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Fleshing out the future.

Is the future in 3-D? Nick Anderson, editorial cartoonist for the Houston Chronicle, posted his first 3-D cartoon on the Chronicle's website in June, on the Supreme Court ruling on Texas redistricting.

Without 3-D, there might have been no Anderson at the Chronicle. The opportunity to do 3-D animation was his "deciding factor in accepting the job at the Chronicle," Anderson told Editor & Publisher. "It is an incredible opportunity to redefine the role of a staff cartoonist," he said.

The future of editorial pages might not be solely in 3-D, but it does lie in blogs, interactivity, and other ways that take advantage of the Internet. And it lies in reaching increasingly diverse audiences.

Naturally, it is tethered to the future of newspapers. But the catch is that editorial pages are different from the rest of the paper.

"What strikes me about most editorial pages is that they are both the most prime areas for reinvention and experimentation for newspapers, but also the place where such experimentation is least likely," Eric Deggans, media critic for The St. Petersburg Times, told me.

"They are read by the most traditional consumers of the newspaper, which helps explain the dynamic. But they also hold all the tradition of the newspaper, which makes editors less likely to change them or keep them vibrant," he said. Deggans served briefly on his editorial board before returning to his critic's perch.

Need we mention the pressure on the bottom line that has caused so much upheaval in our business?

"It appears that editorial pages are working hard to meet their increasingly Republican stockholders and that newspapers, which have always been businesses, are so much more business-first now that they are forgetting their mission--even on the editorial page," said one columnist, who wasn't ready to be named.

"I've never been asked to write something, and I've never been called off anything, but I get more hints than I ever did about how, one day, it might be possible that I'll agree with George Bush on something. And that wasn't from the editorial page editor. It was higher," this columnist said.

In March, the opinion column by Lewis Diuguid, which was running twice a week in The Kansas City Star, was reduced to once a week to help achieve more "balance" on the pages, according to editorial page editor Miriam Pepper. She told me her page was perceived as left-leaning, and "we live in a very divided community."

The Census Bureau tells us that the non-Hispanic white population is projected to decline in the 2040s and will be composed of just 50.1 percent of the total population in 2050, compared with 69.4 percent in 2000. The American Society of Newspaper Editors, aware of the projections, has set as a goal that by 2025 or sooner, "[a]t a minimum, all newspapers should employ journalists of color and every newspaper should reflect the diversity of its community."

In San Francisco, already a "majority minority" city, San Francisco Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein notes that 30 percent of the population in the city proper is Asian.

Along with hiring members of that broad ethnic group, it is also important to reflect the various Asian communities, he said. That's where newspaper websites come in. They can be used to increase "community involvement in the paper," group by group, according to Bronstein.

The website of the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina, a pioneer in this area, features eleven staff-written weblogs. There's a page for reader-submitted articles and another for letters to the editor, as Editor & Publisher reported.

News & Record editor John Robinson said, "You go hunting where the ducks are flying; right now they're flying on the Web."

As more newspapers are realizing, the Web offers room for additional commentary, some of it targeted, that can't fit in the printed product.

That may be what the next generation is looking for. A survey of more than 7,500 people released in June by Y2M: Youth Media and Marketing Networks, a Boston-based company that provides "content management" for 450 college newspapers, found that undergraduates want to see more "convergence": Forty-eight percent want video/vodcasts, and 45 percent want blogs on their online campus papers.

"In the world of blogs, the numbers of readers are small, but intense," Mark Trahant, editorial page editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, said. "I think we can learn from the intensity part of what they do--while still attracting mass audience."

"One way we've tried to do that," he said, "is with the Virtual Editorial Board. We tell readers what we're writing, what angle, who's writing the piece, and open up a dialogue before we print a word. We also use this as a way to get instant letters to the editor, so a reader letter can challenge one of our editorials in print on the same day. It's also a way for professionals (PR people, government public affairs, etc.) to match online the positions they disagree with.

"I think this is part of transparency--but still pushing sharp opinions."

Jim Brady, editor of the highly successful washingtonpost.com, agrees.

"The Web allows for an immediate dialogue with the audience, and opinion pieces clearly attract the most attention," he said.

"In a newspaper, the publication of the article is the last step in the process; on the Web, the publication of the piece needs to be the first step in the process," said Brady.

"There's a dialogue that starts upon publication, and the conversation about a piece can go on for days and weeks, and along the way, the writer may develop new thinking on an issue, develop new sources, story ideas, etc. For sites like washingtonpost.com, the goal is not only to publish the article, but to host the subsequent conversation about that piece. And I do think smart newspapers will start to foster that conversation in the printed edition in a more substantial way than they do today through letters to the editor, etc.," he said.

"I do think there will be a large increase in animated op-ed content, but I don't see the animations replacing the editorial cartoons that run in papers today, any more than Web video will replace great photography," he continued. "But the popularity of the JibJab animations for the 2004 elections seemed to kick off a new era in animations, and while the number of sites doing this kind of work remains small, it is increasing.

"As for blogs, I tend to view them as more of a format than a content type. What blogs do really well is allow for community-building around a subject, or more specifically in this case, around a columnist. An example of this is PostGlobal (http://blog.washingtonpost.com/ postglobal/), where David Ignatius and Fareed Zakaria have created a very interesting three-tiered conversation. They are the hosts. They have recruited a panel of journalists from around the world who weigh in on topics of interest.

"Additionally, readers can weigh in on the subject. It's a very interesting model, one that's gotten almost universal kudos from around the Web. I think this kind of project will be prevalent on the web in the next few years."

There is a caveat from Trahant at the Post-Intelligencer, however:

"We have to work harder at making our pages reflect the complexity and diversity of the nation," he said. "That may be the most important challenge going forward--balancing gender, ethnicity, ideology, geography, religion, class, generations...."

3-D? Perhaps not. But the dimension that will hold and attract readers? Let's see.

Richard Prince, co-chair of the NCEW Diversity Committee, writes the online media diversity column for the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. E-mail richardprince@ hotmail.com
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Title Annotation:SYMPOSIUM: The future of our opinions; newspapers
Author:Prince, Richard
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2006
Words:1282
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