The death of the editorialist

I was asked to write a piece for a publication that goes to editorial-page editors and columnists about their future. I want to share my thoughts with you first to hear what you say….

In this age of open media, when every voice and viewpoint can be heard, when news is analyzed and overanalyzed, and when we certainly are not suffering a shortage of opinion, do we need editorialists?

No.

I leave it to you to argue whether we ever did. But there can be no question that, as the rest of media and journalism go through wrenching change and – I hope – radical reexamination, so should the editorialists reconsider their roles.

The irony is that the editorialists have long been guilty of the sins most often attributed to bloggers: They rarely report and mostly just leach off the work of other journalists. And they work anonymously. Worse, they attempt to speak as the voices of institutions, issuing opinions as if from the mountaintop. But today, we do not trust institutions. We are impatient with lectures. We demand to speak eye-to-eye as humans. We require conversation. The form of the editorial is as outmoded as its medium. News organizations should no longer define themselves by the ink on their paper. And publishers may no longer assume the prerogative of telling us what to think just because they buy that ink by the barrel. Now we all have our barrels of bits.

And as newspapers face economic torture, it is time to ask whether they can afford editorialists when spare resources should go toward supporting their true value: local reporting.

So should we fire all the editorial writers? Not necessarily. But they should realize that eliminating their jobs is a real and rationale option. And they should keep that fear in mind to force them to reinvent themselves. Rather than one cold voice of the institution, shouldn’t they try to gather many new voices and viewpoints? Instead of one opinion from one high, wouldn’t it be more useful to an informed society to share the best arguments around issues so we, the people, can make better decisions?

I know what you’re thinking: Wikitorial. When the Los Angeles Times took the well-intentioned but ill-informed step of letting the public edit its editorial. The problem was that they took a medium made for collaboration, the wiki, and used it for a subject about which there can be no collaboration today: Iraq. When I saw this, I suggested on my blog that the Times should have taken a proposition, Oxford-debate style, and put up two wikis: one pro, one con; let the best arguments win. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales saw that and tried to get the Times to split the wikitorial in two – to fork it, in our argot. But it was too late; anarchy reigned. Wikis and open collaboration now had cooties. But one misstep should not stop you from moving forward.

So fork the editorial page (before you have to stick a fork in it): Embrace new voices and viewpoints. Listen before lecturing. Break free of the limits of paper and use the internet to create a limitless platform for experts to inform the discussion. Become moderators and enablers of the debate that is already going on in the community. In short: Join the conversation.

As a starting point, I’ll point to Comment is Free – commentisfree.co.uk – at The Guardian (where I write and consult). The paper’s columnists are now, for the first time, speaking in the midst of the conversation, and those who choose to engage are creating a new relationship with readers. CiF also enabled The Guardian to bring in a much wider array of opinion and knowledge with hundreds of new writers (most contributing for free). And CiF has discovered new voices from amidst the interaction and made them CiF writers. I would also argue that columnists and editorial writers should blog – under their own names – in recognition that smart opinions are not delivered fully formed; they are enriched by the conversation. And by finding and linking to other bloggers and speakers in the community, you may well find that they are the opinion writers whose opinions matter.

  • Mark

    As a longtiime journalist, I’d suggest another reason why editorialists should go: They’re hurting the credibility of newspapers. No matter how clear the divide the divide is inside a newsroom between news and editorial, that division is all but invisible to readers, who generally seem to assume that the opinions on the editorial page absolutely influence the way the news is presented. If the editorial page favors Candidate A or Cause B, it’s a widespread assumption that the news pages follow this lead (no matter how untrue that is). Leaving aside the debatable issue of whether there’s bias in newswriting anyway, the editorial positions don’t do newspapers any favors from a credibility standpoint.

    And frankly, who cares what newspaper editorialists think? That’s an anachronism from a bygone era anyway. Newspapers would be much better off without editorials–and I really can’t think of a (non-ego) reason why they SHOULD have editorials.

