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Please read your vegetables while they're still here
By ROBYN BLUMNER
Published October 7, 2007
To me, a newspaper is like a meal.
The news and business pages are the meat and potatoes. The sports and lifestyles sections are the dessert. And the editorials are the vegetables. They may not be the most delectable part of the paper, but they are highly nutritious brain food, necessary to a citizen's appreciation of government actions and current events.
Editorials are also one of the few ways political leaders are held to account beyond elections.
But what would happen if editorials went away?
This is not just some casual question. The newspaper industry is confronting treacherous times. Newspapers have traditionally depended upon the dual support of advertisers and subscribers, both of which are slowly migrating to the Web without their accompanying revenue stream.
Smart, studied opinion grounded in objective fact and logical argument representing the institutional voice of the newspaper - whether you agree with the paper's bent or not - is of great value to society. But does it help the newspaper's bottom line? If that can't be demonstrated, publishers might someday see editorials as an unnecessary expense.
To stave off that day, members of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, the professional association for opinion journalists, came together in Kansas City recently to mull over our options.
What will the role of the editorial writer look like in the digital age? Will we all have to become adept at video packaging so that our arguments can be illustrated with moving pictures? (Is the printed word really a 20th century relic?)
Some of my colleagues who run editorial pages have had their titles changed from editorial page editor to community conversation editor. The idea is that their primary job is not to formulate thoughtful and well-researched positions on public policy but to moderate a discussion. The editorial is almost an afterthought to the conversation it is expected to generate about a particular topic.
At the conference, two newspaper publishers intimated that attracting eyes and comments to the digital editorial page was more important than how expertly the originating editorial was crafted. Provoking and engaging readers was more valuable than educating, informing and persuading them. And the publishers seemed to have no compunction about turning their cyberspace editorial sections into free-for-alls where every comment except the profane is welcome.
I rue this day (which is pretty much here). I think newspapers, and editorial pages in particular, risk their powerful credibility by inviting anyone and everyone into an opining fight club.
In my view, the reader commentary posted on a newspaper's Web site should meet the same standards and criteria as that applied to the letters to the editor section of the print edition. That means no one should be anonymous - which I believe would reduce the vitriol and irresponsible attacks. And, if the reader states an untruth the comment should be barred.
Beyond that, what I would really like to see is the digital editorial pages evolving into a place for value-added conversation, not just a bunch of people writing whatever occurs to them.
Unfortunately, all the momentum is in the opposite direction. With today's emphasis on page-hits, the comments sections for digital editorials have become the equivalent of talk radio: Lots of people offering uninformed opinions with the occasional gem, insults flying and a breakdown in civil discourse. I learned a long time ago not to listen to talk radio because it was a corrosive environment without much illuminating substance.
But the format wasn't the problem, it was the execution. I say that because the call-in show Talk of the Nation on public radio is an entirely different animal. The people who call that show offer comments and questions that are typically generated from a wellspring of independent knowledge. There is almost never any ugly name-calling or disrespect, and sometimes I learn as much from the callers as from the guest. It is the quintessential value-added conversation.
I would like newspaper digital editorial pages to be the Talk of the Nation of cyberspace. There are plenty of places on the Internet for people to offer uneducated and ill-considered opinions in the language of the gutter. What you don't find yet are many places of general interest where only rational, informed and civil argument is allowed. (And no, this is not censorship. Only the government can violate the First Amendment.)
If newspapers fail to transfer their professional standards to the new media, it won't be long before readers fail to qualitatively distinguish the digital editorial page from any other cyber smackdown. Such empty calories might be fun to consume, but they won't feed a reader's mind and they surely won't nourish a citizen.
And please read your vegetables every day, otherwise they may soon disappear from the menu.