Awash in hogwash.
When the chief executive of one of the world's most successful magazines talks about readership, writers should listen.
And when NCEW members listened in Baltimore, the president of the National Geographic Society gave them this terse message:
More facts, please, said Reg Murphy, the Geographic Society's president since May and a former editorial writer.
Keep the opinions coming. Write with a flair that would draw an appreciative snort from that great Baltimore stylist, H.L. Mencken himself.
But buttress those opinions with facts, which you must mine from the earth with the reporter's pick and shovel: a notebook and pen.
"As we all travel around these days, it is easy to read editorials that contain virtually no facts," Murphy said.
"With very few exceptions, editorial writers seem to have abandoned the idea that they are reporters first. Some columnist a few years back told us his readers returned to his opinion pieces because they enjoyed watching his mind at work. Maybe - but I think they just want to know what time it is, not how to make the watch."
Murphy's newspaper experience includes stints as editor and publisher of the San Francisco Examiner, publisher of The Sun in Baltimore, and editorial page editor of The Atlanta Constitution. His topic, "The future of the editorial page," was timely in Baltimore: Over breakfast that morning, conventioneers had opened their Suns to a provocative but depressing op-ed piece on college students' indifference to editorial writing.
"Why they don't like to read editorials," the headline read.
Reg Murphy had an idea why. "The fact is your citizen/readers are overwhelmed and bewildered by the cacophony of arguments that beset us from all sides," he said. "The loudmouths of talk radio unimpeded by facts . . . the pretty faces on television who believe that the O.J. Simpson trial is the issue of the century . . . the politicians in red, white, and blue raiment proclaiming the verities."
The nation is "awash in hogwash," Murphy said. "And it pollutes the stream of reason and dialogue that was your strength for a century."
What to do?
"C.F. Scott of the Manchester Guardian said it a long time ago: 'Comment is free, but facts are sacred.'"
Back to basics
Reporting - knocking-on-doors, poring-through-documents reporting - sets successful publications apart, and that includes editorial pages, Murphy said.
"Don't tell us that violence is bad. Report on the five W's and the H of urban violence."
Don't gripe about slow growth in your region. Find out how your political leaders know about job creation and economic development.
"Some of you are thinking you don't have enough editorial writers to allow time for reporting. . . . Well, there is absolutely nothing that decrees that you have to fill those two left-hand columns every day. If there isn't enough time to write it all, give us somebody else's summary. There is nothing sacrosanct about every editorial being perfectly produced."
At the National Geographic Society, the gestation period from idea to printed page can stretch as long as two years. That makes life both harder and easier: harder in the challenge to stay timely, but easier in the focus the magazine then can bring to reporting facts.
The product that results is devoured by readers around the globe.
"What will be the future of editorial pages?" Murphy asked. "And newspapers, for that matter. They will, in the words of Faulkner, 'endure, and with the help of God, prevail.'"
But in the meantime, give me some reporting, he said. Some context. Some facts.
NCEW member Tom Dennis is an editorial writer for The Times Leader in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
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|Title Annotation:||writing editorials|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1996|
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