As I prepared to tread the path of Public Editor, I searched for signposts which would show me the way. I connected with other public editors, considering their ideas in the context of The News-Letter. I read journal articles about the ethics of the reader representative role and studies about how journalism’s audience shifted in the digital age. I pored over our past issues to understand the history underpinning the paper’s coverage of Hopkins students.
What I didn’t expect, though, was how much the work of a public editor comes down to the instincts I recognized from my reporting — listening with a curious mind, creating space for honesty built on trust and finding a balance between the tensions in a narrative.
The paper decided to name a public editor as a step toward strengthening the newsroom’s accountability to readers. I shouldn’t be surprised, then, that at its core the role was similar to being a News & Features Editor. Listening, building trust, seeking balance — these are the guiding principles of any writer or editor with a sense of responsibility to their readers.
After three years of laboring over each issue before it came out, though, it took a while to get used to reading headlines for the first time when I picked up the paper on Thursdays. As an editor, I know a group of students — my friends and my community at Hopkins — work hard to publish quality coverage. When I have questions about reporting, am confused by a piece or encounter editing mistakes, however minor, I feel frustrated because I knew how much time and energy editors commit to keep the paper’s standards high.
To be clear, the frustration was not from a place of judgement. I made my own mistakes as an editor. The frustration came from knowing that, despite the inevitability of the mistakes, I had a responsibility to follow up on questions, to poke around the wounds and to diagnose how The News-Letter could be better. I love The News-Letter and the people who make it happen. They know they will make mistakes, and I’m not here to make them feel bad about it.
But because I love The News-Letter and the people who make it happen, I’m here to remind them that readers are paying attention. The questions I hear from readers typically focus on a specific piece but touch on the practices that are deeply embedded in routines of production.
Here lies the central tension I spent my year as Public Editor exploring — readers may not always know how editors make decisions, but their concerns are no less valid. As I sat down with editors to follow up on critical lines, I knew I had to respect not only the readers I represented but also the institution of the paper I represented (I am on the masthead, after all).
I tried to do more than just bring feedback from readers to the attention of editors. I tried to navigate the issues at hand while keeping one eye looking ahead. In my pieces, I sought to explain the parts of production that readers aren’t familiar with, identify the root of their concerns and negotiate with editors the concrete strategies they could implement to strengthen the paper’s efforts to pursue its mission of representing Hopkins students, it’s primary readers.
I wish that I’d stopped looking for signposts quite so much as I settled into the rhythms of the role. It was easy to feel lost amid the deluge of content the paper put out each week. I often struggled to zero in on exactly where to focus my column, which reader concerns to follow up on with editors and how much of my attention an issue required. I could have trusted my judgement more readily to know what was most important.
Going forward, I hope subsequent Public Editors have better success bringing all the disparate pieces of the position together on the page. But I’m confident that as more of us tread this path, we will each leave a clearer set of footprints for our successor.
This year seemed like a timely point to introduce a public editor role in The News-Letter. In my sophomore and junior years, I watched what I thought was the biggest story of my time as an undergrad unfold after the University announced plans to create a private police force. That developed into the Garland Sit-In, our coverage of which was the subject of my first Public Editor column.
When I published that piece last May, I couldn’t have imagined how we’re now ending the semester.
With the paper’s print issue suspended due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), editors found themselves transitioning mid-semester to an entirely new production formula. Readers consistently asked me how the paper is even continuing, and I sat down with editors to record the difficult choices they faced in order to adapt. I’m grateful to have witnessed this moment in our history so I could explore the question of where the paper goes from here.
Whatever form the paper takes next year, I’ll be reading. I may not catch every single article like I have done for the last year, but I will still carry the responsibility of knowing that I am the most important piece of the paper’s production — a reader. Without readers, there would be no one for whom to put the paper together.
To my fellow readers, let me extend a final thank you. You have driven my commitment to The News-Letter for four years. It’s been my honor and privilege to take the first steps toward representing you all as the Public Editor. Please keep reading. Please keep questioning and pushing back when you see fit to keep The News-Letter growing stronger.
After this week, I’m thrilled to lay down my pen and join you.
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