The Guardian’s Comment is Free is a year old today and they’ve asked their bloggers to propose what they’d like to see different a year from now. It’s also significant that the paper just promoted Georgina Henry, the brilliantly tough head of CiF, to executive comment editor, now overseeing opinion both online and in print, bringing the two together. I think this opens up new possibilities for the old editorial page.
Posts about editorials
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.)
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 [email protected] (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.
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?
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.