Here at the Tracker, we like to take note of the comings and goings of trackers everywhere. If we don't do it, who will?
So I'd like to report that The New York Times has chosen its new tracker. (They call her the public editor, but that's their loss.) Her name is Margaret M. Sullivan, and she has been the editor of the Buffalo News since 1999. She wants to continue the every-other-Sunday column in the print edition, but her main focus will be on supercharging the commentary and criticism online.
That's a good thing, although we don't yet know what that means. Let's hope the Times lets comments flow and that Sullivan engages with her readers online, creating a dialogue that we would all learn from.
The most important thing we can hope for, in my view, is that, unlike her predecessors, she's willing to engage in criticism (and praise) of science and medical stories. I had several interactions with the last public editor, Arthur Brisbane, who made clear that he didn't understand science and wasn't likely to say much about it. He began his first report at public editor this way: "The new public editor’s blog opens with an entry in the field of science, something my mama told me never to do." The sentence doesn't track. What exactly was it his mama told him never to do? Science? Or start a new job talking about science? What is the antecedent of "something"?
I dwell on this tiny point because I think he betrayed his nervousness not only in what he said but in his faulty grammar. The column was about a front-page story by Gina Kolata reporting the development of "a spinal fluid test can be 100% accurate in identifying patients with significant memory loss who are on their way to developing Alzheimer’s disease." He further betrayed his discomfort with science a few lines later, when he wrote that the piece "drew dissenting comments from a number of readers, including some with PhD appended to their names." A PhD does not give a comment more weight. It's either a good comment or a bad one. (I critiqued the Kolata story here.) More importantly, he pulled his punches. The story required a correction (which it later got), but Brisbane made the story seem merely off-track--not incorrect.
We have reason to be optimistic about Sullivan's selection. She's an editor, who dirties her hands regularly with the daily business of journalism, so she should be able to speak with authority. And, as I said, she wants to focus her efforts online, where they are likely to be much more productive. Further, she was wise not to let the Times kill the print editions of her column
But that's not the kind of thing that she touted when applying for the job, apparently. According to Poynter, she pitched herself "as a 'smart aggregator' and 'forum organizer.'" Nice goals, but there are probably any number of science, political, and arts bloggers who could do that much better--indeed, many who have done it.
We won't know until she starts what kind of measure she will use to judge the quality of the journalism in the Times, nor do we know whether she will choose to write about Times stories dealing with climate change, stem cells, cancer research, the FDA, the EPA, the NIH, or the Higgs boson.
I'm eager to see where she takes us, and when she does things relevant to our interests here, I plan to report them.