By: Steve Outing
Ah, the editorial page. In its traditional form, it truly typifies the old way of doing newspaper journalism.
Editorial writers, guided by an editorial board or in some cases a strong-minded publisher, attempt to persuade readers to a particular point of view on a variety of issues. Feedback from readers is in the form of day-or-more-old hand-selected letters. It’s the “lecture” model of journalism — the antithesis of a more conversational model of journalism that’s gaining ground in the digitally networked, broadband era of media.
That’s not to say that editorial pages aren’t changing with the times. Some are finding new ways to include readers more in the process, or at least allowing them greater voices in responding to editorials after the fact. But for the most part, the “institutional voice” of newspapers remains as it has for decades.
That’s about to change. The voice of the newspaper editorial is becoming a bit more democratic, and less about the authoritative voice from on high.
Feedback Before Publication
If you want to see the future of the newspaper editorial page, you might look to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and its latest experiment. Its “Virtual Editorial Board” initiative is one that brings the voice of the community more into the process of writing editorials.
The concept involves a bit of transparency on the part of the editorial-page staff. Each day the editorial board meets at 9 a.m. to discuss what issues they’ll research and write about. At the end of that meeting, a note is posted to the P-I’s Web site announcing what the editorial writers will tackle and write about in tomorrow’s paper (and this evening’s Web site).
The idea here is to tip off readers who may care about a selected topic to write in with their thoughts — before the newspaper’s editorial is published. Readers post comments to the day’s Virtual Editorial Board page, and editorial writers review those while they’re writing for the next day.
P-I editorial page editor Mark Trahant explains that some of the more thoughtful comments may end up influencing what gets published in the editorial. Perhaps a reader will have expertise on the topic and offer perspective or facts that actually change the end product.
Trahant says one of the program’s key goals is to have the newspaper’s editorial page present a conversation between the paper’s “institutional voice” and readers — on the very same day. To that end, he and his staff sometimes select Virtual Editorial Board comments and run them as letters to the editor on the same day as the editorial runs.
(On the day that I interviewed Trahant, a reader comment about an upcoming editorial actually ran the day before the editorial was published. Oops.)
As Trahant and his editorial-page team play with this concept more, the face of the editorial page will change, and become timelier. For instance, in addition to alerting readers to tomorrow’s upcoming editorial topics, the plan is also to tip them off to other issues that are being planned further out. This gives the public more time to influence the P-I’s editorial position.
So, with advance knowledge of an editorial about, say, local crime-fighting strategies, people in the community with expertise in law enforcement, social work, prisons, etc. might contribute pertinent data for consideration by the editorial writers. Some might submit letters to the editor or Op-Ed columns, designed to run the same day as the editorial. The result could be a more balanced and complete editorial-page package on a single issue, presenting more than one viewpoint on day of publication — not just the newspaper’s.
That’s not to say that letters and reader comments responding to the finished editorial will go away. Rather, on the day an editorial runs, the public gets more of a say. The institutional voice of the newspaper editorial board will be tempered by readers who are given some level of influence about what runs in the paper’s editorial columns, and the ability to air their views simultaneously.
So far, not that many people know about the P-I’s Virtual Editorial Board; it hasn’t been promoted heavily. Which is fine for now. Trahant is more interested in thoughtful contributions from those who really care about an issue, rather than a big, noisy response. Of course, what’s likely to happen, he predicts, is that pretty soon “every PR firm in town will figure it out” and get their clients to try to influence P-I editorials.
One Step Further
If the P-I’s approach to interjecting community opinion into newspaper editorials doesn’t seem like quite enough, then consider a slightly more aggressive approach. At the Dallas Morning News, an editorial-board blog is published during the daily meeting, not immediately after it. Sometimes during those meetings, the staff solicits reader ideas while ideas for the next day’s editorials are still being discussed. The quick responders’ input is factored into the discussions and in some cases influences the end product — the next day’s editorial.
