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Letting go of daily editorials.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press leaves behind daily editorials for more depth and impact.

Opinion pages without editorials? Not so in most daily newspapers in the United States. But at the St. Paul Pioneer Press in Minnesota, a 147-year-old newspaper that is part of Knight-Ridder, your daily edition may not have any editorials. Instead, you may see a special bylined report or piece of analysis by an editorial writer, a pro/con package, a cartoon package, a roundup of syndicated columnists on a single topic, or other variations.

We broke with tradition on a trial basis during December 1995 and for good on January 1, 1996. Reprinted below are edited excerpts from a column I wrote as editorial page editor on December 31, 1995, explaining the changes and our rationale.

I used to think newspapers had a moral duty to publish at least one editorial in every issue. Newspapers that shirked that obligation brought shame upon themselves for abdicating their responsibility to lead, to set an agenda, to provoke public discussion of issues.

I no longer feel that way. Others on the editorial board of this newspaper also have changed their minds. We now see that we have other opportunities to shape, mold, and lead public opinion than by writing daily editorials.

To get right to the point, we are changing priorities for how we use the time of our editorial page staff and the space on these pages. Here are the key points of our new concept:

* We will explore and use other ways to invigorate the discussion of public issues besides writing daily editorials. We will produce editorials when we think the facts or situation warrant, and when we have something we strongly desire to say as a newspaper. We will not write editorials simply to fill space or to uphold tradition.

Does that mean one, two, three days a week without editorials? We won't have a firm schedule. We'll be flexible, writing editorials as circumstances seem to dictate.

* Our editorial writers will dig deeper into important subjects that require more illumination, analysis, and informed opinion. Sometimes they will acquaint you with important topics before they become big news. Their findings and views may appear as extended editorials or signed reports. Our goal will be to bring added value to the debate on public issues, not just to react to what others are saying and doing.

* The design of our pages will be dictated more often by content rather than by tradition and consistency.

* We will find increasing opportunities to present two or more views on a topic, such as in the pro/con or point/counterpoint format.

* We will welcome more local writers to our pages.

* We will encourage our editorial writers to work with the community, where appropriate, in the search for solutions to tough public problems.

Rich legacy

While editorials have trended toward anonymity all this century, we editorial writers inherited a culture that said the editorials we wrote were the most important content on our opinion pages. Many of us equated part of our self-worth as journalists with the wisdom and authority we brought to this form of anonymous writing. We felt it not only our duty, but also our calling to offer our take on events of the day, in hopes of making a difference.

Historically important as it has been, editorial writing nevertheless has limitations. For one thing, we try to distill most topics we write about into 200 to 500 words, whether that's reasonable or not. For another, our custom is to produce one or two editorials a day, whether or not we have anything that urgently needs saying. Some newspapers turn out three, four, even five editorials a day.

In sticking to that schedule, we sometimes write simply to fill space. If honest, most newspaper editorialists would admit this. It's a dirty little secret of our craft. When there's a hole to fill and you're an hour from deadline, you suddenly find you have opinions on topics you knew little or cared little about.

Still another limitation is tied to the diversity of our eight-member editorial board.

On many topics, we defer to the expertise of a specialist in our group. But at other times either we have no specialist or others may disagree with the specialist. Then, we are torn between expressing a watered-down consensus view, or a hard-hitting and clearly written opinion that essentially thumbs its nose at dissenters on the board.

Many readers have requested bylined editorials. But we have decided against it. We think printing the writer's name does a disservice to individual writers and to the newspaper.

Because editorials are part of a group process, the opinions that emerge do not neatly coincide with those of the writer. Editorials often represent compromises by the writer. Further, with a byline on an editorial, readers would naturally be tempted to conclude that the opinions are those only of one person and not of the institution. That would cheapen the weight of the newspaper's opinions.

While we'll still have unsigned editorials, we will have fewer of them.

Several developments have helped change our views about the importance of daily editorials. First, during the Persian Gulf War, we decided temporarily to suspend publication of editorials on Saturdays to make more room for the hundreds of letters we were receiving. Surprise! Readers did not storm the doors demanding that we restore editorials. So that Saturday experiment became permanent after the war.

Then we started detaching staff members on special projects that yielded a series of reports and took several days, weeks, or months to complete. Readers liked those projects and wanted more; we could see the projects were having an impact in the community and with decision-makers beyond what one or more editorials on the topic would have produced.

In addition, as opinions - in various forms, including letters and editorial cartoons - continued spreading throughout the pages of our newspaper and others, we saw our franchise eroding. We asked ourselves what unique contribution we could make in the future to readers.

Meanwhile, our understanding and appreciation of the value of opinions from readers and other writers, either syndicated or local freelancers, continued to deepen. We accepted that on some days, the most important content on our pages was not the editorials we wrote, but what others had to say. Readers especially liked it when we produced pro/con match-ups, or point/counterpoint.

Finally, in early 1993, we asked a small group of respected newsroom and editorial page staffers to examine our opinion pages and recommend improvements. One key suggestion: Use unsigned editorials more judiciously. Save them for issues that particularly call for an institutional response. The group also encouraged more use of signed pieces by editorial writers.

What conclusions could we draw from these random developments and soundings? If we were to reinvent ourselves, how should we change to produce better opinion pages?

We've debated those questions for months, and come to the conclusions presented here.

NCEW member Ron Clark is editorial page editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
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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Author:Clark, Ron
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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