Editorial pages must change to help save journalism: blow up the ivory tower: kill the unsigned editorial.
So what does this mean for editorial page editors and writers?
Very simply, change or die.
It's not that today's editorial pages aren't good. By the long-accepted standards used by newspapers to ascertain quality work, editorial pages may be better today than they have ever been: more local commentary, good writing, a lively mix of well-known political commentators.
But it's not good enough to simply get better at what worked in the past. No, the challenge today for editorial pages and their staffs is to be good at what audiences want in 2010--and beyond.
The year 2010 will be the watershed year. That's the year the Baby Boomers officially relinquish their role as the dominant cultural and political cohort in America. Beginning in 2010, and forever more, the generation that currently supervises most newsroom and editorial boards will begin a steep decline in influence. Gen Y, the next generation of news consumers, citizens, and journalists, will be in the ascent.
And their worldview and media expectations will be profoundly different from what many newspaper editorial pages offer today. To meet those expectations twenty-first-century editorial pages must be different in three essential ways:
* Different mix of people. That means younger people. No more using the editorial board as a place to reward/plant/retire earlier generations of editors from other departments. No more pages dominated by old warhorses from the Vietnam Era, Watergate Era, or even Civil Rights Era. That's ancient history. Today's editorial staffs and worldview must look ahead to the stories, concerns, and challenges of a twenty-first-century generation. Yes, there is value of maintaining some institutional memory and wisdom from earlier eras on the editorial pages--and throughout the newsroom. But the world is looking forward, and speeding up, and editorial pages, and the entire newsroom, must do the same.
* Different technology and delivery. Forget the fifteen-inch unsigned editorial. It's passe, if not dead. To succeed in the twenty-first century, pages need to start from scratch and build a package of commentary and opinion that shares its messages through digital tools that will dominate media in the decade ahead. This means daily podcasts, text messages to cell phones, video commentary, and a Facebook strategy.
* Different relationship to community. Blow up the ivory tower and ban the editorial "we." It's not about the anonymous editorial boards dictating to the community anymore. That's over. In the twenty-first century, the key to influencing the public and political process will depend on how well editorial boards engage a fractured, diverse, and often uninterested collection of community interests. The next editorial page editor should take a note from TV evangelists and the best online bloggers. Editorial page editors must be personalities, provocateurs, and preachers for the First Amendment. They are alternately engaging and inspiring and always seeking community feedback. The words and opinions offered up need to be quickly and routinely critiqued by the community.
What happens when you put this all together? Here's a peek at the next editorial board nested inside the next newsroom.
The desks increasingly will be occupied by young, Web-savvy personalities--who aren't there much. No more will the editorial board be chained to the telephone.
Instead, the editorial board is out and about at listening posts set up in coffee shops, schools, and retirement centers.
Back in the office, the workday for the editorial board involves hosting online conversations, blogging, and tapping into social networks to gather feedback and convene community discussions.
And, the opinion writers work directly with citizen contributors. Together, they help shape the master narratives of what the community, or various communities of interest, can do to empower, not discourage, those who live in a place.
It must be that different. Change or die.
Why continue anonymous editorials?
A lively discussion ensues by NCEW members
EDITOR'S NOTE: Jim Boren of the The Fresno Bee touched off a fascinating, if occasionally flinty list-serve discussion that inspired this issue's theme. Here is his post and a small sampling of the comments:
A news editor asked me why we should have "anonymous editorials" that purport to speak for every employee of our newspaper. The suggestion is that editorials, as the institutional voice of the paper, are so last century. Why not have plenty of opinion material signed by individuals and do away with editorials entirely?
Karen Nolan, The Reporter, Vacaville, California: I thought editorials spoke for the publisher--you know, the person who buys ink by the barrel--and not every employee of the newspaper. But then, I've mostly worked for family-owned newspapers.
Mary Pitman Kitch, The Oregonian: Because the paper can still do great good by wrestling with an issue and speaking with one voice on it. An individual can speak up, too, certainly, but an individual's voice doesn't carry as much force for good. It's that simple.
Dick Hughes, The Statesman Journal, Salem, Oregon: The editorials don't purport to speak for every employee, only the editorial board. Why have city council votes? Or endorsements/recommendations by the local Chamber of Commerce? Or any group decisions? There is a role for a group, or institutional, opinion on the matters at hand.
Ed Williams, The Charlotte Observer: I'm not suggesting a bias here, but it does seem a bit like asking Hugh Hefner if we should do away with nude photos.
