Photo: AP
United States Project

Independent local opinion writing is essential—and endangered. Can we redesign it for survival?

March 29, 2016
Photo: AP

For some of us who grew up reading newspapers, one of the most troubling signs of the medium’s decline has been the shrinking of the editorial section—in size and substance. At its best, the editorial page has been the most vital part of the paper, a vibrant hub of argument, reflection, humor, and community engagement in which national and local journalists could sound off on anything and everything, and readers could vent as well.

These days, the editorial page is as diminished and endangered as every other section. Papers across the country (including The Denver Post last month) have cut their editorial output and staff, severely compromising their capacity to provide that essential hub of opinion and dialogue. The question is: If the traditional editorial page is not long for this world, what replaces it?

Too often, papers have filled the hole left by departed local opinion writers with “guest columns” by public officials and advocacy groups—leaving their editorial sections nearly devoid of independent local voices. Guest columns from interested parties are hardly a new phenomenon, of course, and they can provide value to readers. But printing them carries risks. David D. Haynes, editorial page editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and president of the Association of Opinion Journalists—whose membership has dwindled from 549 in 2006 to about 200 now—says the Journal Sentinel publishes op-eds from advocates and politicians on occasion, but with some trepidation.

“When we had a larger freelance budget, we were able to buy commentary from writers in the area with whom we had developed a relationship,” he says. “Though they had a point of view, they would research their work and back up their opinions with facts. That, of course, is often not the case with commentary written by advocacy groups. So as editors, we have to be careful.”

More than once lately in the Midwestern region I cover for CJR, the publication of a column by an elected official or interest group representative has yielded results that were awkward, at best.

Earlier this month, a county commission chairman in Kansas was rebuked by his colleagues for criticizing county employees in his regular column for The Hutchinson News (circulation 30,000). The paper’s publisher, John Montgomery, then took the unusual step of siding with the two commissioners and against his own columnist.

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“He’d be wise to separate his county commissioner role from that as a newspaper columnist and not write about the one in the other,” Montgomery wrote—even while defending the paper’s right to have published the offending column in the first place.

Montgomery told CJR that the commissioner, a retired radio executive, had been a “community columnist” before running for office, “but we didn’t think that serving as a county commissioner should necessarily preclude him from writing the column.” The paper has no full-time columnists but rotates 10 guest “community columnists,” most of whom don’t hold public office, and who were brought on as part of an effort to reduce the use of syndicated columns. The News also maintains an editorial board that produces original house editorials.*

A similar controversy arose last month in the Nebraska legislature, after a state senator compared his own colleagues to “monkeys” in a small-town newspaper column. Not only had the column that appeared in The Plattsmouth Journal been offensive, the senator’s colleagues and other critics argued, but the anecdote that gave rise to the “monkey” comparison was largely plagiarized from other online sources.

In a subsequent column, Plattsmouth Journal editor Patti Jo Peterson acknowledged her guest columnist’s plagiarism, but the paper continues to publish submissions from him and other Nebraska pols—in fact, these make up the bulk of the paper’s local editorial-page content.

“Because of downsizing over the years, we have no editorial board,” Peterson told CJR in an email. Along with columns that she writes herself, she says, “We run the columns of our representatives, because I think it’s important to see what their opinions on the issues are, right or wrong. The columns, at least for me, give insight as to what kind of person they are.” She added that she never considered dropping the state senator’s column: “Hiding his opinions would not be fair to his constituents.”

Even larger papers with more resources are not immune to such embarrassments. The Kansas City Star in 2014 published a column by Heritage Foundation chief economist Stephen Moore which one of the paper’s own columnists later discovered to be riddled with factual errors. The Star, which has seen its editorial-page output shrink over the years, is also one of several papers that have on occasion outsourced their editorial writing to the Oregon-based “Opinion in a Pinch” service.

The larger problem with outsourcing, of course, is that a paper risks losing its editorial identity altogether. At The Denver Post, CJR’s Corey Hutchins wrote last month, “the only columnists listed in the paper’s staff directory write for the sports section.” In the Post‘s editorial section, there are syndicated columns and guest columns from community members–but also from politicians and interest groups.

This is not yet an issue for Haynes’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which still has four editorial writers who all produce columns and blog posts, nor even for the Star, which has a relatively robust columnist roster, despite some recent departures. Among those taking the latest round of buyouts at the Star on March 18 were Editorial Page Editor Steve Paul and longtime columnist Barb Shelly. But the paper told CJR that it plans to refill both positions, and it still employs experienced columnists such as Dave Helling, Mary Sanchez, and Steve Kraske.

Even these papers, however, have to reckon with a future in which the editorial page, and the newspaper column as we know it, no longer exist. Forward-thinking publishers need to develop strategies for how to shape that future rather than letting it shape them. For a start, too many papers haven’t even joined the present by developing blogging and social-media strategies. For better and worse, these platforms are now the hubs for opinion and community engagement that the editorial pages once claimed to be.

Papers that can’t afford to hire full-time columnists could benefit from encouraging their reporters already on staff to write their own reported columns or blogs. Longtime Detroit News columnist Laura Berman told CJR’s Anna Clark in January that in recent years she had begun to do more reporting for her column because, “as the staff contracted, it started to seem more important to contribute to the news side.” The same could be true in reverse for reporters as the opinion staff dwindles, and as the Web (for better or worse) erodes the line between news and opinion.

Josh Stearns, director of the Dodge Foundation’s journalism sustainability project, has argued that newspaper endorsements—to cite one hoary relic of the traditional editorial page—should be a more substantive and more Web-friendly product, “deeply linked and contextualized” using the paper’s own past reporting on the candidates in question. And Stearns has other suggestions for editorial pages making the transition to a new media landscape through community engagement.

Rather than just outsourcing opinion writing to politicians and pundits, Stearns envisions op-ed sections designed as “places where news organizations can facilitate robust conversations,” he told CJR in an email. “Newsrooms could combine op-ed sections with live events that bring people together around pressing community issues, and create feedback loops where in-person discussions build on op-eds and visa versa. Columnists could take a cue from projects like the [New Orleans-based community media project] the Listening Post and set up microphones around communities, or invite input from people via text messages that are printed or woven into editorials.” He also suggests reimagining opinion sections as “laboratories for problem solving, where newsrooms could take a solutions-journalism approach to community challenges.”

In Stearns’s vision of civic journalism for the op-ed pages, “perhaps columnists would be replaced or complemented by facilitators and curators who would help cultivate diverse community voices.” This new role, and these new strategies, may not be a fit for every paper, but they aren’t radically different from what most editorial-page staff already claim that they are doing: providing a local venue for the free and unfettered exchange of ideas.

Whatever route they take, the op-ed pages cannot stand pat and allow their independent, editorial voices to be subsumed by political or corporate interests that are all too happy to take their place.

*This passage has been updated to more accurately describe the columnist and editorial-writing resources at the Hutchinson News.

Deron Lee is CJR’s correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee.