October 01, 2004

Editorial Pages: Pizza vs. Finger Bowls

I ramble when I write, reflecting, no doubt, the cluttered mess that is my mind, so when I turned in my piece to the American Journalism Review on newspaper endorsements and presidential politics the good editors there helped me pare it into the much more readable shape you now see in the magazine.

A few of the trimmings addressed an issue that extends beyond endorsements: The nature of editorial pages and how newspapers use them to connect to readers.

Lynell Burkett, editorial page editor at the San Antonio Express-News and president of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, summarized the dilemma confronting editorial page editors:

"Editorial pages have been fairly--I don't know if staid is the word--formatted, standard," she says. "What do we need to do to move forward? How do we attract new readers? How do we attract more diverse readers? How do we remain, in a world where there is opinion all over the place, talk radio and 24-hour news shows and all, a place of credible opinion."

Burkett's concerns about relevancy are valid. A 2003 Newspaper Association of America study on newspaper section readership shows that not even one in four readers younger than 25 bothers with the editorial pages. From age 35 and up, readership rises from one in three readers at the more youthful end of the range to nearly two in three for the sexagenarians upward.

Worse, says Mary Nesbitt, director of the Readership Institute at Northwestern University, those older readers are not happy. Nesbitt's latest research found that "for older people, editorials are highly important to them, but their satisfaction tends to be lower."

In other words, Baby Boomers-plus want to read engaging opinion, but what they find in the newspaper is leaving them hungry for more - more they are likely finding on the Internet or television.

There is hope. Several key reader reactions - what the Readership Institute calls "experiences" - associated with higher readership are directly applicable to editorial pages: "Reading this newspaper makes me feel like a better citizen," for instance, and "Even if I disagree with things in this newspaper, I feel like I have learned something valuable."

Most editorial pages are "homogenous," Nesbitt says. To intensify the "experiences" readers have with editorial pages - the Readership Institute's latest study urges newspapers to "take bold, noticeable, strongly marketed steps," advice that Nesbitt says can seem contradictory to editorial page editors who feel bound to traditional journalistic practices.

Paul Gigot, editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, where readership of the opinion pages is 50 percent higher than the national average, believes impassioned, sharp opinion, strongly written and substantively reported is the key to enticing and engaging readers.

"We are passionate about things," he says. "We try to keep readers awake. We try to bring information to the editorials and to opinion in addition to that kind of personality because there's so much opinion now in the world, so much competition, on television, even papers on the web, that to just stick your thumb out like Nero and say up or down or any given issue gets a little tedious."

Increasingly, the type of crisp opinion journalism described by Gigot is found on the Internet - whether in web-based magazines, individual blogs or electronic offspring of print publications like OpinionJournal, the Wall Street Journal's free online offshoot.

"This is one of the things newspaper journalists do not understand," says Jay Rosen, head of the journalism department at NYU and author of the blog Pressthink, "that the basic standards of opinion writing off the news, which is what an op-ed page is or an editorial column in an editorial page is, is done better on the web."

If anyone symbolizes the bridge connecting old and new media, it is Rod Dreher, an assistant editorial page editor at the Dallas Morning News who migrated from print (New York Post) to the web (National Review Online) and back to print. At 37, with his bi-platform background, Dreher represents one possible future for editorial pages - one denoted by the lively writing, forceful ideological debate and reader interaction found on blogs.

"Younger readers who are interested in opinion, they can go to any number of blogs and get really pungent, well-informed, well-argued opinion about the issues of the day," he says, "and then you turn to most newspaper editorial pages and it's very, very solemn."

Too frequently, says Dreher, editorial page editors dismiss bloggers as bloviating nobodies or journalist wannabe's - thereby missing an opportunity to learn from them or even bring their writing into the newspaper, as the Dallas Morning News does on Sundays via a weekly column that draws commentary from bloggers.

