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Less Horace Greeley, more Oprah Winfrey.

As the editorial forum heats up, Web surfers may let editorials down.

Coffee people, a Northwest java house chain, decorates its paper cups with witty, sometimes obscure messages. The espresso mocha I bought on my way to work today came with this bit of wisdom:

"You have the right to form your own opinions. You may even have the right to address the nation tonight during the dinner hour. Check local listings."

That statement of the future of the editorial page is as succinct as I have ever read. The fact that it came not from Neil Postman or Geneva Overholser or any other great media critic, but from some anonymous coffee cup copywriter somewhere, makes it all the more persuasive. Electronic communication - in particular, the World Wide Web - makes it possible for anyone anywhere to address the nation tonight during the dinner hour, or at any other time.

Our editorial pages had better learn how to be part of this democratization of media, or the Web surfers will leave us to drown.

I'm not among those predicting the death of ink-on-paper at the hands of the Internet. I'm convinced, though, that electronic media will radically change the way newspaper editorial pages function.

In essence, we're all destined to become much more Web-like in the next few years. It's no secret why. Imagine an editorial page that allows for instant feedback - readers can fire off a letter and see it appear in print within moments; an editorial page with infinite news hole - available space that expands as the events of the day warrant. Envision an editorial page with a continuous publication cycle - editorials and columns updated minute by minute as the news progresses; an editorial page giving a reader exactly as much information as he or she wants, including whole libraries of background data and cross-references to previous articles on particular topics.

Pay a visit to any of the Web's better online forums - such as The Boston Globe ( or Cafe Utne ( - and you'll see that this magical editorial page already exists. These forums are the letters columns of the future: a cross between editorial pages, talk radio, and a casual chat across the neighbor's fence.

Moreover, they're divided by subject, which means political junkies don't have to wade through discussion of Madonna's pregnancy to get to the latest speculation about Vince Foster's death, and vice versa.

Such organization creates virtual communities, electronic gatherings of far-flung correspondents with common interests. If the traditional editorial page is the equivalent of Hyde Park's Speakers Corner, where strangers gather to debate the issues of our times, Cafe Utne is more like the neighborhood pub, the place where everybody knows your name - and, before long, your ideology.

So how do we make editorial pages more, um, pub-like? Perhaps the letters column should be organized by theme (Monday politics, Tuesday education, Wednesday culture). Certainly we must offer readers more avenues of entry into print - e-mail, fax, and phone-in comments generate participation from people who would never dream of mailing in a letter.

And timely publication becomes ever more critical: With online debates raging 24 hours a day, a three-week delay before a letter hits print is practically an insult.

How does the editorial column itself figure into this brave new world? Not so well, I think. Increasingly, newspaper editorial staffs are going to be preoccupied with moderating the forum, giving readers opportunities to sound off and connect with one another. They will find less time and even less call - for anonymous, institutional proclamations.

I'm not ready to join Spokane, St. Paul, and others in abandoning the traditional editorial column, but I do think that in coming years our job will owe less to Horace Greeley and more to Oprah Winfrey. For those who can't cope with the shift, there's always work writing witty sayings for coffee cups.

What do you see as the greatest challenge to editorial writing in the next 10 years? The next 50 years?

Editorials will be around 50 years from now - although newspapers will not be. Instead, consumers will have screens about the size and thickness of a standard sheet of letter paper. They will have on their wrists a small computer a little larger than a wrist watch. Each morning, they will download the newspaper (or whatever else they want to read) into their wrist computers. The computers will be tied to those paper-like screens - perhaps without wires - and when readers want to turn a page, they will simply tap a button on the computer. Consumers will have access to countless sources for raw information - some accurate, some not. They will learn to identify and search for those sources in which they have confidence. Sources with solid, ongoing commitment to reasoned editorials will develop strong followings.


The sorry state of the American newspaper's survival.


I won't, but informed opinion will still have its place in all communication forms.


Preserving civil discourse as opposed to violence-inciting polarization.


There will still be newspaper editorials 50 years from now - provided editorial writers make every effort to resist writing exclusively about Washington and put the same kind of effort into breaking down and analyzing local news that the D.C. press corps puts into scrutinizing national affairs.


Broadening the editorial format to accommodate the new media.


Staying up to date and relevant amid the explosion of online services.


Being able to offend people without having corporate owners cringe.


The bottom-line obsessions of management that continue to erode quality and water down standards.


To continue the essential thread - leading public discussion - through whirlwinds of change.


The more opinionated and biased stories become, the less reason we have to offer a formal opinion section. Editorial pages once spoke with the authority of the institution. Those that still do are healthy; but those that are becoming debating societies of sub-editors, or, worse, tools of whatever community voice chooses to apply pressure, are a pale shadow of what editorial work once was. Chain ownership tends to separate the power from the voice, weakening the voice.


NCEW member Michael Zuzel is an editorial writer for The Columbian in Vancouver, Wash., and edits the newspaper's op-ed page.
COPYRIGHT 1996 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:The Masthead Symposium: The Future.; includes public opinion on the challenges facing editorial writing; implications of Internet writings on editorial columns
Author:Zuzel, Michael
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Sep 22, 1996
Previous Article:Journalism organizations get organized.
Next Article:To win young readers, fire them up.

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