Opinionated

Not surprisingly, when I wrote about the value of editorialists today and cried, ‘Off with the headlines,’ a few of them objected.

In the Spokesman-Review, Frank Partsch, a retired editorialist from Omaha took issue with my dismissal of the institutional voice. (His piece is behind a pay wall — thus out of the conversation — but that link to a print page should work; he also did not mention the name of this blog let alone link to it, cutting his readers off from the conversation here, but so be it.) He wrote:

A blogged statement by one Jeff Jarvis has attracted attention among members of the National Conference of Editorial Writers in recent days. Jarvis argues that newspaper editorializing should be abandoned in an age of plentiful opinion.

Actually, a more careful reading — or perhaps a more careful writing on my part — would show that I did not necessarily call for the death of all editorialists, but did call for an updating of the role of the editorialists in their communities. In any case, it’s fair to say that I think many editorialists, especially the would-be voices of institutions, are not needed today. Partsch continues:

The premise reflects the deterioration of vocabulary. “Editorial” is not any old opinion, whether stated in a letter to the editor or shouted by a street evangelist. An editorial, in its purest sense, is an institutional opinion, representing the views of the owner or investors – people willing each day to stand behind the leadership of the editorial page even at the risk of attracting the ire of the community and putting their investment at risk.

This characteristic of an institutional voice constitutes part of the ties that bind a newspaper to its community, whether that community is a city, a state or a nation.

But it is the institutional voice itself that I say is a non sequitor, especially for old-style newspapers that tried so hard to insist that the rest of the institution could operate without opinion. But the real point is the Cluetrain‘s point:

3. Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
4. Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.
5. People recognize each other as such from the sound of this voice.

I say it is disrespectful and cowardly to speak to me behind the cloak of the institution and anonymity. (And, yes, I say the same thing to anonymous posters and bloggers.)

Partsch again:

An editorial, by definition, is considered, weighed, crafted, edited, discussed. Its tone and content signal that the institution has a point of view, a philosophy about its relationship with its readers and their community.

Editors and publishers, and the editorial boards that act in their name, make an effort to achieve consistency over time. The best editorial pages are rooted in a coherent set of values, thus offering the community a voice, among all other voices, that can be relied on as a touchstone.

Jarvis faults editorials for being unsigned. The criticism would not be unexpected from one who considers an editorial merely another person’s outburst of opinion. Of course editorials are unsigned. An institutional opinion with a byline is an oxymoron.

There is absolutely nothing that says this cannot be accomplished by a person writing under his or her name. Indeed, how much better it is to have an opinion that is “weighed, crafted, edited, discussed” in public. And then consistency can be balanced with openness.

Partsch wonders whether I have hanged around editorial offices — I emailed him to let him know that in more than a decade on newspapers, I had (and he charmingly apologized and said he then went to “Uncle Google” to ask about me). In his Spokesman-Review piece, he says that contrary to my argument, editorial writers do not believe they are telling people what to think. He goes on to be critical of some editorials:

I have deep personal concerns about what seems to be inattention, among some editorial pages, to sound thinking and clear writing. If we are losing readers, it’s not because of an insufficient amount of white space or display type but rather because of an insufficient percentage of intelligent, stylishly-stated text in our institutional opinions.

And then, sadly, we get to a war between editorialists and bloggers. I believe the opportunity for editorialists is to use this new form to bring in new voices and viewpoints and to collaborate on issues facing the community. Partsch writes:

But this is a matter entirely separate from the utterances of the folks who want us to believe that blogging is the new journalism. In a nutshell, editorial writers speak for institutions; a blogger speaks only for herself. Her online opinion is indistinguishable, in substance, from a shout in the crowd, and the posts proclaiming agreement no different from other shouts in the crowd.

Certainly shouts in the crowd can affect the course of events, and there’s a danger that they may crowd editorial-writing from the stage – unless the practitioners of the craft elevate editorial-page writing and thinking. We also need to pay attention to the evolving expectations of the public in an era of technological change.

But as a potential replacement, blogging is an imperfect candidate. A blog entry is no more an editorial than is graffiti. Few editorial pages would stoop to the caricaturing of a target and then attacking the caricature. But that’s what happened here. Jarvis’ attempts to force a comparison, so that the one might replace the other, are rooted in unbounded misrepresentation.

