Guardian column: Are leaders obsolete?

Isn’t it time we ditched the newspaper leader writers?

Jeff Jarvis
Monday October 23, 2006
The Guardian

In this age of open media, when every voice and viewpoint can be heard, when news is analysed and overanalysed, and when we certainly suffer no shortage of opinion, do we still need newspaper leaders and the people who write them? I say no. Or at least, I say, they should join their colleagues in the newsroom in a radical reexamination of their roles in journalism.

The irony of leader writers is that they commit the sins usually attributed to bloggers: they rarely report and mostly just opine and pontificate – that is, they leech off the work of other journalists. And they work anonymously. Leaders speak as the voices of institutions, issuing opinions from the mountaintop, hidden by the cloak of distance. Yet today, in our connected society, we do not trust institutions. We demand transparency. We expect conversation.

When I wrote this on my weblog, I heard the pained squeals of American leader writers. Frank Partsch, retired editorial-page editor of the Omaha World-Herald, published an op-ed in another newspaper defending the form: “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,” Partsch said, adding: “A blog entry is no more an editorial than is graffiti.”

This is particularly paradoxical in America, where journalists insist that they are objective and that they and their institutions have no point of view. And besides, newspaper owners in America are rarely members of the community anymore; they are usually shareholders in distant media conglomerates. But even putting that aside, the problem not just for newspapers but also for corporations, governments, political parties and even churches is that the institutional voice no longer rings true. The seminal work of the open-media generation, The Cluetrain Manifesto, declares in some of its 95 theses posted on the door of the old printing house: “1. Markets are conversations. 2. Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors. 3. Conversations among human beings sound human. 4. Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived… 6. The internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.”

So the leader is as outmoded as its medium. Just as news organisations should no longer define themselves as ink on paper, 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 in this time of shrivelling newspaper revenue, publishers may find themselves faced with the choice of investing in either comment or fact. As the legendary Guardian editor CP Scott taught us well, comment is free, but facts are sacred – and expensive. This is not to say that newspapers should rid themselves of considered opinions and those who formulate them. But it is to say that they should recognise the value that debate and the interchange of ideas can bring to well-crafted opinions.

The Guardian’s Comment is Free is a step in that direction. It has thrust the paper’s leader writers – still faceless – and its columnists – named and pictured – into the cacophony of conversation. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said at a media conference at Harvard this month: “You are putting your commenters in the space where they can be rubbished. It’s quite a bumpy ride, we have to admit. But it is all part of the media experimentation demanded by the web. We’ve opened the doors, we’ve widened the liberal debate to hundreds of people who previously would have had no access to a mass audience.”

So perhaps leader writers should not lead, but instead should become moderators and enablers of the democratic discussion, no matter where it occurs: in newspapers, on blogs, on television, and now on internet talk-shows like the conservative network 18 Doughty Street. By finding and engaging other speakers in the community, we may well find that they are the opinion writers whose opinions truly matter. Theirs is not the voice of an institution. Theirs is the voice of the people.

· Jeff Jarvis is a journalism professor at the City University of New York who blogs at