THE PUBLIC EDITOR: Making the newsroom more accessible, one Public Editor at a time

By JACOB TOOK | January 30, 2020

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Here we are, halfway through another school year. To my Hopkins readers, congratulations! You’ve made it this far. Stick it out, and Spring Fair will be right around the corner before you know it. To my readers in Baltimore and around the world, thanks for joining me as I tackle another semester at The News-Letter through your eyes.

We’re still in the first year of the Public Editor. I’ll stop short of calling last semester a trial run, but one exciting (and at times anxiety-inducing) aspect of my position is the room for growth guided by critical reflection on my own work. Transitioning from fall to spring offers a nice natural break to examine how last semester went, and to plan for adjustments. 

What has been working, and what can I be doing better? I have my own thoughts to share, but as always I invite your comments — you can help shape this role to be the most effective bridge between readers and editors.

Over the course of thirteen weeks, I encountered a number of surprises that challenged how I expected to navigate this role. One big one? Readers just have a lot of questions, and want to know more about how things work behind the scenes at The News-Letter. 

I expected to spend most of my time responding to critical feedback on individual pieces. I have done some of that, and I’ve also led broader inquiries guided by specific feedback. But readers often simply want to learn more about the paper’s practices, or what the conversation among editors on different subjects looks like. This means that before I spend as much time getting in the weeds of specific pieces, I have a lot of ground to cover satisfying the demand for greater transparency.

The situation is far from desperate — over the course of my time at The News-Letter, I’ve seen an easing of the tight-lipped front which I felt pressured to maintain in years past. When readers pushed back against reporting or published content, group chats would light up as editors consulted together, and the response to those readers would often be a carefully measured explanation designed to address only the immediate issue.

I hope my role gives The News-Letter space to be more open with sources and readers. Editors and writers shouldn’t feel as though they are the secret-keepers of journalistic practice. They should feel free to be open about what they know and don’t know (without sacrificing professionalism) and try to learn from mistakes in good faith. Meanwhile, I’m here to ensure that dissatisfied sources or readers can make their concerns heard.

Increased openness, both from writers and editors and through my columns seeking to answer common questions from readers, can build trust among readers who feel as though they better understand how exactly editors end up with each week’s content. Even nitty gritty little steps which I suggested last semester like using clearer language in editor’s notes can give readers a way to feel like they’re keyed into the paper’s operations.

Given that my whole role as Public Editor centers on broadening accessibility to readers, hearing and building on their critical feedback and keeping editors attuned to what readers think, increasing my own accessibility will be a priority for me in the coming semester.

Even before I factored in The News-Letter last semester, two part time jobs, an internship and a typical slate of Hopkins classes certainly sucked up a lot of my time — often literally, in that I didn’t have particularly broad options for when to schedule meetings when readers did reach out. I knew I needed to restructure my weekly rhythm, among other things, to make myself more accessible to you, my fellow readers.

This semester, I’ll hold open hours on Friday afternoons, where I’ll get a coffee and read the paper from roughly 1 to 4 p.m. (yes, probably in Brody Cafe). During this time, I’ll welcome any readers to join me and share their thoughts about that week’s coverage or anything else News-Letter-related. I’ll also revv up Public Editor Twitter (@NLPublicEditor), which I set aside last semester to focus on sustaining my weekly column.

I’m also excited to start sharing out more results from behind-the-scenes communication with students, student group leaders, administrators, Baltimore community members and other readers. I hope to reflect more of my own reporting in my column, while also assembling year-end reports that draw from listening sessions and other conversations. With my eyes already turned to next year, I’ll leave a solid bedrock from which my successor can further improve the position’s efficacy.

Apologies if that last line stressed you out — sometimes my palms get sweaty and my jaw clenches when someone mentions May, much less anything after.

Again, to my Hopkins readers, deep breaths. No matter where you’re at in your Hopkins career, I wish upon you a successful semester, but also hope you’ll find time to hang out with friends, get out into the city and make unforgettable memories with your time here. 

And to all my fellow readers, I wish you health and peace in this new decade. There’s a lot going on in Baltimore and the world, and every one of you is out in the world studying, working, raising kids, trying to be an ethical consumer (I hope). If you happen to pick up the paper amid all that, thank you, and give me a shout — I’d love to chat!


We want you to be part of this conversation! We encourage our readers to email publiceditor@jhunewsletter.com with questions or comments about our practices and published content.

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