The irony, of course, is that in his piece, Partsch did “stoop to the caricaturing of a target and then attacking the caricature,” his target being bloggers.

But in a most cordial email exchange, Partsch goes on to continue his criticism of too many editorials, badly done, and says that some are so bad they might as well be abandoned to try something new. So there we almost agree. But I’m not so much criticizing editorial pages as they exist as I am proposing that the opened conversation gives them new opportunities not possible before, opportunities that should be explored.

And the point is that once the conversation is enabled — not through one-time blog posts and op-ed columns but through the back-and-forth technology now allows — we get to find shared ground. Partsch says he and I probably fundamentally agree about much of this. And once we have a conversation, that proves to be the case. So that is what I’m arguing to editorialists: Find the ways to have the conversation.

: There was more discussion from the editorialists’ listserv (too bad it’s not on an open forum or blog, where we could join in the discussion). I’ll pass by the silly, snarky — dare I say it? blogesque — one-liners (“Jarvis never heard of a letter to the editor or Op/Ed Page, I guess”) for some good and substantive posts there. Mike Vogel of the Buffalo News says:

With all due respect to Mr. Jarvis, he’s just wrong. If I may be forgiven a little Aristotle — and yes, this debate has roots at least that old, so don’t worry unduly about job security just yet — the force of argumentation depends on three things: the character of the arguer, the character of the audience, and the strength of the argument itself. Mr. Jarvis’s stand is based mostly on that last factor. He raises the banner of egalitarianism, and down with the aristocracy because the wider new world lets anyone combine intellect with key-stroke research to come up with an equally valid opinion.

Well, we do more than key-stroke research, but let’s just concede that one. The other two, though, do count. The character of the arguer, for example. Someone previously noted that the institutional voice rises or falls on accuracy — an argument for credibility, carefully created, nurtured and protected over time, that lends weight and authority to the editorial that also has a strong intrinsic argument. That’s a combination of institutional strength and individual talent that the blogosphere cannot yet widely claim. Is there a difference between the voice of John685@blogoworld.net (my apologies if there is one) and the voice of the New York Times? You bet — it’s the New York Times. Even those on Jarvis’s blog thread who dis the Wall Street Journal edboard instinctively acknowledge that collective force, although disparaging its credibility. Star bloggers may be establishing track records and building or attempting to build credibility, but the threads belong largely to what a previous writer terms “shouts in the crowd.” Do they have opinions worth hearing? Absolutely, but how do you fully evaluate them?

The institutional see the world in institutional terms, it seems. If they can speak for an organization, then they see others as parts of an organization: We are part of a blogosphere. No, we’re not. We are individuals just as editorial writers are individuals and we either have talent and intelligence and credibility and openness and generosity or we do not. That is what this argument is about: Does the institution grant credibility — or, in Vogel’s word, character? That is the assumption of these institutional voices but I say they need to hear that the opposite may be the case: Some do not trust their institutions and some do not trust those who hide their identity. In our world, transparency is a virtue that lends more character than institutional anonymity. Vogel continues:

The strength of newspaper editorial pages lies less in what we say on any given subject on any given day than it does in how we shape the community agenda over time. The strength of the blogosphere, at least so far, has been in its reactive analysis of things said and claimed, and not so much in its proactive agenda-setting. In part that’s because we have more well-defined communities/audiences, and in part because love us or hate us readers just know there are few community institutions that have more invested in their community and its progress than the local news media.

No, I’d say that bloggers are quite good at setting agendas. Perhaps the bloggers reading this, if they’ve gotten this far, would like to give some examples.

Geitner Simmons of the Omaha World Herald adds thoughtful perspective of both ends of this discussion:

The attitudes that Jarvis give voice to are deeply embedded in the blog world, and they are not going away. Newspaper editorialists don’t need to abandon the traditional editorial voice, but in an increasingly wired world, editorialists need to understand these cultural shifts. Newspapers will, and obviously are, responding in various ways. And newspapers should do so, in accordance with the particular conditions of their communities and cultures.

At the same time, even in the midst of cultural change, Frank [Partsch] offers a vital admonition for newspapers to retain an appreciation for the fundamentals of strong argumentation, clear prose (which rests on clear thinking) and a firm institutional voice.

