What Is an Editorial Board?

In an effort to shed more light on how we work, The Times is running a series of short posts explaining some of our journalistic practices. Read more from this series here.

The New York Times editorial board, established in 1896 by Adolph Ochs when he became the newspaper’s publisher, is currently composed of 14 writers and editors drawn from the Times Opinion department, which also includes opinion columnists, Op-Ed editors and others.

The Opinion department is independent of the Times newsroom, with a separate mission but the same standards for fact. The first anyone in the newsroom learned of the board’s editorial about the impeachment inquiry into President Trump, for instance, was when we posted it to The Times’s website.

The purpose of Times Opinion is to supply the wide-ranging debate about big ideas that a diverse democracy needs. Amid that debate, the role of the editorial board is to provide Times readers with a long-range view formed not by one person’s expertise and experience but ballasted by certain institutional values that have evolved across more than 150 years. That’s why the editorials, unlike other articles in The Times, appear without a byline.

I’ve always believed that strong institutions, like strong families, are meant to transmit principles across generations; the work of The Times’s editorial board has reflected the principles both of its members and of the Ochs-Sulzberger family, which has supplied the publishers who have overseen the board’s work — sometimes day to day, sometimes only on the occasion of momentous news — for five generations.

Because the role of the editorial board can be confusing, particularly to readers who don’t know The Times well, the board, in consultation with the current publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, has developed a statement of its guiding values, which include:

Arguing for “a world that is both free and fair”

Supporting a world order in which “freedom and progress advance through democracy and capitalism”

Guarding “against the excesses of those systems by promoting honest governance, civil rights, equality of opportunity, a healthy planet and a good life for society’s most vulnerable members”

Championing “what Adolph Ochs called ‘the free exercise of a sound conscience,’ believing that the fearless exchange of information and ideas is the surest means of resisting tyranny and realizing human potential”

The editorial board is an institutional voice, but it is not the voice of the institution as a whole. That’s a crucial distinction that often gets lost. The board doesn’t speak for the newsroom. How could it? The newsroom is made up of journalists whose own opinions vary, and whose job it is to set those opinions aside in the honest pursuit and presentation of the truth.

I happened to be a White House reporter for The Times during the impeachment inquiry into Bill Clinton. The board, then under Howell Raines, supported the inquiry (though not, in the end, the impeachment). I used to read those editorials and marvel at the crackle of the prose. But the editorials certainly didn’t speak for me or affect my reporting, and when the Clinton people complained to me from time to time about them, I’d just shrug and tell them to call Howell. No, I didn’t know the number.

The board meets at least twice each week to debate how to address significant questions in the news in accordance with positions it has taken over the decades. In general, it reaches its conclusions by consensus, though in matters where there is deep disagreement we sometimes have to call a vote.

We try to keep in mind the big questions we’ve gotten wrong in the past — such as opposing women’s suffrage — to cultivate some humility and caution. Who could know what arguments we think obvious today might be judged harshly by history.

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