Editorial Page Chiefs See Increased Opportunities, Demands

By: Joe Strupp

When Gail Collins became editorial page editor of The New York Times five years ago, life in the pre-9/11 world of newspapers — before the blog-and-video revolution — made managing the editorial pages easier. “It was a quiet time, it was boring,” Collins recalls about her August 2001 ascension to the top job. “I thought I had a knack for making boring stuff interesting. And the job then was producing just two opinion pages seven days a week.”

But soon after, two things happened that would make the jobs of all opinion-page leaders change forever. First, the Sept. 11 attacks slapped newspapers in the face with a hard dose of serious news and opinion that has only increased since. Then, in the years that followed, the Internet explosion dumped a brand-new load of responsibilities and headaches on those who shepherd the editorial and Op-Ed choices — from massive increases in e-mail to new demands for monitoring blogs and Web sites, most of which did not exist five years ago.

“The job becomes a lot more of a management job and less of an editing job,” says Collins, who now oversees an extra Sunday editorial page, five weekly regional pages, as well as a slew of online features — among them the paid TimesSelect services. “The job then was largely about getting editorials together. In the course of a day now, you spend less time working on that. You rely a lot more on the editorial board members.”

Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the paper’s publisher, credits Collins with managing a job that has grown well beyond what the editors before her had to tackle. “She is the one who has made it a success,” he tells E&P. “I am taken by the remarkable growth in what the editorial page does now.”

Collins is far from alone. Several editorial page editors, each of whom has been on the job for at least five years, said the demands and opportunities have increased dramatically. “People are writing more. I could spend my entire day reading and responding to e-mail,” said Ron Dzwonkowski, editorial page editor for the Detroit Free Press, who said his mail has tripled since he began in 1998.

Susan Albright, editorial page editor of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, agrees, noting she receives about 300 e-mails daily, twice the volume she was getting three years ago. She notes these letters are at least easier to get into print since she doesn’t have to re-type them.

This avalanche of electronic feedback means more work — as well as a sharper sense of reader outrage, according to editors. “I think there are new expectations in the public,” says Albright. “People write to me personally, they take issue with me specifically, and they want to carry on a relationship with me by e-mail. There is an expectation that if they send out an e-mail, they expect you to converse with them.”

Collins agrees. “You get a lot of really nasty, mean, vindictive mail,” she says. “If those people had to sit down, put pen to paper, fold it, stamp it and put it in the mailbox they wouldn’t be writing.”

The rise of blogs and alternative Web sites, both liberal and conservative, forces editorial page editors to pay attention to a whole new world of news and opinion. Says Chris Satullo, editorial page editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer since 2000: “People used to agree that facts were present in a discussion. Now you get into these ‘fact wars’ with people.”

Dzwonkowski notes the Web’s success in spreading his paper’s opinions worldwide, drawing much more reaction to editorials. Albright says that she often gets more angry e-mail and letters from outside of her circulation area: “We get a lot more from people who don’t read the paper or even live in our state. People say they saw the clip on a blog.”

Joe Oglesby, editorial page editor of The Miami Herald for the past five years, says more attention has to be paid to having correct information in editorials and columns because the online audience is so vast. “There is so much more availability and access to information and opinion,” he says. “What we have on this page has to be specific and unique.” Oglesby admits that more local issues have become the subject of editorials, since there’s so much competition of opinion on broader national and international stories.

Then there are the numerous new online outlets for the opinion-minders, such as blogs, reader forums, and Web-only column space for editorial pages. Online chats and blogs provide readers “a window into how editorial board members make decisions,” says Keven Ann Willey, VP/editorial page editor of The Dallas Morning News, which has had editorial board member blogs since 2003 and has several board member online chats each month. “It has made our editorial fresher, better thought-out, and more representative.” But, she adds, it is also “a tremendous exertion of energy and effort.”

In addition, a growing number of papers, including the Detroit Free Press, Dallas Morning News, and Miami Herald, are starting to put audio or video of certain editorial board meetings online. And at the Star-Tribune, editorial page staffers are beginning to shoot video and record audio of reader opinions in a man-on-the-street type approach that will become a regular Web feature.

“It is a whole different way of thinking,” says Albright. For a July package on Minnesota’s water pollution problem, the newspaper conducted interviews with fishermen and water experts “in this experimental mode,” she explains. “It creates a whole new dynamic for [editorial] people who are used to sitting and writing statements.”

Dzwonkowski in Detroit admits there’s a danger that all of these added options can take time away from researching and crafting a simple, explanatory opinion: “It makes it much more difficult to get to the journalism depth required to write a really thoughtful editorial.”

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