. They aren’t accountable for our past mistakes. They are probably nervous, relatively inexperienced, maybe trying something out for the first time. If you have concerns about The News-Letter, come talk to me — that’s my whole job now. Let me be a lightning rod that absorbs the worst and keeps our young hopefuls young and hopeful a bit longer.

As for writing, I won’t contribute elsewhere to the paper to preserve the integrity of my criticism. This year, I’ll only be writing one thing: this column, where I pull together everything I observe and what I hear from you all to identify ways The News-Letter can be more sensitive in its coverage, improve its internal operations and enforce the kind of accountability that I hope will strengthen your trust in us to represent your voices.

We want you to be part of this conversation! We encourage all our readers, and particularly members of the Hopkins and Baltimore community, to email publiceditor@jhunewsletter.com with questions or comments about our practices and published content.

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