Journalism is journalism wherever it is

NY Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan returns to Buffalo

On September 24, 2013

There's a point in some journalists' lives when abandoning their two-car garages and comfortable homes for an apartment with a square footage under 700 makes complete sense.

For many, it's just to live in New York City, to feed into the pulse of the Big Apple's big-media heartbeat. For Margaret Sullivan, it was more than that. It was an opportunity to work as the public editor of what many consider the pinnacle of journalism, The New York Times.

I would do that in a second.

Working at The Times isn't any easy task; many consider it a lofty goal. So how do you do it? How do you prepare for it? And what's it really like inside there?

Sullivan, the former Buffalo News executive editor, made her first public return to the Queen City on Monday evening for a talk held within the Larkin Filling Station, a downtown restaurant. Buffalonians packed into the small space, eager to hear the tales of Sullivan's first full year as the The New York Times' public editor.

I sat as one of many journalists in the crowd; Sullivan's fans, friends and former colleagues surrounded me. Sullivan started at The News as an intern 31 years ago; she became a reporter, managing editor and the first female executive editor of the paper. She's one of the few Buffalo-bred writers I know of to make it to The Times and, to put it simply, she's also a fierce lady, skilled reporter and talented writer worth emulating.

Sullivan looked into the audience - one she said was filled with familiar faces - and admitted she felt a little funny speaking at Larkin's author series. Although she has written hundreds of articles in her professional career, she's never published a book. But she started one when she began her transition from Buffalo to New York City - from being the head of a staff of about 200 to being part of a staff of about 1,100.

"In my bedroom, high above the Flatiron District, my red, 15-speed vintage racing bike leans against a wall," Sullivan read from her unfinished memoir. "It's a scene from a 20-something's life, not that of a 50-something. Inappropriate? Could be. In the moment, I just don't care."

There are countless lessons that could be gleaned from Sullivan's career. But on Monday night, some things were clear. Reinventing yourself is a necessary part of growth, and journalism is fundamentally the same regardless of its source - whether it's The Buffalo News, The New York Times or, yes, even The Spectrum.

Sullivan's talk included moments of self-discovery, like when she rode her vintage red bicycle over a 60-block stretch as she fit into her role as a real New Yorker, as well as interesting tidbits about what it's like to work at America's journalism epicenter.

She recalled something one of the The Times' managing editors told her about "imposter syndrome." It's the idea that no one at The Times feels like they deserve to work there, so they all work hard to prove they're worthy of their positions. It creates a competitive environment.

Although I'm not trying to say The Spectrum and the The Times are totally comparable, I remember feeling similarly when I joined this college paper. How can I be better? How can I prove I should be here? I asked myself. I briefly surveyed people I work with, and many felt the same way.

"I feel privileged to be there," Sullivan read from her excerpts. "I think everyone does. But that also creates defensiveness - a culture of, 'We can do no wrong.'"

Sullivan described herself as "a reporter on [her] beat," but her beat as the public editor is The Times. She's there as the paper's internal watchdog. She works outside of the newspaper's reporting and editing structures and fields questions from the public about the way news is covered within The Times. She writes columns and blogs as she gives insight into the paper's coverage.

She said The Times is excellent but not flawless.

No newspaper is perfect, and regardless of staff size or audience, we're all working to achieve the same things in our mission to inform the public. We work to benefit our readers.

But papers' benefits to their writers are almost immeasurable.

And in hearing about Sullivan's adventures in the city, and her adjusting to her new life, I started thinking about my inevitable transition from what have become the comfortable quarters of The Spectrum office to whatever journalism job I get after I graduate. Nothing is going to compare to the time I've spent here.

As a junior, I know I still have about half of my college career ahead of me. But I have friends - a lot of great reporters and skilled people - who are going to face the abrupt change soon, who are going to have to reinvent themselves outside this college bubble.

Sullivan felt her transition went well. The reason? "The experience I had here in Buffalo," she said. Her time working in the City of Good Neighbors at The Buffalo News gave her the skills to write with authority in the Big Apple, she explained.

"The truth is, journalism is journalism wherever it is," she added.

Journalism is covering the National Security Agency leaks and journalism is covering student government scandals.

And I know Buffalo has provided a great media foundation for my colleagues and fellow UB students. We're all going to have to reinvent ourselves after we walk across the stage and shake President Satish Tripathi's hand.

We're all going to have our equivalent to Sullivan's 60-block bike ride, and I think we're all prepared to do it. I have a feeling a lot of us are going to be adjusting to big cities, too.




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