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The paper's community voice cannot be delegated to outsiders: outsourcing editorials could erode relationship with readers.

The late Ralph McGill of The Atlanta Constitution, one of the greatest editorial voices of the twentieth century and one of several Southern editors who won Pulitzer Prizes for their fearless denunciations of white supremacy, once asserted that editorial writers in an earlier era had played an important role even though they did not confront issues as profound as racism. They "spoke and wrote in the context of their times," he said.

"And, they had something to say. They caused people to say fervently, 'Amen,' or to shout an angry 'No'. They reached people. They participated in the lives of the people of their years."

McGill's point came to mind recently upon hearing that Michael Kinsley, while editor of the editorial pages of the Los Angeles Times, intended to "outsource" the production of editorials to freelance writers. Indeed, Kinsley has suggested, the whole concept of having an editorial board might have outlived its usefulness. He has already reduced the Times editorial board from eleven members to six. And when a New York Times reporter asked whether he planned to abolish the board entirely, he replied, "No, but who knows? My intention was to push the envelope with those proposals...."

Kinsley's main purpose, as he described it, was to find innovative ways to strengthen the paper's connection with readers, who have been drifting away from the LA Times and other newspapers in worrisome numbers. Kinsley and other editors have sought help from the Internet, with blogs and pod-casts. The Times went so far as to let readers rewrite an editorial on its website, but canceled the feature after users polluted it with pornography.

No newspaper can afford to dismiss new ideas out of hand. Many newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, are far better today than they were forty or fifty years ago because they have been open to change.

But I think Kinsley's plan to outsource editorial writing could turn out to have a subtle but dangerous side effect: It could erode the newspaper's fundamental relationship with its readers. The heart of that relationship is the reader's belief that the paper--in addition to being a business--is a member of the community. Readers may not articulate that belief, may not even realize they hold it. And they are certainly not happy with their newspaper all the time. But if newspapers are to have readers who keep coming back, there must be a sense that the paper is an enduring, committed institution--that it plays a role "in the lives of the people of their years."

And one of the most important ways a newspaper reinforces that sense of its place in the community is that it has a voice that reflects a distinctive personality. McGill, who presided over the editorial pages of the Constitution during most of the twelve years I was a reporter there before starting my thirty-seven years with the Los Angeles Times, believed that the internal workings of a newspaper culminated in the expressions of its convictions on the editorial page. That is not something you can delegate to outsiders. The editorial page reflects the heart and soul of a really good newspaper. It explains and certifies the importance of the news product. And it is accepted because readers hear it as the voice of a distinctive institution that matters. That is how newspapers have been able to drive myriad reforms on issues from racism and corruption to prisons, mental hospitals, and law enforcement agencies.

The real problem with many editorial pages is they need to be strengthened, not weakened. What you hear people say is they're too wishy-washy, not that they're too strong. On exceptionally important issues--an administration gearing up for war, for example--a clearly labeled editorial on Page One can drive home the message that the paper is a voice to be reckoned with. Expanding the letters column--perhaps by running fewer syndicated op-ed columnists with utterly predictable ideological views--can attract readers, too.

But having outsiders do a newspaper's talking for it is a terrible way to go. A paper that tries to outsource its voice may become just another noisy soapbox that people can ignore.

Jack Nelson was Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times for twenty-two years, retiring as chief Washington correspondent in 2003. E-mail
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Title Annotation:SYMPOSIUM: The Big Blow-Up and the future of editorial pages
Author:Nelson, Jack
Publication:The Masthead
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Sep 22, 2005
Previous Article:Innovations bring transparency that editorial pages need: changes will disappoint those who wanted a radical departure.
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