Saturday, November 29, 2008

Clark Hoyt's "Blog" Needs Some Updating. So Does His Thinking, For That Matter.

Readers of have become happily accustomed to daily -- if not hourly -- updates from its excellent blogs. Even those checking now, on the Saturday night after a national holiday, will find new posts to supplement the print edition.

All except Clark Hoyt's "Public Editor's Journal," which hasn't been updated with fresh material (other than reader letters and the posting of a document) since October 3, when he posted a roundup of investigative stories on the two campaigns that offered readers the chance to do a side-by-side comparison.

Before that, Hoyt hadn't posted since August 21, when he addressed a reference to author Brigitte Gabriel, in the Times Magazine, as a "radical Islamophobe." That post prompted 92 comments, a fairly strong piece of evidence that demand outweighs supply.

Is it really accurate to call "The Public Editor's Journal" a "blog" if its chief blogger only updates it once every two months? There are kids who write letters to their parents from college more frequently than Hoyt posts commentaries on the Times website. Virtually all other Times blogs update several times a week, and some several times a day.

Okay, to be fair: Hoyt's primary job is to write columns that appear in the Sunday Week In Review section. Those columns get published twice a month, sometimes more, and include Hoyt's reporting and opinion about internal Times decision-making as it pertains to the paper's coverage.

Recent columns have included a look at a reporter who used Facebook to reach minors for a story on Cindy McCain, an examination of hot-button religious issues in arts coverage, and, tomorrow, the danger of publishing opinion pieces by news reporters. (More on that later.)

But would it hurt Hoyt to weigh in more often, and more quickly, than his current anemic rate? Frankly, the reporters and editors he judges work a hell of a lot harder than he does, and deliver a significantly greater bang for the buck. That doesn't seem right.

And besides, let's face it, it's not exactly a tough job. The guy rarely even has to press for an outside line, let alone do the sort of thorough reporting he demands of his subjects.

Even by the standards of Hoyt's predecessors, there's a lot to be desired of the current public editor, both in the quality and quantity of his efforts. Daniel Okrent inaugurated the position with a tenacity and intelligence yet to be matched. He never failed to ask the tough question or take on the top targets -- including no less an adversary than Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, who Okrent accused of cooking numbers to suit his arguments. His successor, Byron Calame, never measured up, preferring to go after reporters on weak ethical issues like their acceptance of discounts.

Hoyt has failed to return the column to Okrent's heights. He obsesses with issues of bias and fairness that seem mired in an old-school sensibility; he seems less interested in elevating the Times than in spot-checking its adherence to outmoded demands for propriety. By the time Hoyt gets around to raising real questions, it's too late; the only concrete change in Times policy to result from his column is the revised signature line on Deborah Solomon's Sunday magazine interview, after he criticized her methods last fall. That's not going to get Hoyt a book deal when his two-year stint ends when he leaves the paper next May.

Tomorrow's column captures the essence of Hoyt's weakness. He slaps the wrists of reporters Joe Nocera, Andrew Ross Sorkin and Gretchen Morgenson for allowing opinions into their recent columns on the economic crisis; in particular, he objects to Sorkin's demand for the ouster of General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner and for the auto maker to declare bankruptcy, while his colleague Nocera advocated caution.

But does it even matter what Hoyt thinks? For one thing, we learn from his column that the question has already been raised and resolved in the newsroom, and that executive editor Bill Keller had already ruled that Sorkin's column "stepped over the line." But Hoyt's column goes on to say that Nocera's column did, too -- simply by expressing an opinion on a topic he covers. In Hoyt's "perfect world," as he refers to it, "I would not have reporters writing opinion about the subjects they cover."

What a waste of time to have a 65-year-old public editor pushing the Times backwards, while its reporters and editors correctly see the need for a blurring of boundaries as the print world struggles to keep itself relevant. The times we live in call for fairness and accuracy, but also for informed opinion and commentary; the best reporters, like Nocera, Morgenson and Sorkin, offer both. Their coverage of the current economic crisis has been astonishing both in its depth and insight, and their columns have guided readers to form their own opinions about topics that warrant opinions from all of us.

Hoyt needs to spend less time reliving internal Times disputes that have been properly considered and resolved, and more on matters that his bosses Keller & Co. overlook. There's plenty in the Times's methods and content to report on each day. With only six months left on his contract, it's about time for Hoyt to step up his game, and start keeping his blog up to date.

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