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Margaret Sullivan chronicles the rise of her career and democracy’s decline in new memoir

Journalist and author Margaret Sullivan will appear at WBUR's CitySpace on Tuesday.Michael Benabib

When it comes to challenging journalism’s status quo, Margaret Sullivan does not pull her punches. The journalist, editor, and author of two books has had plenty of practice weighing in on key issues in journalism through her roles at some of the nation’s most prominent newspapers.

She got her start as an intern at her hometown paper, the Buffalo News, and eventually rose to chief editor before leaving to become the first female public editor at The New York Times. Most recently, she worked as The Washington Post’s media columnist. Throughout it all, she’s kept a close eye on the shifting landscape and social norms surrounding journalism, politics, and society at large. It’s clear she has some concerns.


Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) from an Ink-Stained Life” (St. Martin’s Press), charts her career, as well as her observations about how the state of democracy has shifted since it began. Sullivan spoke with the Globe about her career in the news media, tools for fighting misinformation, and her advice for young journalists.

Q. What prompted you to write this memoir?

A. It’s funny because I wrote that book about local news in 2020 called “Ghosting the News.” I guess it whet my appetite for the whole world of book writing. And I did feel that I had some stories to tell.

When I was at the Times as public editor, it’s a very challenging job, and sometimes people would say to me, “Well, I hope you at least get a book out of it.” And so I thought, “Oh, maybe I should do that.” And I thought that my experiences in Buffalo could be interesting for a couple of different reasons: because I was the first woman in that job, because I started there as a summer intern and made my way to editor, and because of what’s happened in local news over the past 15 years. I thought there was something there to tell, too.


The section of the book about being at The Washington Post is really about the rise of [Donald] Trump, and how the media covered Trump. So I just felt like, with all of those things, that I had some material for a memoir. And then, as I was writing it, it kind of took a turn into something else, which was less memoir and more a call to action for the press and for the public, because I became very worried about the state of democracy and how the media and the press was playing its role in that.

Q. Looking back on your career, what are some of the things you are most proud of?

A. The thing that means the most to me is having been the top editor of my hometown daily, the Buffalo News. It was something I did for more than 12 years, and that was an incredible honor. It was very difficult. It was challenging, and I think it’s such an important role, especially when you have a close tie to the community that you’re in. And that’s not to say that I didn’t think it was a great opportunity to be at The New York Times as public editor or that I didn’t love being at the Post. But the one that gets me where I live is having been the editor in Buffalo.


Q. In some of those early chapters, you end up calling out some of your old co-workers and bosses. Was it scary to attach people’s names to some of these anecdotal experiences?

A. Yes, it does give one pause. But at the same time, if you’re going to write a meaningful memoir, you can’t make it soft and sugary. You have to be willing to say what really happened. So I figured I should do that, and I did.

Q. What is the biggest shift you’ve observed in journalism norms and ethics over the course of your career?

A. Journalists being so much on social media has given rise to all kinds of issues and questions. And the question of how much news reporters should express their views is one that was an issue when I was a reporter myself, and when I was in Buffalo as an editor, but not like now.

Q. For the past several decades, overall trust in American institutions has declined, but declining trust in newsrooms has been particularly dramatic. What are some of the factors that led to this shift?

A. What I hear from news consumers, also known as citizens, is “I wish all you people would stop trying to put your opinion into your coverage. We want just the facts.” And I understand why people say that, and at the same time, I also know that what drives the most engagement and seems to interest people the most is not that, but it is stuff that either underscores their own point of view or creates outrage or is argumentative. So I think the idea that the press is biased bothers people. They’re convinced that that’s the case. And yet they tend to seek out things that actually confirm their own biases. So that’s kind of a problem.


Q. In your book, you talk about how, unlike in previous periods of history, Americans no longer share a consensus on the basic facts on many political issues and historical events. Do you have suggestions for how to return to a common basis of reality?

A. It’s a really big problem. The key problem that I see at the intersection of the news media and democracy right now is we don’t seem to share a common ground of reality. And it’s very hard to have a self-governing nation that works when there are huge numbers of people who believe things that aren’t true, for example, that the 2020 election was stolen, and that elections in general are rigged.

As far as how to recover from it, I lay out in the book four paths, none of which are sufficient by themselves. Among them are shoring up local news, which is more trusted and does give people a grounding in reality. Teaching news literacy in schools or even to adults, so that people know what is valid and what is fake out there. I think the news media could help itself by reorienting itself toward more of a public interest model, rather than the kind of palace intrigue horse-race model that we tend to see so much of in politics journalism. And then trying to tell our story better, trying to be more transparent with the public about how we function, how we gather the news, how we make decisions. Even if you did them all beautifully, I don’t think that it would return the public to the state it was in in the mid ‘70s, where some 75 percent of the public thought that the news media was trustworthy and doing a pretty good job. That’s never coming back.


Q. What are some of the biggest recurring mistakes you see journalists making when attempting to battle misinformation?

A. Repeating the lie. Even if the intention is to debunk it, often it ends up actually bolstering it, because the way propaganda works is through repetition. And so if you repeat the falsehood, even in an attempt to fact-check it, you are actually probably helping those who are spreading the misinformation.

Q. In the book, you mention several examples when reporters and editors at the Times were resistant to your suggested improvements or constructive criticism. What did you make of that response?

A. I think it’s human nature to not enjoy criticism, even when the criticism is well-intentioned or constructive. It’s particularly hard when this is criticism that’s being aired in the very pages or on the very website of the news organization that you work for. I was sometimes a tough critic, but I always did think about what it was like to be on the receiving end of it. It didn’t modify my stance too much, but I was aware that that is no fun.

Q. You mention the maxim “no crying in newsrooms” a few times throughout the book, and I really appreciated how honest you were about the fact that that has not been your experience. Why did you feel that those anecdotes were important to include?

A. I don’t know that I thought it was important. I just thought it was notable. When you’re doing work you really care about and things happen — whether you have an argument with somebody, or the work is challenged in some way that’s painful, or whatever it is that comes up — I don’t think it’s actually all that weird to react emotionally to it. And for some of us, that means crying. I don’t think I cried like once a year or anything like that, but probably at least once a decade. So I don’t know, did I think it was important? I guess I was trying to be forthcoming in this memoir, and to say what really happened, and those were some things that really happened.

Q. Do you have any advice for young people, and young women especially, who are trying to break into this field?

A. I encourage those people because I think it’s a great field. I think it’s really enjoyable. You are constantly learning; it’s never boring. You have to be willing to have some tough times, you have to be willing to move around from job to job more than in the past. You may have to do some kinds of work that you don’t love in order to advance. Then I advise people, when they can, to work in an organization whose leadership they really respect.

Q. Any last thoughts?

A. Journalism really matters, and staying informed and being an engaged citizen really matters. I get a little upset when I hear people say, “I’m tuning out the news, it’s too negative, I can’t stand it anymore.” I think we have an obligation to stay informed and to support journalism and to support journalists by subscribing, by contributing, and by caring about the journalism that we admire. So that’s my call to action for the public.

Interview was edited and condensed.

Maya Homan can be reached at maya.homan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @MayaHoman.