The Opinionated Blog
Another online innovation worthy of consideration by newspaper editorial pages is the blog. Editorial writers may find that another technique to better engage the reader in a more interactive way is by blogging.
For an example, there’s the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. In that paper’s Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, bureau is Dave Oliveria, a conservative columnist and associate editor of the paper. As part of the latter title’s responsibilities, he writes traditional newspaper editorials as a member of the editorial-page staff, but he also has become a “rabid blogger,” according to S-R online publisher Ken Sands.
A significant part of Oliveria’s day is now spent on the blog, called Huckleberries Online, scoping out the writings of other local bloggers and commenting on them, and talking about what he’s seeing in regional media. As the blog readership interacts with Oliveria, that helps shape the topic choice and writing of his editorials and his columns. Indeed, Oliveria’s opinion column often is drawn heavily on that blog conversation between readers and writer.
We in the news business tend to think of blogs as venues for individual voices to express themselves, or as a handy format to present fast-breaking headlines and tidbits for big stories. But blogs by staff editorial writers can serve as idea generators — helping them identify community issues that are bubbling up, and taking the pulse of the community on various issues. Maintaining a blog is a way for an editorial writer to step up the level of interaction with the public, and keep it high. It’s yet another way to turn the editorial page away from lecture mode and into a conversation.
The Virtual Editorial Page
Newspaper editorial-page editors are unlikely to turn their precious editorials over to members of the community, but at least through some of the techniques we’ve discussed so far, the public has an avenue for influencing the positions that editorial boards decide on.
Op-Ed and letters space, however, is where concerned and articulate community members can have their say directly. Of course, in print editions it’s not always easy to get published; space for Op-Ed submissions especially is limited and there’s typically a bevy of syndicated Op-Ed columns that take up much of that room. But on a paper’s Web site, there’s no such limitation.
Editorial pages can open up to more voices by giving them space on the Web. If four people submit Op-Ed pieces on, say, a controversial local land-use plan, then all four can run. A logical approach in a print/online publishing environment is to choose the best for print publication and then refer to additional public Op-Ed essays online. Or, the print Op-Ed page can serve more as a table of contents to what’s published online, with abstracts of each of the four articles and Web addresses for the full articles.
It’s the same space issue with letters to the editor, of course. The online editorial page frees letter writers up from the old tyranny of editorial-page editors. For instance, at the Post-Intelligencer, the policy is that an individual can only have a letter published once every three months in the print edition. Yet for the letters areas of P-I Web site — and the same goes for submissions to the Virtual Editorial Board — a prolific letter writer can be published every day.
What this means is that in time, the editorial page of a printed newspaper becomes a highlights page for a much richer presentation of viewpoints and opinion on its respective online area. Interesting, thoughtful and lengthy conversations on important issues can be boiled down and summarized in print — a “Cliff’s Notes,” if you will, of the full issue discussion online. Online = depth. Print = a quick read.
(Some industry observers — and I concur with this view — believe that the “news hole” for newspapers will shrink in the coming years, leaving less space for editorial content, because of the bleeding of classifieds revenues as they go more and more online and are obliterated by the trend toward free online ads. The Cliff’s Notes print-edition editorial page might not only be a good idea; it might be a necessity.)
The Letter is Not the End of It
One other point worth noting about letters to the editor in the digital age is that they need not — indeed, should not — be an end point. Online, I would contend that all letters should have a comment feature appended. Just as articles should allow readers to post comments, so should letters, in my view. The old concept (still played out in my town’s daily newspaper) of a controversial letter to the editor being reacted to by other letter writers over several days is an anachronism in the Internet age.
An example of the spirited exchange possible when comments are allowed on letters can be found at the Web site of the Lawrence Journal-World in Kansas. Here’s a letter, for instance, that sparked a lengthy list of online reactions from other readers, all posted within a few hours of the original letter’s publication online.