They didn’t all disagree with me. Most did, not not all. Matt Neistein, op-ed editor of The Post-Crescent in Appleton, Wis., said:

I think the easy dismissal of what Jarvis is saying is Exhibit A in his defense. In particular, this line should resonate with us: “Embrace new voices and viewpoints. Listen before lecturing.”

I agree that we have long invited other viewpoints to our pages via letters, ope-eds, etc. But we would be wise to apply the aforementioned advice to ourselves.

The most important single sentence in that blog is this: “But today, we do not trust institutions.”

Nearly every response I’ve seen on the listserv uses, at its core, the defense that newspapers are the institutional voice. But Jarvis is right. People don’t believe in institutions anymore, newspapers or otherwise. Every six months or so, I hear about another poll where journalists rank just ahead of lawyers and just behind used-car salesmen on the trustworthiness scale.

Skepticism reigns. The corporatization of newspapers doesn’t help anymore, either. Publishers are transferred around, the company touts its ownership, and readers don’t identify with their papers anymore, as they’re not locally owned or operated and the face of the paper has only lived there for a couple of years.

Call it cynicism or apathy in our readers, or just plain ignorance, if you’re feeling particularly chipper. But you take any one of us off the editorial page with its gaudy masthead that says “Community Newspaper, est. 185-whatever,” and we’re just bloggers. Bloggers with journalism training and experience, but bloggers nonetheless. And since that masthead is no longer held with the esteem it once was – through our fault or others’ – using it as the trump card in this discussion may only reinforce Jarvis’s point that we’re out of touch and elitist.

Matt, the beer’s on us.

: And, of course, see the conversation here.

: LATER: Don’t miss the comments on this post from Terry Heaton:

. . . .So this “institutional voice” of which Partsch speaks is cloaked in an elitist arrogance birthed in putting the herd-like public in its place. Is there any wonder the public — now armed with their own printing presses — is fighting back?

As our culture continues its drift from modernism to postmodernism, the institutions that are given “special” status through license, position or protected knowledge are all threatened. I don’t think we really want to lose any voice, so I’m not one of those critics who think the institutional press should just go away.

I just want to see them put in their place.

. . . and Mark Beaulieu:

. . . We think the letters from the named should be in larger print than the unnamed. And let us chose the fonts of our own character.

We are not the Public, but single letter writers, one at a time. You are public and plural. We respect identity. . . .

: LATER: Mark Tapscott, editorialist, and I agree about much in my piece except this:

That said, despite all the truths embodied in Gillmor’s maxim that news is no longer a lecture but a dialogue and the consequent necessity for editorialists to engage discussion, not end it, the role of editorialist remains a vital one. Why? Because he or she gets what most others in the conversation don’t – namely, a regular paycheck to study, think, listen and write about issues others care about or are discussing.

  • http://www.donatacom.com/blog.shtml Terry Heaton

    Frank Partsch’s reasoning is pure Walter Lippmann, the father of professional journalism. And whenever I get the chance, I want to remind people of the roots of our profession, for they are birthed in manipulation and social engineering. The apple, after all, never falls very far from the tree.

    As a ranking member of the Creel Committee in the Wilson administration, Lippman and his cronies (including the father of public relations, Edward Bernays) were charged with convincing the public that it was in the country’s best interests to enter World War I. This event heralded the beginning of a new hegemony in journalism, and Lippmann was its author.

    But Lippmann was a social engineer first, and we know that by studying (and deconstructing) his writings. In Lippmann’s mind, people were incapable of governing themselves, a job he felt was better suited to an educated elite class, among which he included journalists. Here’s a fun paragraph from his book The Phantom Public:

    “A false ideal of democracy can only lead to disillusionment and to meddlesome tyranny. If democracy cannot direct affairs, then a philosophy which expects it to direct them will encourage the people to attempt the impossible; they will fail…The public must be put in its place, so that it may exercise its own powers, but no less and perhaps even more, so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd.”

    So this “institutional voice” of which Partsch speaks is cloaked in an elitist arrogance birthed in putting the herd-like public in its place. Is there any wonder the public — now armed with their own printing presses — is fighting back?

    As our culture continues its drift from modernism to postmodernism, the institutions that are given “special” status through license, position or protected knowledge are all threatened. I don’t think we really want to lose any voice, so I’m not one of those critics who think the institutional press should just go away.

    I just want to see them put in their place.

  • http://enamelplace.com Undertoad

    The Philadelphia Inquirer’s “institutional voice” convinced me that their “institution” was broken and could safely be ignored.