  • http://smallinitiatives.com/ Jay Small

    Good topic. I would add only that, in all the times I have participated in or observed reader research on newspapers (print or online), I consistently found that the “unsigned editorial” is the most misunderstood and confusing notion to a large percentage of even frequent readers.

    In this time where newspaper publishers are almost all corporate business leaders, not local opinion leaders, readers can’t readily connect the opinions in unsigned editorials to people or institutions. They’re just out there.

    So yes, a news organization’s public-facing services should and could be wonderful platforms for diverse ranges of opinions. But no, there’s no meaningful place for the unsigned newspaper editorial in that mix.

    (Be careful of my opinions, though — I’ve already argued that the newspaper industry is overinvested in graphic design, and I spent many years in that field. :-)

  • Angelos

    Case in point, Mark, the WSJ.

    Great newspaper, utterly insane editorial board.

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  • Mark

    Angelos–Exactly. I see the WSJ’s news section referred to as “conservative” all the time. It’s anything but, yet people are forming their impressions from the WSJ’s right-leaning (I’m being kind) editorials.

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  • http://spaceygreview.blogspot.com/2006/07/my-never-changing-moods.html Grayson

    I used to have a great track record of placing guest op-eds with the AJC. But then they had a shift of op-ed page leadership/control. (Again, that’s singular. Leadership. No committee, no group. We’re talking one person and their personal mission/quest.) Naturally enough, I started blogging at that point, whereby I immediately discovered a more “natural” voice; thus rendering me way too “natural” for the op/ed pages of a major daily.

    But who cares?! At first it bothered me, but no longer. Stand up and say it with me, “I’m a blogger. I’m opinionista. I’m proud.” When you think about it, that’s the way it should be.

    Still, I’d hardly expect established print editorialists to, en mass, suddenly resign and start blogging. It will require a little more, uh, prodding than that. And looks like, given your other post, that the online editorialists will be at the front lines of such, uh, proddiness.

  • http://leatherpenguin.com Staten Island guy

    Grayson, I went through exactly the same thing. One day, after submitting an Op-Ed (which previously every submission had been treated fairly, whether published or not), I received a rsponse that read: “I can’t print anything you submit anymore. You pissed the publisher off last time, and you are not worth me losing my job.”

    Voice of the people and all that….

  • Owens k

    ["...editorialists have long been guilty of the sins most often attributed to bloggers .... they work anonymously. Worse, they attempt to speak as the voices of institutions, issuing opinions as if from the mountaintop.. "]

    Exactly. This standard editorial-posturing is the height of pomposity by alleged professional ‘journalists’.

    Many {.. if not most} newspapers will not even publish the names of their full editorial board… much less the by-lines of their daily editorials.

    If they insist upon by-lines for even routine news stories — editorial ‘opinions’ absolutely demand the same.

  • http://www.ditisberry.nl Jaap

    I’m not a native English speaker, but shouldn’t ‘leach’ be spelled as ‘leech’? That’s what editorialists might still be good for, after all ;-)

  • http://barticles.mytimesdispatch.com/ Bart

    Hysterical. Because bloggers can now express their opinions, newspapers should stop expressing theirs. Helluva non sequitur.

    Then there’s this beaut:

    “Rather than one cold voice of the institution, shouldn’t they try to gather many new voices and viewpoints? Instead of one opinion from one high, wouldn’t it be more useful to an informed society to share the best arguments around issues so we, the people, can make better decisions? ”

    Good grief. What about: (1) Letters to the Editor (2) Op/Ed Pages and (3) Sunday commentary sections? Surely you’ve heard of them?

  • http://barticles.mytimesdispatch.com/ Bart

    The suggestion that newspapers should “join the conversation” is also hugely amusing. Long before blogs took off, newspapers were providing a forum for a continuing dialogue about the issues of the day — and gave voice to the many men and women in the street who often had no other place in which to make their voices heard. It’s absolutely wonderful that the Internet has opened up another venue, and I blog myself at http://barticles.mytimesdispatch.com/. But telling newspapers to join the conversation is rather like telling the Pope he should join some kind of church.

