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?


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 – – 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.