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The Why, Who and How
of the Editorial Page

fourth edition

Kenneth Rystrom
Virginia Polytechnic and State University


Can editorial writers compete successfully in today's fierce battle for public attention?

Gone are the days when editorial writers could count on faithful and sympathetic readers. And gone are the days when readers looked primarily to newspapers for opinion. In the face of competition from other popular media, such as television and the Internet, is there still a significant role for those who write opinion pieces for newspapers?

David Shaw, the Los Angeles Times press critic, contends that "only rarely does the press help determine what people think," but that it can "help determine what people think about."1 In determining what people think, opinion writers today may have three roles in public discussion: helping to set public agendas, creating community forums and providing community leadership.

In seeking meaningful roles for today's opinion writers, is there anything to be learned from looking back at our predecessors, the great editors and writers who were blessed with strong, loyal readers?

When you consider Benjamin Harris, James Franklin, John Peter Zenger and Horace Greeley, you have to admire their spunk and their willingness to run risks. Harris's Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick, the first newspaper published in this country, was shut down after one day because Massachusetts authorities didn't like what Harris had written. James Franklin (Benjamin's brother) was sent to jail for what he said in his Pennsylvania Gazette. John Peter Zenger was charged with sedition and imprisoned for what he dared to print.

As the break from England approached, readers gloried in reading what their favorite Tory, Whig or Radical editor had written. But those who disagreed went so far as to break into newspaper offices, destroy the presses, carry away the type and melt it into bullets.

After the Revolutionary War, the Founders drew up a Constitution and a Bill of Rights that were intended to guarantee the rights, including freedom of press, that they had accused the colonial officials of violating. During the John Adams administration, however, when anti-Federalist editors spoke out vociferously against Adams' anti-French policies, they were jailed under the Alien and Sedition Acts for providing aid and comfort to French revolutionaries. (Thomas Jefferson freed the editors when he became president.) In the 1850s the Populist editors raised such ire that they risked being physically attacked by their competitors as they walked down the street.

The role of editorial writers was clear in those days: Write strong, strident, emotional editorials expressing views that the publishers wanted to propound and that their readers wanted to read-never mind that the authorities or other readers might legally or physically attack them.

Stories about thundering editorial writers make exciting reading and no doubt provoke nostalgia for the days of the "Great Editors." From their bravado we can draw inspiration to speak out strongly ourselves when, in an era of one-newspaper towns, many editorials writers feel pressure to temper their tongues. In such towns, editorial writers have opportunities for persuading readers of widely ranging opinions by aggressively pursuing the three roles mentioned above: setting public agendas, creating community forums and providing community leadership.

Setting the public agenda—controlling the subject matter that a community reads about—is no small power. Editorial writers have more freedom than reporters do to decide what they want to discuss and are likely to be more visible now than in recent decades. Today editorial pages offer opportunities for writers to attach their names to signed columns, interpretive articles, Internet essays and other opinion pieces. A photograph or a sketch of the writer, accompanying an article, can bring added recognition for the writer.

Editorial writers also get more opportunities today to affect editorial policy, which increasingly is set by a board composed of editors and editorial writers rather than by the publisher or a single editor. In addition, publishers are looking for more diverse editorial writers in terms of age, sex and racial-ethnic background. As a result, editorial writers have new opportunities to draw on their own ideas and more diverse backgrounds that affect the agenda for discussing public issues.

To be successful and responsible in carrying out this role, opinion writers today must be better educated than ever before. They must work hard to keep up with what is going on in their communities, in this country and around the world. They need to get out into their communities, cultivate knowledgeable and opinionated sources, and travel.

Closely allied to the role of setting the public agenda is providing a public forum. When the editorial column expresses an opinion, it is important to encourage readers with different points of view to express their opinions. Many newspapers today provide more space for readers' comments. Diverse ideas appear regularly on op-ed (opposite the editorial) pages, typically labeled "Commentary," which offer opportunities for lengthier articles.

Newspaper opinion pages may provide the only opportunity for the balanced, reasoned discussion of community issues that is vital in an open, democratic society. Opinion page editors cannot be satisfied with simply reprinting letters that come in the mail. Instead they encourage letter writers to use the telephone, fax and Internet. They solicit contributions from people of diverse views and encourage readers to write on specific topics or respond to important questions. They create boards of contributors, drawing members from the community. In all these efforts, today's editors work harder than most editors of the past to create forums for widely diverse viewpoints.

Opinion pages also can provide leadership in a community. How far newspapers should go in this role, however, has become a matter of disagreement among newspapers and among editors and writers. Some newspapers simply try to increase responses from, and articles written by, readers. Others, however, take an additional step: they organize and encourage readers to attend public meetings, with the goal of helping communities reach consensus on troubling issues. Some newspapers have worked with television stations to mobilize communities in support of causes.

Some editors criticize these efforts at activism—sometimes referred to as "civic journalism"—as going beyond the proper role of a newspaper. They contend that a newspaper's credibility is threatened when it stages public events and promotes causes in its news columns. Other editors believe that newspapers should play a leadership role but that that role should be confined to opinion pages. But whether or not they limit themselves to the editorial page, editorial writers play a community leadership role when they point out flaws in bad ideas, praise worthy projects and propose ideas of their own. As we will see in one of the chapters on editorial writing, they also write editorials promoting as well as praising their communities.

These three roles of the opinion page—setting the public agenda, creating community forums and providing community leadership—will vary from community to community, from one newspaper to another. Every newspaper faces different circumstances. A community with a more sophisticated readership may offer opportunities for more in-depth discussion of issues. Newspapers in state capitals or university towns have easier access to the opinion of experts. Newspapers in business-oriented communities need to make certain that the views of management are balanced with other opinions. Newspapers in strong labor communities have similar responsibilities. Newspapers in economically healthy communities have more opportunities to devote space and resources to build public forums. Newspapers may see their roles differently in communities in which local leadership is weak.

All these elements affect the roles that editorial pages can, and should, play in a community. No one formula can be prescribed. One task for contemporary and future opinion writers and editors is to find new and better ways to fulfill these roles and, in doing so, keep the opinion function of the press alive and healthy. The purpose of this book is to help them meet that challenge.

Copyright (c) 1983, 1994, 1999, 2004 Kenneth Rystrom.



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