The Michigan Daily appointed the paper’s first-ever public editor Sunday.
The paper’s management desk, a body of editors that governs the Daily, voted unanimously to appoint second-year law student Paul Johnson to the position.
Johnson is charged with helping the Daily improve accuracy, fairness and the relationship between the newspaper and its readers.
“We think that the public editor will serve as an important pathway to communicating with our readers, both about what we do here and their own concerns and questions,” said Karl Stampfl, the Daily’s editor in chief.
Starting later this month, Johnson will write a regular column in which he investigates and responds to readers’ concerns and explains how the Daily works. He will also publish a blog on the Daily’s website, michigandaily.com. Readers can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Readers will have someone to listen to their concerns and explain how a newspaper works,” Johnson said.
Johnson has reported for The Bergen Record in Hackensack, N.J. and The Hartford Courant in Hartford, Conn. He was also the editor in chief of The Cornell Daily Sun as an undergraduate at Cornell University.
Johnson will work independently of the Daily’s staff, and his columns will only be edited for grammar and style, not content.
Other papers have hired public editors to address a wide range of concerns, including inaccuracies, cultural insensitivity and plagiarism.
In December 2003, The New York Times appointed former Time Magazine and Michigan Daily editor Daniel Okrent as its first public editor.
“My role was to monitor what the paper published and make sure that it stood up to ethical standards,” Okrent said.
His appointment came after the discovery that reporter Jayson Blair fabricated all or parts of dozens of stories. A committee created in response to the scandal recommended the appointment of a public editor to investigate allegations of wrongdoing or unfairness by the paper.
The Daily has also dealt with scandal and controversy.
Since 2004, the Daily has fired three staff members for plagiarism. In 2003, some student groups boycotted the Daily, accusing the paper of racial bias in its reporting.
“Racism is difficult for a lot of papers to handle,” said Johnson, who covered race relations for The Bergen Record. “Part of my role is to help the staff become more sensitive to the needs of the community.”
Okrent said a public editor is a good addition to the Daily in part because it will increase the amount of contact between the paper and the people it covers. He said that having a public editor helped to heighten consciousness among the Times’ staff about issues important to its readers. He joked about how a public editor would have improved his tenure at the Daily.
“It’s good for reporters, editors and readers,” Okrent said. “I wish there had been one when I was around so I didn’t make so many mistakes as a lousy reporter.”
Some public editors have been met with resistance by the staffs they’re charged with monitoring.
“Getting people used to the idea that someone will be looking over their work and being critical might be a challenge,” Johnson said.
But Stampfl said it is important that the public editor do just that.
“My hope is that it will serve as yet another check, as a deterrent,” he said. “So in the event that anyone might be thinking about doing something unethical it would make him or her unlikely to.”
Kimberly Chou, an associate Daily arts editor, said she supports the move.
“There are a lot of people who have issues or problems with the Daily,” Chou said. “I think it’d be good to have a link between the people that make the paper and the people we make it for.”
The Michigan Daily is not the first university newspaper to appoint a public editor.
In March 2007, The Harvard Crimson appointed second-year Harvard law student Michael Kolber to the post.
“I thought it’d be an interesting experiment,” said Kristina Moore, the president of The Harvard Crimson. “There had been a lot of criticism about the Crimson not responding to reader feedback.”
But Moore said she is having second thoughts about just how valuable the position of public editor has been to the Crimson and that the paper will likely reevaluate his role when it elects new editors next month.
– Karl Stampfl, who usually edits stories that appear on these pages, did not edit this story because he is quoted in it.