Pete Kohler, Cablevision: This discussion reminds me of a time back in the late 1980s when I was working as an executive in the broadcast group of a big media company, best known for its newspapers. The broadcast business was in a slump at the time, related to a recession as I recall. As the corporate staff visited with station general managers asked to make big budget cuts, three stations all came up with the same solution: they would eliminate editorials. At the time, two big market stations and one smaller station had editorial directors, and each scheduled editorials frequently. What continues to amaze me about the experience is that no one questioned what might be lost in doing away with editorials. Of course, broadcasters never had the editorial tradition of newspapers. But no one could come up with a business reason--myself included--for continuing editorials (though in one case the very capable editorial spokesman for one of the bigger stations was reassigned to run public affairs programming). My guess is the same business logic could apply to newspapers as well. Editorial writers need to keep asking whether they are bringing value to the business that employs them. We don't sell ads. It's hard to say that editorials improve circulation/ penetration. But editorial writers do represent costs.
Doug MacEachern, The Arizona Republic: My guess is that editorials will cease being a valuable tool for the newspaper and its community when the procession of mayors, other politicians, advocacy groups, neighborhood activists, Washington lobbyists, and individuals with really interesting ideas stop knocking on our door asking us to take up their causes. Until then I'm just going to assume that they know something that news editors who want to turn edit pages into blogs don't.
Royal Calkins, The Monterey County Herald: Among my many fears is that with the dumbing down of the local news reports because of shrinking newsrooms, readers will have less and less reason to believe that "we" know what we're talking about in editorials. And in a bit of a tangent, how many of us are comfortable these days with the quality of the research that goes into endorsements for local political offices, especially school boards and other special district seats? (And, BTW, who told young reporters that stories on local elections are supposed to be insipid?) Soon, if it is not so already, our more astute readers will be reading editorials merely for entertainment, not enlightenment.
Alan Cochrum, Fort Worth Star-Telegram: On the other (more cynical) hand, a subscriber who reads us merely for entertainment makes Circulation just as happy as one who reads us for enlightenment.
Susan Parker, The Daily Times, Salisbury, Maryland: The important thing about unsigned editorials is that they reflect the input of several people, not necessarily just the writer. If I had to sign editorials I write, often my name would be attached to opinions with which I disagree to varying degrees. I find the input to be valuable. Sometimes I learn aspects of an issue I never would have considered on my own. Occasionally I change my mind after a good discussion with other editors. They're not passe, and it should be clear to any reader that the "our view" or whatever it's called is a group compilation or consensus.
Matt Neistein, The Tampa Tribune: Susan echoes a point many people have made: a group opinion is better--perhaps not better, but more useful, reasoned, etc.--than that of an individual. Assuming that's true, the follow-up question is, why is the editorial board's opinion any more important or worthwhile than any other group's opinion? I'm trying to play the cynical reader/devil's advocate here. If the point of all this is to convince someone why editorial board opinions are worthwhile, then you don't have to sell them on the concept of opinion so much as the value of the editorial board's opinion versus anyone else's.
Why aren't the eight retired guys who have met at the coffee shop every morning for the last twenty-five years--who are arguably as passionate and informed about the community as the editorial board--offered the same platform and implied importance as the board? Why do we hold our collective opinion to be of more value than anyone else's?
I submit the same sentiment I offered yesterday: "Because we can."
Dennis Mangan, The Vindicator, Youngstown, Ohio: Why do police reporters get to walk up to fire Chiefs, homicide detectives, and coroner's investigators and ask questions while the fire is still smoldering or the body still warm? The man in the street doesn't get to do that. Why does a politics reporter get a seat on the campaign bus or plane? Why does the restaurant critic get to say the polenta was supermarket mush or the salad wilted? Why does the sports reporter get to sit in the press box, out of the rain and snow? Because the public (which may resent some privileges given reporters) still recognizes that the reporters are just doing their jobs. If the eight guys down at the coffee shop get to sit down with a U.S. senator for an hour, ask well-researched questions, and condense it down to twelve readable column inches, feel free to turn column one on the editorial page over to them.
Matt Neistein, The Tampa Tribune: With all due respect, those are a lot of arguments for reporters on the scene. What percentage of editorials are generated by such on-the-scene reporting? In my admittedly brief experience, a large majority of editorials are done via research and phone calls and doublechecking.
... For all of you wondering why the young snotnose traitor is being so difficult, I'm just looking for ways for all of us to create value and brand ourselves as necessary to both the paper and the reader.