  • http://metrowestdailynews.com Rick

    It seems to me, asking “who cares what newspaper editorial writers think?” is akin to asking “who cares what bloggers think?” An editorial is just another dollop of opinion — why try to de-legitimize it? Yes, it’s unsigned, as are many blogs, and most comments on blogs, but the editorial page editor and, by extension, the ownership and management of the newspaper, take responsibility for it. That bestows a limited amount of credibility on it, but it doesn’t require any reader to agree or even pay attention.

    As for the suggestion that editorialists make room for other voices, who do you think fills the rest of the opinion pages with letters and columns? Editorial page editors (like me) take our responsibilities as forum facilitators as seriously as our own opinions. Most bloggers feel no obligation to make room on their sites for diverse opinions. Editorial page editors do.

    For those who wish editorial writers would just go away, consider it granted. Look beyond the major metros to the small town dailies and weeklies. They’ve been dropping their editorials, and their editorial pages, for the last 25 years. Some still carry letters to the editor, but the days when a knowledgeable respected journalist, with a long-running commitment to the community, could call the mayor or school board or county commission on the carpet for corruption or stupidity with an authority greater than a lone citizen sounding off to his email list are, in most places, long past. Editorials, editorialists and editorial pages are already dying, early victims of the withering of the newspaper industry. Feel better?

  • http://spaceygreview.blogspot.com/2006/07/my-never-changing-moods.html Grayson

    Much!

  • Old Grouch

    Para 6: “rationale” perhaps should be “rational” (i.e., adj. “reasonable” rather than n. “explanation”)?

    Bart, IMO Jeff’s position is that since opinion is now a commodity, why waste scarce resources to produce it? Especially since “comment is free:” Why pay for it? ;-)

    [snark] Used to be we relied on the editorial page to tell us what to think, so we didn’t have to. [/snark] Now we’ve discovered that the folks writing the editorials often aren’t that much smarter (or more knowledgeable) than the first fifty bloggers listed at TTLB.

    Rick: “…the days when a knowledgeable respected journalist, with a long-running commitment to the community, could call the mayor or school board or county commission on the carpet for corruption or stupidity with an authority greater than a lone citizen sounding off to his email list are, in most places, long past.”

    I wish my local paper hadn’t “outsized” all of its “knowledgeable, respected journalists.” All it has left are new j-school graduates whose lack of understanding (and institutional memory) of the community they’re trying to report on is endlessly astounding. (And the bungee-boss management provided by the out-of-town ownership is no better.) They have no “authority.” The emperor has no clothes. Might as well recognize it.

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  • Ralph Phelan

    Far more words than are really needed (print publication with a predefined “hole” size, right?”

    Just tell them:

    “What you have been historically paid to do, thousands of bloggers are now doing for free, and their product is at least as good as yours. The long term implications are self-evident. So buy yourself a copy of “The Rainbow Parachute” and start figuring out what your next career is going to be.”

  • http://salmanff.blogspot.com Salman FF

    The Editorialist is dead. Long live the editorialists.

    You start by saying that we don’t need Editorialists and end by calling for a change in the Editorialists ways – in a way, the proliferation of blogs just shows that we are craving more editorialists, not less – but we want more transparency, more conversation, more choice, etc.

  • chico haas

    Signed editorials are unnecessary because newspaper editorials represent the view of the newspaper, not of an individual. Hence, the oft-used terminology: the editorial “we.”

  • penny

    I like an articulate and well reasoned signed editorial. In one sense, that’s where good journalism shines. The world’s awash in insipid, poorly crafted and often erroneous news items fresh off of the wires. Editorials serve as a starting point for public debate.

    Now, would I love it if the best syndicated editorialists had blogs, you bet.