At the Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania, comments have been enabled on letters to the editor since last fall, says online editor Russell Glitman. He says comments overall for the site represent about 1.5% of traffic. The interesting statistic is that about half of those are comments on published letters to the editor.
Registration and Identity
When dealing with controversial topics, as is the everyday task for editorial pages, passions can overflow and rhetoric can get heated. In other words, people say stupid things — especially if they don’t have to attach their names to their words. Ergo, editors who have experimented with allowing reader comments minus a requirement to properly identify themselves have created some unruly online conversations. Without hesitation, I’ll recommend that for the editorial page, especially, requiring real names for commentators is a must.
At the Lawrence Journal-World, the editors recognize the potential for problems, so they’ve devised a number of ways to keep the discourse civil, according to Phil Cauthon, an editor for the paper’s online division. That includes a real-name feature that puts a registered user’s name (rather than user name) on submissions and comments so that the person’s reputation is at stake; a “suggest removal” feature so readers can flag objectionable submissions for editorial review; e-mail notification to the editors of a “rookie” user’s first 10 posts; e-mail notification for all posts by people designated as “sketchy users”; and a “Did you find this comment useful?” rating system.
As Cauthon notes, such techniques aren’t revolutionary outside the newspaper business, but they’re not used widely within our industry. Especially for comments on editorial-page content, and discussion boards associated with editorial pages, such techniques are vital. The editorial page is not the place for an anonymous free-for-all slugfest.
The Spokesman-Review’s Sands suggests another idea worth pondering for the interactive editorial page: Along with requiring user registration and real identity to post comments, force people to “sign” a civility pledge.
Another nice idea for newspaper editorials that we’re likely to see more of is the reader poll. At the Post-Intelligencer, every editorial now has an accompanying online poll (like this one), asking readers if they agree or disagree with the opinion expressed.
It’s a small idea and not complicated to execute. But it’s yet another step in making the editorial page more interactive and less one-sided.
Of course, it’s not without its challenges. Trahant says some surveys accompanying editorials become the targets of mass campaigns by special-interest groups attempting to insure a survey “victory” for their side.
The Ill-fated ‘Wikitorial’
No column about the future of the editorial page is complete without at least mentioning The Los Angeles Times’ “wikitorial” fiasco of this summer. This noble-minded experiment put a Times editorial (on Iraq) into “wiki” mode — meaning that anyone could go in and change the wording of the editorial. The collective readership, it was hoped, would participate and come to a consensus on the issue at hand.
It didn’t work out, of course. A few pranksters had some fun not only with inappropriate wording, but also by placing pornographic images in the editorial. The wikitorial was shut down in the first day.
Frankly, I don’t think wikis of that sort will find favor on the editorial page — ever. But that doesn’t mean that wikis won’t find their way in other forms. One likely strategy for editorial pages is the closed wiki, where a small group of experts on a topic or issues are given access to a wiki, and the group writes and edits its way to a consensus (or at least, compromise).
Imagine this: An editorial writer begins to tackle an issue by writing a first draft of an editorial. Then she invites a small group of experts on the topic to edit or add to a wiki version of the draft. When the group is done and the writer is satisfied with the end product, it’s shipped off to the editor for publication. The idea holds potential: Most editorial writers cover a variety of issues, and seldom are they experts on them. By bringing the real experts into the process, in theory the result should be better editorials.
In a Word: Interactive
So what does the future of the editorial page look like? Well, just about every idea mentioned above involves a much higher level of interactivity — giving community members and readers greater access to those who write for the editorial page.
The Post-Intelligencer’s Trahant believes that the one “institutional voice” of the newspaper will become less important; it will be replaced in the years ahead with multiple editorial voices. Perhaps a decade from now, he suggests, the institutional voice will completely fade away. The lecture will be replaced by the enlightened conversation about important community issues.
The course that editorial pages are headed on will require that editors listen to the voices of the public like never before.