"Just because they have strong opinions does not mean those opinions are ipso facto less responsible," Dreher says of bloggers. "I get so tired of the idea that, say, because a newspaper editorial is written with this stentorian, Olympian voice that it must therefore be more reasoned and more rational. I don't think that's true at all. You can write in that voice and be every bit as misguided as a crazy ranter on some blog that nobody reads."

Dreher hasn't abandoned blogging by moving to a newspaper. He and his colleagues on the Morning News editorial board contribute to DMN Daily, a blog the board began in January that is updated dozens of times a day with posts from editors and readers (who contribute through the editors). Dreher also continues to write for National Review's The Corner.

Both provide an outlet for a type of writing not found on the editorial page itself.

"I contribute to blogs because the kind of political writing and commentary you can do there is fun," says Dreher. "... I don't think a lot of formal writing that goes into newspaper is that much fun. You don't get the idea that people are having fun writing these pieces."

Editorial writing doesn't need to be Solomonic - what Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, calls "on the one hand, on the other hand, on the third hand, on the fourth hand" - to be taken seriously, says the Journal's Gigot.

"There are different ways than just 3 R's and cloud of ideology," Gigot says. "You can be a little funny, try to be witty, just be a fun read, an attractive read, more entertaining. Even if you're a liberal who says, 'Well, there they go again,' you might come back and say, 'Well, you may be crazy but you're fun crazy.'"

Gigot, like Dreher, who tempers his evangelistic enthusiasm for blogs with a reminder that editorial pages must be wary of alienating older readers "by seeming too flip," does demarcate the division between tradition and innovation.

"We do represent a paper that's been going for over a 100 years," Gigot says, "and there's got to be certain amount of seriousness to it. People expect that. They don't want a lot of crankiness for the sake of individuality. We'll put that in the blogs or in a column. There is a voice of the paper we have to have, but that doesn't mean it can't be a distinctive voice or a passionate voice or even a witty one."

Dreher delineates the difference with a culinary metaphor: "The blog is like a conversation. This is beer and pizza. The editorial page is a formal dinner where you have to mind your manners. You have to use the finger bowl."

Links
 American Journalism Review What's the Point? Few voters are swayed by newspaper endorsements of presidential candidates. So why do editorial pages keep publishing them?

Posted by Tim Porter at October 1, 2004 08:09 AM
Comments

"The blog is like a conversation. This is beer and pizza. The editorial page is a formal dinner where you have to mind your manners."

It's not just any formal dinner, it's one in which the guests converse amongst themselves with a two-day time delay, and where the host - and a few invited speakers - monopolize a substantial part of the 'airspace' with monologues, after which they immediately depart the table - "the editorial speaks for itself", or (Neil Steinberg:) "the piece of writing that upset you is a column of opinion, that the opinion being expressed is mine alone, and the fact that you disagree with or were insulted by my opinion really is not important, at least not to me. This is not a dialogue, this is a lecture, and you are supposed to sit in your seat and listen, or leave, not stand up and heckle."

It's more conducive to grandstanding and perhaps manipulation than to providing a meritocracy of reasoning and ideas.

Posted by: Anna on October 1, 2004 07:24 PM

"Few voters are swayed by newspaper endorsements of presidential candidates. So why do editorial pages keep publishing them?"

This was written before the Crawford Iconoclast endorsed a presidential candidate? Or are you just saying that as a general rule, endorsements are not useful?

I'm coming to believe that endorsements _are_ useful (to the readership at least) - otherwise you can end up with a paper that endorses-without-endorsing - which makes it much more difficult to address and correct any underlying slant.

Example: "All the candidates are qualified, but here's something that candidate B did, that we really didn't like" - when in fact candidate A is _not_ qualified, and candidate C is a "stealth candidate" whose platform is not consistent with previously (and extremely publicly) expressed views. If they actually came out and _endorsed_ candidate C, they'd have to defend their reasoning; by doing a "stealth endorsement", they can avoid taking responsibility.

Posted by: Anna on October 4, 2004 01:06 PM

sorry - you _did_ say "Presidential", which makes the example much less relevant.

Posted by: Anna on October 4, 2004 01:09 PM
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