    Mark Steyn has a website. Every week he answers with much time and effort his mail. But, then, he’s a more of a populist and has never been formally trained with the us vs them journalism school attitude.

    Without the unsigned editorial we would never get a glimpse into the political leanings of a news organization, what agenda they are advancing and what is being under-reported or omitted. We need that information.

  • http://oodja.blogspot.com Jersey Exile

    “Forking” a wiki is antithetical to the whole open-source enterprise, because it makes an editorial presupposition that there are always (or only!) two sides to a story. Should we fork any discussion of evolution while we’re at it? Perhaps the flat-earthers can also get their own wiki as well. The truth is often messy and contested, but forcing discussions into false dichotomies doesn’t help anyone.

  • http://blogspotting.net steve baker

    One big problem with editorials is that they’re boring. With the exception of a few, they try not to offend and to be reasonable and uphold civic values. They read as if they’ve been vetted through a committee. I say away with them. Many good writers work on them. Give the good ones their names over a column, their voice and yes, a blog.

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  • foo

    It still seems to me that the NY Times op-ed page is one of the most important pages in a newspaper. It is populated by thought leaders and engages the public in some of the most thought provoking topics around. For sure blogs are similar but they do not have the biggest microphone to shape the debate as important editorial pages can.

  • http://MediaGuardian.co.uk Steve Busfield

    Very few leader writers (as we call them in England) solely write Editorials. They often write op-ed pieces too, or report. And if they are solely leader writers, it is usually for a short stint. I have never been one myself, indeed I’m not sure that I could do it, but there is a skill to corralling ideas and information and then putting forward an opinion that isn’t necessarily one that you hold.
    Undoubtedly, as you say, conversation with readers on Commentisfree has widened the debate and introduced new ideas. But, if you are an organisation that is trusted, and I sincerely hope that the Guardian is, then I believe that people want to know what that organisation thinks. If a trusted organisation is willing to express its opinion it is surely of some help to the reader in a world where there are billions of voices and it is hard to know which of them you should trust.

  • http://www.participatemedia.com AlFromChicago

    Jeff —

    I know you know about RealClearPolitics — how can you not mention it in your post?

    http://www.realclearpolitics.com — that’s what we DO! We take the top 21 editorials every day, most by people a few by editorial boards – provide a filter, and that’s our home page.

    I agree that people should sign the corporate editorials, but we’re doing it — and people must like it as we did about 10MM page views last month and we’ll do over 12 this month — and the mainstream media gets our value as we have deals with most of them in some form or another. I think you should take another look at the site and tell us how it fits in.

  • penny

    foo, the problem with the NYT’s editorial page is that it has seeped onto Page One the past five years. Or haven’t you noticed?

  • Alexander

    Hello! I saw your speech on ABC’s Video Podcast and I fully agree with you. The media companies should instead use Internet rather than rejecting it. Why don’t we see Online TV from the big companies yet? Because they are afraid that no-one would pay for cable.

    Anyhow, great blog you have!

    /Alexander

  • Some Seppo

    The good Op-Ed writers research a subject, give a thumbnail report, then write their opinion. The bad ones do only the former. The problem with the unsigned editorial is that if no one is to blame for the bad writing, bad thinking, bad logic, etc., then everyone is.

    My own paper The Nashville Tennessean, which I read daily, used the “No True Scotsman” fallacy just last week in an unsigned editorial, telling the reader that “surely no voter” can be for a 700-mile long border fence.

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  • http://ncfocus.blogspot.com/2006/09/opinion-and-other-coverage-of.html Anna Haynes

    When faced with a particularly beyond-the-pale editorial in the local (small-town) paper, I offered $100 to charity if the author would identify himself and consent to discuss its logic.
    He declined to accept the offer (ident yes, discussion no) – but maybe something like this could be tried with other papers?
    (I don’t have a problem with newspapers’ editorializing, I just wish they’d raise themselves up to blogger standards)

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