Commentary: Are newspaper editorials passe'?

The Sacramento BeeJanuary 6, 2013 

Here's a sad fact as we near the end of 2012: The editorial director of an influential California news organization, one that says it is dedicated to producing "stories that hold those in power accountable," believes there should be fewer voices dedicated to that cause.

Mark Katches, editorial director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, which includes California Watch and the Bay Citizen, was recently asked by the Nieman Journalism Lab to make some predictions about the media for 2013.

One of Katches' predictions:

"Newspapers will start to taper off writing editorials. They'll find that they can be a leader in their communities by engaging audiences, moderating forums, holding events and curating roundtable discussion – while avoiding the pitfall of alienating a significant percentage of their audience by telling people what to think."

Sigh. There are so many things wrong with Katches' conclusion I barely know where to start.

First off, most editorial boards I know already organize public meetings and moderate forums (both online and in their communities). Here at The Bee, our editorial board helped organize a debate between candidates for attorney general in 2010 and this year between Ami Bera and Dan Lungren for the 7th Congressional District seat.

True, we would have more time to organize public events if we weren't researching and writing editorials. Yet in Katches' view, that would be a worthy trade-off, since we'd be spending less time "telling people what to think."

It probably wasn't intentional, but I find Katches' characterization to be offensive. Newspapers have long published editorials for a simple reason – they want to be leaders in their communities. The very definition of leadership is taking a stand, defending it and constantly reassessing it. None of us on The Bee's editorial board suffers under the delusion that our editorials "tell people what to think." We have a pretty high regard for our readers, who are fully capable of forming opinions on their own.

In an email, Katches said he wasn't advocating that newspapers drop their editorials, just that it was a trend that was likely to increase. But then he went on to suggest that eliminating partisan editorials would be a smart move for newspapers if they want to avoid losing readers.

Sorry, but there is no evidence that strong opinions are hurting newspaper readership. The Bee, for instance, set a new record this year for combined readership (print and online). And even if strong opinions do alienate some readers, Katches should also know the benefits of a crusading editorial page. At the Atlanta Constitution, Eugene Patterson's editorials about discrimination against blacks in the 1960s angered many subscribers, but it awakened the conscience of an entire region. Well-researched, smartly argued editorials are part of what newspapers do to hold public officials accountable. This year at The Bee, a series of editorials by our own Ginger Rutland stopped legislation that would have further enhanced benefits for certain government employees, potentially saving taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

Katches, unfortunately, is hardly alone in using an opinion article to urge newspapers to offer fewer opinions.

Recently, the managing editor of Editor & Publisher, Kristina Ackermann, wrote a column urging newspapers to stop issuing election recommendations. "The last thing readers need is one more unsolicited political opinion," Ackermann wrote on Dec 21.

"Between accusations of biased coverage, waning power to influence readers, and the very real potential to drive away advertisers, newspapers are better off keeping their political endorsements to themselves."

Ackermann's column prompts at least two questions:

First, if you think readers want fewer unsolicited opinions, why are you offering us one?

Second, isn't it an old canard to claim that opinions issued by a newspaper's editorial board undermine the credibility of stories written by entirely separate operation – the newsroom?

Although it is hard to convince cynics of the fact, most newspapers have a strict firewall between their newsrooms and their opinion shops. That's why the Wall Street Journal newsroom can produce exposés of corporate malfeasance while its editorial board opposes most government regulation of industry.

Both Ackermann and Katches suggest that newspapers should end editorials and endorsements to avoid "alienating a significant percentage of their audience" and "driving away advertisers."

Think about that. Would you want to read a newspaper that only sailed to the prevailing political winds and made decisions to avoid upsetting advertisers?

Obviously, it's a bad business model to go out of your way to alienate subscribers and businesses that might want to purchase advertising. But a newspaper that is void of anything that might upset anybody would be bland beyond belief. Indeed, if upsetting nobody was the goal, newspapers (and operations such as California Watch) would cease publication of investigative reporting.

Editorial pages need to change, and many are changing. That's why in 2012 we added new voices, revamped our online operations to accommodate more letters from readers and hired a new staff cartoonist. You will see more changes in 2013. But one thing that won't change is our core mission – advocating for the best interests of our state and our community.

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