AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   September 2010

Keeping Tabs on the Times   

The New York Times' new public editor

By Alexis Gutter
Editorial assistant Alexis Gutter (agutter@ajr.umd.edu) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.     

He's even-tempered and easygoing--the perfect combination to soothe the angry callers he'll soon be hearing from.

So when Arthur S. Brisbane, running through his lengthy résumé during an interview, told me that he had spent two years in an acoustic guitar duo before testing his editorial chops, I wasn't the least bit surprised.

Part journalistic Renaissance man, part regular guy, former reporter, columnist, editor, publisher and corporate executive, Brisbane in August moved into a high-profile, lightning-rod role as the fourth public editor of the New York Times.

"He has a Midwestern sincerity about him, which is hard to find," says Larry Kramer, who hired Brisbane as a reporter in the 1980s when Kramer was the Washington Post's assistant managing editor for metro news. "I love Art and think he's terrific for this gig."

Kramer, the founder and former chairman and CEO of Marketwatch.com, says Brisbane has the added advantage of having worked on both the editorial and business sides of newspapers. "He has a better sense of the audience than many journalists who have only been on one side of the fence," Kramer says.

Clark Hoyt, Brisbane's predecessor as the Times' public editor, suggested his former Knight Ridder colleague as a possible replacement to New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller. "I always found him to be a first-class journalist," Hoyt says. "He's a very nice person; he's easy to talk to for people. He's thoughtful and diplomatic, but he's also tough."

Though Brisbane, 59, says he has always felt comfortable as a writer, he was initially uneasy about pursuing journalism because of his legendary grandfather, also named Arthur Brisbane, the top editor for William Randolph Hearst.

So, after graduating from Harvard in 1973 with a general studies degree and a concentration in history, Brisbane spent a year working with children at a psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts.

When he decided that psychology wasn't for him, Brisbane teamed up with Harvard pal Will Dick to form the acoustic guitar duo Brisbane and Dick. For the next two years, Brisbane and Dick composed music and played gigs in Boston area clubs, coffeehouses and the occasional private party. But they never snared a recording contract, and Brisbane decided to embrace the career path he had been avoiding.

In 1976, Brisbane started working at a local newspaper on his native Long Island, where the staff consisted of himself, his editor and an advertising director. While he says his time at the Glen Cove Guardian was a good experience, despite the $100 a week paycheck, Brisbane knew that to develop as a journalist, he would have to get to a bigger paper. He moved on to the Kansas City Times, first as a reporter, then as a columnist--the position he cites as his favorite because "it was the most fun" and he had free rein. "It's not like I was looking to flout rules," Brisbane says. "I had a free shot at any kind of story I wanted and could do pretty much anything as long as it worked."

But Brisbane admits that some of his "test the waters" experiments didn't necessarily work all that well, like a Valentine's Day poem he wrote in place of his column. "No one stopped me from doing it, but I hope to God it's not in their library anymore," he says.

Though he wouldn't be finished with Kansas City forever, in 1984 Brisbane headed to D.C., where he spent six years at the Washington Post as a reporter and assistant city editor. When he returned to Kansas City in 1990, the city's two dailies had merged into the Kansas City Star, where Brisbane went back into the column-writing business and ultimately became the paper's editor.

In 1997, when Knight Ridder bought the Star, Brisbane shifted to the business side and became publisher. He says he didn't have much time to miss the newsroom because he had so much to learn so fast about his new role. "To be perfectly honest, by the time it happened, I had a lot of time on the editorial side and was excited about having something different."

After seven years in the publisher's office, Brisbane, along with his wife, Jo, and their three daughters, headed to San Jose, where he became a senior vice president of Knight Ridder. But not for long: A year later, the chain was sold to McClatchy, and Brisbane was out of a job.

He says he tries to avoid feeling regret about the past and wouldn't change much about his career, but admits that uprooting his family and taking a corporate job only to have it vanish so quickly was tough.

Brisbane took about a year off from work before starting a consulting business called ASB Consulting LCC. His clients have included a short-lived Sunday newspaper supplement called RiseUp and the Nieman Foundation. While ASB Consulting LCC still exists, Brisbane now works exclusively for the Times.

Brisbane says the three-year position wasn't even on his radar screen when Keller called to gauge his interest. But once he started thinking about it, he realized this was an opportunity he wanted to seize. "I believe that it's extremely interesting and potentially makes a contribution to journalism at the Times," Brisbane says.

The Times created the public editor position seven years ago in the wake of the Jayson Blair fabrication/plagiarism scandal (See "All About the Retrospect," June 2003.), and though it's still somewhat controversial among the staff, Keller says that having a public editor helps the paper adhere to high journalistic standards.

For example, Keller says that all three of Brisbane's predecessors have hammered the Times on its use of anonymous sources, claiming that too often those shadowy figures are cited out of habit or for convenience rather than out of necessity. "Having a public editor call us on that means that we try to police the subject regularly," Keller says. "There's a housekeeping function that happens more diligently when you have a public editor call you out in a column in your own paper."

Keller says he considered recommending that the public editor position be dropped after Hoyt's term expired this summer but eventually concluded the paper would be better off retaining it. "It's a healthy check, and it's a good way of explaining to the readers what we do in a more systematic way," he says. "But I'm not saying I enjoy it. It's like a colonoscopy or a root canal."

While Brisbane is not a gastroenterologist or dentist, Keller says the new public editor does possess a teacher's ability to explain complicated issues clearly--one of the qualifications that Keller has learned to look for in public editors.

Keller also looks "first and foremost for the curiosity and diligence of a reporter without a writer's ego" and "someone with the breadth and depth of experience that gives you an innate sense of the values of good, serious journalism."

Keller says there's always an element of risk in hiring someone for such a sensitive position. But he says his new hire "came across as someone who had his head screwed on straight."

Each of the Times' first three public editors approached the position a bit differently, says Hoyt, because each had a unique set of experiences leading up to the job. "I'm ready to give [Brisbane] whatever help I can, but I'm sure he'll figure it out and do it his own way," Hoyt says.

That's exactly what Brisbane tried to do during his first month at the Times. He spent his first weeks learning about the position and the workings of the paper. At AJR's deadline, Brisbane was still deciding how often he will write his column--Hoyt wrote three each month, and devoted the fourth to letters from readers. Other public editors wrote twice a month. A copy editor of Brisbane's choosing who is not in the Times newsroom will edit the column.

Brisbane will also write a blog and interact with both readers and Times journalists about concerns. "Sometimes corrections or follow-up coverage will result," Brisbane says. "There's two sides to every story, so I'll have to practice journalism myself within the conduct of the job."

Since 2008, Brisbane and his family have lived on Cape Cod, where they enjoy boating, beaching, dining and movie-watching. His wife is also involved in the theater scene on the Cape.

Brisbane says he will commute to New York City several days a week to fulfill his duties, but will also work from home.

His music choice for the commute? Well, in the days of Brisbane and Dick, Brisbane's answer would have been the Beatles, whom he admired and idolized. These days, though, Brisbane says he listens to whatever his daughters--ages 19, 17 and 16--put on the radio.