BuzzFeed will hire a public editor

“She won’t be a hater — never that — but she will have an unwavering compass, and she will make BuzzFeed a better, stronger, more serious place.”

Margaret Sullivan is a national treasure. That’s because The New York Times is a national treasure, and Sullivan is its public editor: the best to fill that role in its history. (I almost added the caveat “admittedly short,” but no: The Times has had a public editor for over 10 years! Daniel Okrent, the first — and second-best — inaugurated the office in 2003.)

robin-sloanSullivan’s writing and reporting — and it is reporting, truly, the thorniest kind — is both (a) entertaining on the level of prose and ideas, and (b) important on the level of policy and (seriously) democracy. She has proven beyond a doubt that a public editor can be more than a cop or a scold. At her best — and again, to underscore: Sullivan is the B-E-S-T — a public editor is like one of those mid-air refueling planes, sustaining an organization’s highest hopes for itself.

Not every news organization has a public editor, of course. In the case of legacy organizations — your newspapers, your cable channels — I suspect it’s hard to justify a whole FTE (and a senior FTE with real intellectual and organizational horsepower, at that) when the content she produces won’t be widely read. In the case of new media companies — your BuzzFeeds, your Vices — I suspect the role seems contrary to the move-fast spirit of the Internet.

Additionally, I think in both cases there’s this fairly realistic reservation: Sure, sure, the Times is a national treasure, but nobody cares about the inner workings of our organization.

Well, I think that, at this moment in history, we are all pretty interested in the inner workings of BuzzFeed. It certainly positions itself as a company we ought to be interested in. I’m not talking about its latest valuation or the size of its audience; I’m talking about how it fits into our culture. “BuzzFeed is the social news and entertainment company,” the company tells us. The social news and entertainment company. There’s a Times-ian ambition there: The Times is, after all, the newspaper.

I’m bullish on BuzzFeed. I like their loose, anarchic spirit; I like their inventive story formats; I love their recent hires. But I don’t think it’s snarky or scolding to say that BuzzFeed as a whole is more often than not…complicated. I mean, of course it is! Atop a bubbling viral cauldron, they are building a super legit news organization. That Hand-Clap-Emoji is Hand-Clap-Emoji complicated Hand-Clap-Emoji.

And so, in 2015, in recognition of that complexity, and as a sign of maturity and confidence, BuzzFeed will hire a public editor. None of its peers — Gawker, Vox, Vice — would ever dare to do it, which of course will make it even more attractive. BuzzFeed alone will see the role properly, as an opportunity:

  • to give readers a glimpse into its guts, and the palpable energy there;
  • to answer forcefully its snarkiest critics (and yes: if and when those critics are right, admit it, and take action; that’s part of the bargain);
  • to have fun;
  • and most importantly, to make its reporters, editors, and producers better at what they do, and prouder of what they do.

BuzzFeed’s first-ever public editor will be smart. She will be hilarious. She will deploy gifs as nimbly as anybody else on staff. But beware, feckless meme slingers: She will take no bullshit and suffer no fools. She won’t be a hater — never that — but she will have an unwavering compass, and she will make BuzzFeed a better, stronger, more serious place.

Maybe every other Thursday, she and Margaret Sullivan will get drinks.

Maybe it will be awesome.

Robin Sloan is the author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24‑Hour Bookstore.