  • http://ipid.wordpress.com markbeaulieu

    The other Royal “We”

    We disdain the privilege of the press pass.

    We oppose editorial features without face, afraid of fingerprint.

    News royalty must take off their hoods for you wear nothing of value.

    We demand old media should learn from new – TV anchors are faces of institutions incarnate.

    We think the letters from the named should be in larger print than the unnamed. And let us chose the fonts of our own character.

    We are not the Public, but single letter writers, one at a time. You are public and plural. We respect identity.

    We will report on everything and boldly go, brazenly see, and risk our being where you will not.

    Networks must measure and display their audience so We have the power to change the pie chart of our most common budget.

    We will write our own letters, we will write, for We are the willing.

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  • Guy Love

    Two comments from those who responded to Jeff struck me as summing up the attitude that is going to eventually take out the institutional news empire of the old media.

    1. “Is there a difference between the voice of John685@blogoworld.net (my apologies if there is one) and the voice of the New York Times? You bet — it’s the New York Times.”

    2. “The strength of newspaper editorial pages lies less in what we say on any given subject on any given day than it does in how we shape the community agenda over time.”

    The first comment shows the disdain of the old media to the new media. They just can’t stand the fact that they are no longer the only game in town. All their money, all their power, and all their influence can be swept away by a guy in his pajamas and a keyboard (ala Drudge runs with the Monica story which Newsweek had been sitting on for months). How can they ever learn to change if they disregard the very thing that is making them obsolete?

    This leads to the second comment which shows that they consider it a strength to shape the community agenda over time. In this age of individual opinion, I consider it a major weakness of old media that they bow down before their corporate masters and only run what the publisher allows. Corporate held media empires seem more driven by shaping community agendas than providing informative news. You can quickly determine their bias by the facts they conveniently omit in their pursuit to shape our opinion. Quite frankly it smacks of endless propaganda vs. informative news. Thus the editor sitting up in the ivory tower scheming to shape the community agenda over time gets ignored over the individual blogger. This misconception of the instituitional corporate voice being a strength seems deeply rooted in their world view. Who really needs to absorb more slick PR and marketing and spin in today’s time? Who really needs more consistent groupthink of the same opinion repeated over and over?

    Finally, letters to the Op/Ed page has got to be the lamest defense of why they don’t need to blog or interact. By the time the letter is published the Op/Ed is long forgotten and yesterday’s news. This makes them appear out of touch and clueless and extremely dated. Why is it so hard for them to understand that people want real time feedback?

  • chico haas

    It is arrogant to assume your fellow citizens are not capable of processing ideas signed or unsigned, in letters two days old or in real-time, or that they can’t include newspapers, blogs, books and magazines in their reading rotation. People read what’s interesting, regardless of its delivery system.

  • http://corpblawg.ynada.com/ Cornelius Puschmann

    Ah, wonderful. We begin with a technological innovation and the result is the demolition of obsolete institutions (not the first time that this happens, either). The thing is, one could argue that the function of these institutions was originally nothing more than to overcome certain limitations – can’t publish a paper on your own, right? All these wonderful powers that journalists cite – how their institutions “shape the agenda” and “inform the public” – are nothing more but by-products.

    An institution may have authority, but it is not trusted.

    An institution may broadcast a message but it cannot have a conversation with you.

    We are finding the limits of a deficient form that was born out of necessity. And now we’re unlimiting ourselves.

  • John Davidson

    The only people who trust what the New York Times Editorial Board has to say are the people who agree with it.

    The only reason that editorials survived and prospered over the years was because there was no mechanism to adequately contest them. Technology has exposed editorial boards for their biases, their lapses of judgment, and their inaccuracies. It is the height of arrogance to suggest that the Editorial and Op-Ed pages are more important to a daily newspaper than actual news; you think there’s a reason all those Very Important Institutional Pieces are never crowded by display advertising on the page?

  • penny

    …” a blogger speaks only for herself. Her online opinion is indistinguishable, in substance, from a shout in the crowd, and the posts proclaiming agreement no different from other shouts in the crowd……But as a potential replacement, blogging is an imperfect candidate. A blog entry is no more an editorial than is graffiti….

    If bloggers are so inconsequential, then, why does Frank Partsch feel so compelled to respond to one? I have to assume that the irony is totally missed on him. I doubt that he has very much experience with the bloggers.