When I sit down with the cynics and skeptics, I want to be able to tell them why we do what we do and why it's important without falling back on the old cliches that don't hold half the water they used to. If NCEW's going to reinvent itself for the new media landscape, it's going to have to justify its existence in that landscape as well.
Herb Field, The Patriot News, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: I am old enough and naive enough to still believe that a strong editorial voice serves as the conscience of the community and region it serves. It is a voice that, when the occasion warrants, reflects community outrage, as it did here in Harrisburg in response to the TMI accident. It is a voice that prods the community to do better, as we regularly do in calling for more effective land-use planning and a regional commuter-rail network. It is a voice that points a finger at injustice and the downtrodden, as we did in criticizing the prosecution of Altoona parents who believed in the power of prayer to heal their sick children. It is a voice that pokes fun at power, as we've done numerous times at the expense of our long-serving mayor, who this week is watching his nearly $8-million collection of Western and American Indian artifacts, bought with city money for a "Museum of the Old West" he quietly planned, be auctioned off in Dallas. And it is voice that calls attention to the future and its challenges with editorials on subjects such as building maglev train systems and preparing for "peak oil."
Dan Radmacher, The Roanoke Times: Matt's right, of course: "Because we can" is the the overriding answer. But it doesn't go far enough. It's also because our newspaper owns the platform and because someone in charge of that newspaper saw enough merit in the talent and skill of each individual on the editorial board to hire them all and pay them to produce this work daily. If those retired guys want to buy a newspaper, or start a second career as editorial writers, more power to them.
Otherwise, they're free to start a blog and see how their opinions fare in the marketplace of ideas.
George Duncan, Daily News Record, Harrisonburg, Virginia: My Monday editorial had about ninety-seven-plus comments from bloggers, readers, vocal critics, and a host of the usual suspects. So we can attract bloggers.
They may be competitors but they are also readers. Our Web editor told me a short time ago that the traffic on our editorial page is the heaviest of the paper. So we can live with this new-fangled technology. It's true some of the more fanatical commentators don't have a sense of humor but....
Frank Partsch, Omaha, retired: True, but heretofore, a certain amount of credibility--authority, if you will--accrued to institutions with a timeless role in the community and a financial stake that could be jeopardized by lapses in judgment or professionalism.
It is also true that any group of grumpy old guys at the coffee shop can draft an opinion, and that their opinion is as valid as any other. If theirs is consistently wiser and more compelling than that of an institution with a timeless role and financial stake, the readers, in their wisdom will surely flock to them. We do not, or should not, claim to have views or procedures that are more valid. We also place our product before the readers to be judged.
Ron Dzwonkowski, Detroit Free Press: The unsigned editorial is the voice of a concerned community institution, a local business that, in addition to trying to make money, has a mission enshrined in the Constitution to serve as an independent watchdog on government and public policy. The editorial voice--a product of consensus that is not always what the writer would say were he or she speaking as an individual should carry more weight than an individual's column or blog. At times, the institutional voice will cause some grief for those who are employees of the institution but not involved in its editorials. When they grouse about that, I invite them to join any and all of our editorial board meetings and influence the process. Some even do.
Lanny Keller, The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana: The editorial board is what the sociologist Robert Bellah called a mediating structure, a way that an editorial page retains some continuity even in an age of chain newspapers. If the publisher is a highly regarded circulation director from USA Today who gets a promotion, who is there to explain to him or her what the issues are, what the community needs--or at worst, keep his ego in check for a while until he learns he's not crowned philosopher-king? It's something useful, but I don't know if it's the sort of useful thing that will be written up in the civics books as a good practice.
Dennis Mangan, The Vindicator, Youngstown, Ohio: It is not surprising that a news editor would question the value of editorials; increasingly, it seems, news-side editors are driven by a belief in their own ability to gauge what readers want--based on meetings, surveys, meetings, Web-hit reports, and more meetings. Perhaps your news editor is an exception.
Good editorials are not in danger of being killed by such "why do we need them" questions. But editorials are endangered by a growing institutional desire not to offend--on the editorial page or anywhere else. The eventual result is a daily succession of gutless editorials that certainly don't offend but don't do much else either. If and when that happens, the answer to the question, "Why do we have editorials?" becomes, "No reason."
Chris Peck is editor of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. He is on the board of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and is a past president of the Associated Press Managing Editors. Email: peck@ commercialappeal.com
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|Title Annotation:||MASTHEAD SYMPOSIUM|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2008|
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