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ARC Review: Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) From An Ink-Stained Life


Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) from an Ink-Stained Life by Margaret Sullivan

Margaret Sullivan has had a long career in print journalism. Born in Lackawanna, New York, Sullivan decided on a journalism career early on, inspired (like many of her peers) by the work of Woodward and Bernstein during the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. The year after Nixon’s resignation she became the editor in chief of her high school newspaper, and she never looked back. She went on to become a reporter for the Buffalo News, advancing to become its editor and vice president. After 32 years there she then became the public editor of the New York Times (NYT). And she recently retired as a media columnist for the Washington Post (her final column is here).  

In Newsroom Confidential Sullivan gives us an overview of her career. The book is part memoir, part critique of the current state of journalism, and part message to the next generation of journalists. Sullivan’s career has given her a unique perspective from which to critique today’s journalists and advise tomorrow’s. 

She has certainly seen enormous change in journalism. Local newspapers, like the Buffalo News where she spent so much of her career, faced difficult challenges as advertising moved from print to digital, and readers moved on to other sources. Budgets tightened every year and the number of journalists local papers could afford to employ fell. While some newsrooms have made the successful transition from paper only to online, others have struggled or closed.  

Her role as “public editor” at the NYT found her reporting directly to the Times chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. She brought 32 years of experience as a reporter and editor to a role that was the “reader’s representative”.  She was both a part of the Times, and apart from the reporting structure of the newspaper itself. Her role was to hold the paper to account to journalistic ethics.

At the Post as media columnist, she provided analysis and criticism of the news media over 5 years and 500 columns. Much of her criticism had to do with how the press handles threats to US democracy. In particular, Sullivan is concerned about the threat to US democracy that another run for President by Donald Trump would represent.

As in her columns, Sullivan brings a plain-spoken clarity and a bit of levity to the stories she tells in this book. Those stories follow Sullivan from chasing news and battling sexism in the newsroom in Buffalo, to the outsider / insider tension she felt in her role as public editor at the Times, to her criticisms of the current state of American journalism. The stories are episodic, with each chapter of the book feeling like its own extended newspaper column. The result is fast paced and enjoyable as well as informative. 

In an interview with Vanity Fair just before her retirement from the Post, Sullivan talked about this book, and also mentioned that there may be a fiction book in her future. She loves police procedurals and is said to be considering writing a series featuring a retired journalist who solves crimes! I’ll be looking forward to that.

RATING: Four Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐

NOTE: I received an advanced copy of this book from St Martin’s Press and NetGalley and am voluntarily providing this review. The book is available starting October 18, 2022.

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Title: Newsroom Confidential

Author: Margaret Sullivan

Publisher: St Martin’s Press

Publish Date: October 18, 2022

ISBN-13: 9781250281906

Publisher’s List Price: $28.99 Hardcover (as of 10/2022)