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April 21, 2024

PUBLIC EDITOR: Defining the Public Editor and setting priorities

By JAKE LEFKOVITZ | September 11, 2020


For those of you readers who watch this space, you may have noticed the handover that took place over the summer. After ably serving as The News-Letter’s first Public Editor, Jacob Took graduated and has now joined the staff of The Cecil Whig and The Newark Post.

For the next nine months, I will be your Public Editor.

I’d like to take this opportunity to do two things. I want to lay out for you how I view the role of the Public Editor: what it is, how I will try to operate and what I will aim to do. And I want to share with you a few of what my priorities will be. 

So what is the Public Editor? It really is a good question, one that many people have asked me. What I tell them is that it is an imperfect name for a terrific concept. In essence, the Public Editor is a reader with a column and — in normal times — the paper’s office keycode.

(Because The News-Letter’s offices are in a University-owned building, it is subject to the same coronavirus [COVID-19] restrictions as the rest of campus. Because the University is currently in Phase 1 of its reopening plan, no one is actually in the offices right now.)

Those are my only two special privileges. I will never edit anything other than my own articles. I do not have the authority to tell anyone at the paper to do so much as change a single comma. What I get to do — what it is my responsibility to do — is ask tough questions and share my candid opinions. 

The Public Editor is like most of the other journalists on the staff of The News-Letter. The job descriptions are the same: to gather valuable information, verify it and publish it for the benefit of you readers. The difference is that they are responsible for the world outside of the Gatehouse, which houses The News-Letter’s operations. I am responsible for the world within it.

It is crucial for me to note that I will be an opinion journalist, however. This does not mean that I will ever abandon the principles of verification, independence and accountability. What it does mean is that I am free to not just share information with you, but also to share my commentary on that information.

I will never claim to have a monopoly on the truth. That is not why I intend to share my analysis. I intend to share it because oftentimes the facts just do not speak for themselves. Reliably knowing the who, when, where and why of any story is crucial. But most people will often need a little help to turn that into some kind of useful narrative. 

That informed yet independent perspective is what I will aim to provide. So in just a few words, my job is to tell you the truth, as I see it, about The News-Letter. Why is this important?

I think that it is important because transparency and accountability are important. I join with journalists like New York Times media columnist Ben Smith in insisting that no authority is beyond challenge and that usually no secret is innocent. I believe that this extends to include The News-Letter.

The paper and its staff wield a decent amount of power. As the de facto paper of record at Hopkins, what the staff publishes helps to make up the literature of our lives here, to borrow from Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism. And so someone needs to hold them responsible for how they use that power. That would be me.

I cannot do it alone, however. A journalist is only as good as their sources. And I am going to need a lot of you to be my sources if I am going to be able to do this job justice. I am already very grateful to one reader for how she spoke up about the paper’s lack of timely coverage when a noose was discovered near campus. I look forward to hearing much more from more of you.

I will always be happy to lend you my open ear. Having said that, I do have a couple of priorities for my time in this office.

First, I want to focus on how The News-Letter and its staff can be more transparent. This is a big, big project all by itself. This can mean something as simple as adding more elements to articles, like reporters’ contact information or a statement on how a particular piece was reported. It can also mean bigger things, like holding some newsroom meetings in public

Second, I want to focus on how The News-Letter and its staff can deepen regular coverage of campus life. Good local journalism binds a community together. By sharing compelling stories from across the institutional, social, economic and racial divides that separate us from each other in our day-to-day lives, the paper can foster readers’ awareness of one another.

The work of The News-Letter is important. And because it is important, it is difficult. I will freely admit this. I knew that myself when I served as part of the news team last year. I have the privilege now of being able to identify issues without necessarily having to figure out solutions.

But it is now more necessary than ever that The News-Letter perform the best journalism that its staff is capable of. We need the kind of independent, reliable and accurate information about the on-campus effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the movements against anti-Black racism (especially in policing) and so much more that only an institution like The News-Letter can provide. 

That is what I intend to encourage with my columns. I hope that you will be reading. 

Thank you for reading. The Public Editor would love to hear from readers like you about all things related to The News-Letter and its coverage and practices. If you would like to get in contact with the Public Editor about something raised in this column or anything else, email him at 

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