Friday, November 10, 2006


Attention, newspaper executives: In case you were wondering what to cut next, the dumbest thing you put in print every damned day are those unsigned editorials written by ... well, who exactly? Even the people in the newsroom don't really know, and the people outside are pretty sure Satan is involved somehow.

You've been told this before, but you're creatures of habit, and apparently one of your habits is trying every truly stupid idea at least twice before you do the obvious thing that's right in front of your face. Newspapers are in decline, and your response has been to chase around after every snake-oil solution that promised to stop the bleeding and not cost you any more money. As Andy Cline put it:
Shortening stories didn't work. More graphics didn't work. Putting fluff above the flag didn't work. Targeting free publications to young people didn't work. Shrinking the news hole didn't work. Cutting editorial staff didn't work. Cutting foreign news didn't work. Running wire fluff didn't work. Ignoring the poor and working class in favor of the middle class didn't work. Partnering with the advertising department didn't work. Speciality publications aimed at the rich didn't work. Re-design after re-design after re-design didn't work.
But how many newspapers looked around at the totality of their product and asked "Why are we devoting all this space and payroll to the opinions of an elite cabal who hide behind anonymity while demanding that everyone else be identified down to a street address?" I don't have a number, but I can tell you this: They're holding their annual convention in a utility closet at the Holiday Inn Express.

Editorial writers tend to be an untouchable class in the culture of metro newspapers. One of journalism's dirty little secrets is that the editorial page is the playground of publishers and board presidents, many of whom have never even covered a city council meeting. The thinking goes like this: Don't mess with the editorial pages, or "those people" will start trying to make their rich and powerful friends happy by messing around with news coverage. Consequently, we respond to critiques of the editorial page by talking about "firewalls" between opinion and news reporting.

But enough with the carefully parsed media-speak bullshit. Traditional editorial pages are simply indefensible in the early 21st century and the hypocrisy they represent is killing what remaining standing we still have with the public. No, you won't listen to me. I'm just a blogger. But hey, you can listen to Jeff Jarvis. He's a blogger and a media consultant:
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.
Still not ready to confront the editorial page and do what must be done? All right then, let's take this in easy steps. Even if you're not ready to kill your editorial page entirely, stop right now, raise your right hand and repeat after me: "I will never again publish a slate of anonymous editorial endorsements of candidates."

Instead, try using your power for something good: Book a public venue, schedule the politicians to come in for their usual "endorsement interviews" and then invite all sorts of groups -- civic groups, political groups, interest groups, commerce groups, student groups, volunteer groups, you name it -- to come in and join you. Ask your questions to the candidates in public, and let other groups ask questions, too.

Then publish a summary of the other groups' endorsements. Serve the people's power, not your own.

Yes, it makes us feel Very Important Indeed to see endorsement-seeking candidates and their entourages waiting uncomfortably in our lobbies, but it really shouldn't be about how things make us feel, should it? Because we have the attention of the public, we have the clout to bring candidates to the table. Why not turn around and use that clout on behalf of the citizens to whom it rightly belongs?

Just promise to do that, and we'll let you keep publishing your quaint little editorials. For a while.