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Readers go for sports and ... what?

With the collapse of communism and the decline of McCarthyism, we are compelled to find new definitions for "un-American." As a start: If you don't enjoy abusing umpires and editorial writers, you're un-American. Especially if you work in a newsroom.

Even editorial writers do it. The name chosen for the convention of the National Conference of Editorial Writers last fall was Dweeb Fest '92. Convention posters showed rows of identical, bald, horn-rimmed, nerd-like beings.

Every newspaper reporter knows nobody reads the editorials. They are written by former reporters whose legs have gone, and whose minds are now going. Some are former editors, banished to offices along the Boulevard of Broken Dreams (as one editorial department I remember was called).

Bill Baker, until recently a vice president of Knight-Ridder, baited the editorial page people at Dweeb Fest '92, quoting a comment made to someone moving from the news side to the editorial department: "At least you don't have to make it interesting."

Okay. Editorial writers are fair game. Many of them even have offices. That makes them especially susceptible to shots from the newsroom.

The conviction that people don't read editorial pages is so much a part of the journalist's culture that it defies all evidence to the contrary. Editorial writers themselves often share the newsroom view that only a few dull folks, probably intellectuals, read that stuff.

John C. Harper, vice president of the research firm Belden Associates, says he was surprised at how much reaction he had from editorial page editors and writers at the Dweeb Fest when he spoke about readership. What got their attention was his assertion that the editorial pages fall right in the middle in readership figures for various departments of the newspaper.

He declared this unspeakable truth: Editorial pages' readership is right there alongside sports, the comics, lifestyle sections and food pages: lower than readership for the front page and the main news pages, higher than readership for the business pages and some other major segments of the paper.

What? As high as the sports pages?

Yes, yes. The main reason is simple. Editorial pages attract women and men about equally. Sports pages don't. Neither do business pages, fashion pages and many other parts of the paper. (About four out of five readers of the sports pages are men, Harper says.)

But these people don't really read the editorials, do they? Yes, yes: more than they read the editorial page columnists, for instance.

The most comprehensive review of editorial page readership ever done was by Maxwell McCombs and Elsa Mohn. Combining the results of more than 60 independent surveys, it appeared in 1981 in the Masthead, published by the editorial writers. It showed just what Harper and others have found in more recent years.

More than one-third of newspaper readers were found to be "regular" consumers of the editorial pages, with almost three-fourths "usually" reading those pages. Editorial cartoons and letters to the editor were the best-read items. The unsigned editorials were next. The columnists came last.

But a journalist who admits to believing all this is likely to be suspended from the tribe. It's just plain taboo.
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Title Annotation:high level of readership for editorial pages
Author:Cleghorn, Reese
Publication:American Journalism Review
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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