The topic of newspaper editorials and opinion pages bumps up now and then like an old friend now in rags, frequently homeless, consigned to a corporate cloud of uncertainty.
Many daily newspapers in Kansas are owned by giant corporations that have compressed them into midget component siblings that mirror each other; one design fits all. News coverage and advertising are reduced sharply; a lot of publications have abolished their editorial pages or cut them to a few days each week. The notion is that opinion pages are so much hokum; it costs too much to care. Let the readers make up their own minds.
This ignores a problem. The news today is often about complicated matters that even the experts have trouble unraveling. Local taxes, school finance, infrastructure and health insurance are among the elaborate and mazy knots in our lives. In better times, editorials and editorial pages sought to help readers understand difficult truths and reach conclusions about them.
Traditionally, editorials have had three goals: To persuade, or to analyze and inform, or to entertain. These purposes aren’t mutually exclusive. An entertaining editorial, well-crafted, can be more persuasive than a clubbing from the Daily Planet.
Until recently, newspaper editorials reflected the persuasions and inclinations of the editor, or of the newspaper as an institution.
At the Salina Journal from the 1950s into the ’70s, Whitley Austin’s bracing editorials were labeled “The Editor’s Opinion.” Other editorials from The Journal staff were signed. (Later came George Pyle, shrewd, proficient, a superb writer.)
At The Hutchinson News, editor Stuart Awbrey published unsigned editorials as the voice of that institution in the ’60s and ’70s. Awbrey wrote a dozen or more editorials each week plus a daily column, “The View from Here.” His editorials were succinct and precise; his insightful columns brought acclaim and many awards. Austin wrote less frequently but with precision and elegance. Both editors preferred the stiletto over the broadax. They were also Pulitzer Prize jurors.
Austin and Awbrey were among the best of their kind, ferociously educated, voracious readers, multi-lingual, and painfully curious. The point here is that editorial writers and editors are made, not born. The better ones evolved through experience, having rubbed elbows and worked with serious thinkers, great writers and perceptive editors; they were deeply involved in their communities. Austin and Awbrey had each worked for William Allen White of Emporia, an icon in American journalism. They helped to shape the next generations of newspaper opinion writers and editors.
In recent decades, leadership at the better newspapers was corroded by an influx of business managers, and “executive interns.” Promising students and young professionals were put on a fast track to assume the thrones of wise old editors. The problem lay in the rush that bypassed experience and, in many cases, education. The old wise editors retired and presto came new managers in the clutches of survey results and policy training; they were more inclined to shove a reader’s complaint onto a focus group or a “business model” than to find out what was wrong (or right). They might have understood the numbers in a bond proposal or sales tax increase, but little of the thinking or the history that had led to them. It made them easy prey for technology’s siren chorus.
In the face of complexity they established “policy,” bane to the thoughtful, resourceful editor. Policy can throttle creativity and invention; it stifles ingenuity, talent, productive thought.
We are left with corporate newspapers and the infrequent editorial page, or no opinion page. The message is that the thoughtful examination of important matters – our schools, cities and counties, our state, our lives – is a waste of readers’ time and a drain on the company ledger. Instead we have the guest editorial and the syndicated columnists; and for balance, one from the far right and one from the far out. Symmetry is important, lest readers think our opinion page is biased.
The insightful editorial page is not about bias versus balance. It is about helping people think. Editorials, columns and cartoons may not persuade them to act, and they seldom persuade them to act in the way an editor hoped. But if they stimulate thought on a particular problem, if they prompt reexamination of attitudes toward the world around us and the people who live in it, then the page will have served a purpose.
In America’s growing news deserts and opinion wastelands, readers are left with no compass, abandoned to the dry winds and the storms gathering on the horizon.