Thursday, April 12, 2007

Seismic changes in opinion journalism

Perhaps you saw this link to the New York Observer from Romenesko recently, detailing expansive efforts to promote more points of view and diverse opinions at the New York Times. Some of you know we have a new focus on these questions at McClatchy, too.

We have two initiatives underway, neither yet in full flower but each aimed at making us far more inclusive in how we solicit, manage and display community conversations. One is to make sure the redesigned Washington bureau site we launch in a few weeks engages its audience on all kinds of Web 2.0 levels. I'll talk a lot more about that here as we get closer to fruition.

We've also asked newspapers to look at how traditional editorial pages need to expand to reflect the seismic changes that have transformed opinion journalism. Different papers will take different paths on the way – that's generally how we do things – but we're all working from a shared starting point. Here's an edited version of some thoughts I sent to editors and publishers last week:

Here’s the short, executive summary of my thoughts about why we need to change the way we do opinion journalism:

"You’ve got to go hunt where the ducks are."

Over the last decade, no area of American journalism has seen its subject more profoundly transformed than has opinion, yet almost no area has done less to evolve and respond. It is past time for us to do so.

Opinion was once the most interactive part of the newspaper, offering letters to the editor, face to face discussions at editorial board meetings, op-ed columns solicited from community members and the like. Compared to news, the opinion pages offered a welcoming, open door.

Even then, however, the process was always essentially hierarchical, and nowhere has the notion of editor as gatekeeper been more jealously preserved. This was not without its benefits, and many of us worked diligently to be trustworthy gatekeepers who tried to serve and benefit our communities. Newspaper editorial pages at their best exert a moderating influence on divisive topics fraught with heated community passion, offer leadership when other institutions prove too timid and proudly speak the truth to power.

There’s much to be said for the stable, institutional voice the newspaper editorial brings; because it represents more than a single person’s opinion, and because it reflects and is shaped by the paper’s traditions rather than just the most recent publisher or editor, it is more stable and less quixotic. Like the Supreme Court, in some ways, it relies heavily on precedent, changing basic tenets only when there is powerful reason to do so. It has the strength and heft to stand up against powerful interests when individuals might not.

(There was always a danger that we could become too moderate, of course; an editor I know, asked to describe his paper’s editorial philosophy, once replied, “Further study.”)

The editorial voice at newspapers originally was that of the editor – who was usually also the publisher, and the owner. It had an obvious, unified vision and it was easy to assign accountability. (Molly Ivins once told me her favorite journalist of all time was a Texan named William Cowper Brand, editor of The Iconoclast in Waco. After being shot by an outraged reader – how’s that for accountability? – he drew his pistol and killed his own murderer before he died.)

Over time, however, that distinctive, passionate editor’s voice has been replaced by an editorial board: passion by consensus, shall we say, too often producing just about as much success as you’d expect from a committee process. In the meantime, the world of public debate and opinion has exploded all around us, leaving traditional newspaper editorials and our process far out of the mainstream.

Consider just the impact of talk radio and blogs. Between them, public debate and commentary have expanded many thousand-fold. Our readers are deeply engaged with both, and as a result they come to our pages with a changed set of expectations.

People used to ask me how the Anchorage Daily News managed to beat the Anchorage Times when our editorials and opinions were often more liberal than most of our readers. One secret, I believe, was that we listened better. Most Americans don’t care if you have a different opinion than they do, as long as they get to voice theirs, too. Throughout the 1980s the ADN published twice as many letters to the editor as our opposition (especially from our critics), solicited community columnists who disagreed with us (my favorite was a local gunshop owner), held community forums, had a Reader Advisory Board and hosted an annual “Letter Writers’ Ball” where we invited everybody who had written a letter to come to a party with prizes (shortest letter, funniest letter, etc.) and even an open microphone segment. The Anchorage Times, meanwhile, just continued to roll the truth downhill, and was well-known for refusing to run letters that took them to task.

We need to bring that spirit of engagement and robust, pluralist debate into the modern era, using powerful Web 2.0 tools to enable debates where we are the convener and referee, but not the sole authority. You hear a lot these days about the need for news to become “a conversation, not a lecture.” That goes double for editorial pages. This doesn't mean we back down, or back away; far from it. Our own views must be clear, powerful, well-grounded and well written. But we should also invite as much reader participation, feedback and engagement as humanly (and technologically) possible. Readers should be able to attach comments to every editorial online; letters should be posted in a way that allows a “threaded conversation,” meaning that subsequent comments, rebuttals and reposts can be linked together; we should solicit and display video opinions from readers (even offering to videotape them if they come by to read their piece); we should aggregate all the opinion blogs from our region on our website, so that we become the clearinghouse for anybody who is interested in public policy debate; we should hold public events, debates, lectures, opinion book club sessions, screenings of political movies … anything we can think of that positions us in the center of the community discussion.

Our job isn’t to become talk radio hosts, providing what an Anchorage columnist once described as “a place for people to get together and pool their ignorance.” Far from it; the growing, unmet opportunity for us here is to be trusted guides that help readers navigate through the data smog engendered by a thousand talk radio stations and a million blogs. No less than the news department, our editorial pages must practice “the journalism of verification.”

In a chaos of complexity and choices there are opportunities for those who screen and sort and filter. A barrage of constant spin and ubiquitous marketing creates a market for integrity, transparency and accountability. An arena filled with strident partisanship creates a climate ripe for independence, fairness and moderated tone.

All this will require editors with energy and imagination and publishers with nerves of steel. All will need a high tolerance for ambiguity. We will screw up from time to time as we learn to navigate new pathways. We won’t always like what readers have to say; some of the debate will indeed be out of bounds and need to be reigned in; and established constituencies (inside the paper and in the community) will object as new voices are heard and new constituents empowered. So be it.

You also realize, of course, that you need to do all this without adding any people or spending any extra money. That again.

What that means, of course, is that we will have to stop doing some of what we do now, and find ways to do other things differently. The notion of always needing two or three locally written editorials, filling exactly the same space as those we produced yesterday, seems outdated to me. Maybe we should husband our staff research and writing resources for occasions when we clearly have something special to add to the debate, meanwhile devoting staff and energy to some of these other embracing activities. Maybe we can enlist dedicated citizens and readers to help us manage and police the online forums we create, or to help us monitor the behavior of all the local water boards and fire districts (or whatever those are in your states). (Maybe you will have better, more creative ideas than me.)

I’m not naïve about how difficult it will be to change the orientation of some traditional editorial boards, or how difficult it will be to achieve some of these objectives even with willing participants. But the only solution is to make a start and keep moving. The stakes are high; we risk irrelevancy if we do not.

I'd love to hear what you think about these questions. You can comment here, of course, or send me thoughts at hweaver (at), and I'll report back on what I learn.

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