Reading editorials for a living.
Oliver Trager probably reads more editorials than anyone else in the country.
It's his job.
Trager sifts through hundreds of editorials each week to find the 200 or so that he will publish twice a month in the journal Editorials on File. He has served as managing editor of Editorials on File for the past 15 years.
"I'm a one-man show," he said in a recent interview from his office in New York City. "I do everything, short of paste-up."
Not surprisingly, Trager has some strong thoughts about the craft of editorial writing at the dawn of the 21st century. To put it bluntly, he's worried. Editorial writing in America is too "stodgy," he said. Rather than suggesting original ideas on issues, too many newspaper editorials offer merely "shades of difference in their opinions."
"There's a great deal of redundancy," he said. "Editorial pages have not kept up with the times."
The reason for the increasing blandness that Trager detects? "It's the incredible consolidation of the press," he said. "It doesn't bode well for the future of debate in this country."
He spoke admiringly of the Italian newspapers he read during a recent European jaunt. Those newspapers offered real diversity: He read a socialist newspaper, a communist newspaper, and a near-fascist newspaper.
But Trager does admire two characteristics of American editorials: "their tradition and authority."
Newspapers have undergone enormous change, but editorials have remained a constant, he said. They're a crucial part of a respected tradition of newspapers looking out for the public good. And editorials still speak with much authority, influencing voters and political leaders.
He publishes about 64 pages of editorials in each issue of Editorials on File, which is part of the larger Facts on File company.
Typically, 10 topics are covered in each issue, with about 18 editorials on each topic.
There's "no formula" for choosing topics, he said. "They kind of choose themselves' based on the big issues of the day.
After deciding on a topic, Trager selects editorials that offer "as much political diversity as possible." He strives for balance.
Most of the editorials come from the 150 newspapers -- the majority are American, but some are Canadian -- that have a quid pro quo agreement with Trager: He receives copies of the newspapers' editorials and the newspapers receive free copies of Editorials on File.
In addition, Editorials on File, which has been published since 1970, has a paid circulation of about 600. The top subscribers: colleges and high schools.
Editorials are popular especially with high school debate teams as well as social studies and political science classes, Trager said.
Circulation of Editorials on File was as high as 1,500 a dozen years ago. The Internet and the subscription cost ($495 annually) are the primary reasons for the drop in circulation.
In addition to his work on the semi-monthly journal, he has edited 22 books of editorials on such topics as Medicare, abortion, and Social Security.
When not reading editorials, Trager writes books. In 1997, he wrote the American Book of the Dead: The Grateful Dead Encyclopedia. Two other Trager books soon will be published: biographies on Bob Dylan and Lord Buckley.
Trager said Editorials on File remains open to new editorials. Those who would like to establish an exchange agreement with Trager should call him at 212/896-4290. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
NCEW member Paul Hyde is associate editor of the editorial page of The Greenville News in South Carolina.