    I would direct him to the Belmont Club, which on some topics have had many hundreds of comments, comments of quality and thoughtfulness. Maybe he should scurry over to the Brussels Journal covering the EU or a Canadian blog, Small Dead Animals……..I could name many more sites in cyberspace, as can most of us, where intelligent content and commentary by citizens is gratifyingly democratic, intelligent and, most importantly, interactive. Not that there aren’t site with drive-by grafiti, but, that’s ok too. The content on tv and in print isn’t that great.

    Could Frank Partsch point to a place in the MSM universe where this discussion could be held without censorship and immediate access?

    He can’t, because there isn’t, and never will be. Ironic, isn’t it, that Partsch’s piece was behind a paid wall.

  • Anna Haynes

    > “The Philadelphia Inquirer’s “institutional voice” convinced me that their “institution” was broken and could safely be ignored.”

    nicely put, Undertoad.

    > “Partsch goes on to continue his criticism of too many editorials, badly done, and says that some are so bad they might as well be abandoned to try something new.”

    What will be the agent of these editorials’ abandonment? Who, with control of that space, would voluntarily give it up?

    I’m told the Inuit refer to the wolf as “the knife that carves the caribou”; what will carve the editorials?

    Answers: accountability, and exposure to the battle of ideas. If the writer doesn’t have to show himself or defend his reasoning, the prospects for improvement are dubious.
    (yeah, I’m using “him” as a bit of an insult here; women I think would not be so fearful)

    “As long as the editorials are poorly reasoned, suspiciously motivated tracts lobbed down from the castle parapets, the townsfolk will rightly view the paper with mistrust”

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  • http://www.fifthestate.co.uk Kate Hyde

    “We are individuals just as editorial writers are individuals and we either have talent and intelligence and credibility and openness and generosity or we do not.”

    Jeff: good point and pretty helpful too. I guess I’m one of the editorialists to whom your advice is addressed, being editor of a new multi-voiced blog for a media company. (The Cluetrain and your blog are great supports b.t.w.)

    Speaking as one of the people stepping up the the mantle (http://fifthestate.co.uk/author/katehyde/), let me say achieving what you propose is a really tough – sometimes terrifying – move to pull off successfully. It’s just not a case of lacking ‘cowardice’; it requires a determination (almost recklessness!) to push through the the established culture of anonymous editorials from traditional media companies.

    As editor for a blog hosted by an institution you must to some extent represent the voice of that place, but of course, by definition, your voice is yours and yours alone (hence in my case my really emabarassing photo to ID me); honesty and integrity is everything.

    Being brazen and free sounds great until you realise the MD and the communications dept are scrutinising your every word.

    But you’re right; you can’t expect people to engage with you if you don’t with them, and evolution of the editorial is crucial. 3 days in to the job, the jury’s out whether I’ve succeeded or am headed for a P45 for speaking my mind, but you’ll see from the manifesto, we’re at least trying. (I use the ‘we’ with justification here – it’s a group effort)

  • http://davemartin.blogspot.com David Martin

    Bravo Jeff! Well said. There was a time, not too long ago, when a group of old white guys made up our minds for us, even told us how to vote. Having done the homework none of us had the time nor perhaps the ability to do and blessed with the gifts of context, perspective and insight far beyond the grasp of mortals they handed down the proper decision. That they still wish to maintain control of the conversation (deciding which letters get published and how via editing) is one of the first signs of denial.

  • afield

    bravo, bravo!

  • chico haas

    Anybody know the racial breakdown of “current events” bloggers?

  • Anna Haynes

    bravo Kate! and a nice explication of the issues and concerns involved in actually doing this.

  • hey

    I am a coward, but I’m a coward with a purpose. I’m not entirely sure where I’m headed, nor am I entirely sure of how, and I don’t want to irrevocably committ myself to my opinions at this point. It’s so easy to get enervated online and to support rather forthright positions in strong language (or simply just screw up your typing), and google et al are forever. Everything you ever do online is forever, and will follow you everywhere you go. It is thus a very good idea for people who are still working things out to use anonymity and pseudonymity to explore and expound on their positions.

    It also helps to go after powerful people you deal with or may have to deal with. We are all petty, vicious folk, and pseudonymity allows one to isolate social, business, and political spheres for the overall profit of all.

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