American Culture

The daily newspaper editorial: Make it weekly, please

Daily editorials, striving to not piss off anyone, have achieved ‘terminal neutrality’

Who — or what — killed the great American editorial? Wasn’t there a time when great newspaper editorials regularly thundered and whispered, sighed and screamed, were outraged or outraged others?

Paul Greenberg, the editorial-page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and a 1969 Pulitzer Prize winner, poses these questions on the website of the Association of Opinion Journalists.

Greenberg calls the forces that murdered the American newspaper editorial “as impersonal and characterless as many of the editorials themselves.” Among them are the goal of not pissing off anyone; “the stultifying editorial conference,” designed to drain life out of editorial positions; and hewing to “the party line or socio-economic fashion.” These forces produced, says Greenberg, “terminal neutrality.”

Although these forces had the daily newspaper editorial on its deathbed by the mid-1980s, Greenberg doesn’t reveal that I — yes, me! (gasp!) — pulled the plug on its life support. Yep, I pounded a few nails into the coffin of the daily newspaper editorial all by myself.

Greenberg missed a few reasons why the Meaningful Editorial™ has been dead for decades. Admittedly, its cousin, the Occasional Meaningful Editorial™, pops up from time to time, but that appearance is rare. So here’s the story of how I personally killed off the newspaper editorial as an effective voice.

I began writing editorials in the late 1970s — occasionally, not daily, and only when a topic or event prompted a thoughtful point. I had just become the copy desk chief, so writing edits was not part of my daily job. I’d write one when I had something meaningful to say on a topic or issue meaningful to our readers. I became good at it. But years later, during a management shift, I got promoted: In the mid-1980s, I began my five-year reign of terror as the editorial-page editor who helped kill the daily newspaper editorial.

Constraints and obligations appeared immediately. The publisher instructed me to hew to a traditional Democratic, liberal philosophy. Editorials would appear daily (preferably two — a lede edit and an off-lede, “lighter touch” edit). Thus I switched from writing edits when moved to do so to cranking out six to 12 editorials a week. Oh yes — I had to write a weekly op-ed piece, too.

On many days, I had nothing to say — or, rather, nothing that needed to be said. But because newspapers have come to feel obliged to opine daily, I manufactured something to say.

I pounded two particular nails into the coffin of the Meaningful Editorial™ — adherence to a political philosophy and the sheer volume of edits produced.

I wrote about 2,000 editorials and commentaries in the years I ran the edit page (while working on the copy desk for few hours each morning, too). You think I wrote 2,000 gems? Hardly. The nation had about 1,600 daily newspapers in the 1980s. Most had one-horse editorial-page staffs — mainly one guy. That was me: Each day I chose and edited the columnists, I edited the letters to the editor, I picked the editorial cartoons, I designed both the edit and op-ed pages, and I wrote the heds. Think I had sufficient time each day to craft a Meaningful Editorial™?

A good editorial — defined by my newsroom godfather as one that would induce readers to think — takes time for research, reflection, and an eventual revelation. The writing itself takes little time after the thinking (although the editing takes much more).

I guarantee you the majority of editorials I wrote met institutional goals. But those goals, and the other reasons given by Greenberg, have devastated the American newspaper editorial as a unique, articulate, intelligent voice in the nation’s political and moral debates.

Because I wrote daily editorials, with research gleaned primarily from morning consumption of The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and the old Springfield Union; and because I hewed to a particular ideology (one I believed in back in the day, compounding my errors); and because I had little time to research, report, and opine on important local issues, one adjective, methinks, best describes the bulk of my work — bland. Second choice: boring. (Imagine how charmed my edit-writing life would have been if I’d had Google …)

Even back then, and especially these days, newspapers have an economic incentive (or so they seem to think) to be bland and inoffensive: With advertising revenue at risk of further flight to Google and social media at every turn, watered-down opinion has replaced the thundering denunciations, the cries of outrage, the incessant demand that leaders lead better, and the thoughtful proposals that would improve the lives of all, not just the high-placed few, penned by the great editorial writers of yesterday.

I belong to the Association of Opinion Journalists, and have for decades. We used to call ourselves editorial writers, as in National Conference of Editorial Writers. Even in 1947, editorial writing in America had achieved the blandness of tapioca. And we knew it, because H.L. Mencken told us so at NCEW’s first annual conference:

If your editorial writer … ‘takes the fence,’ thinking of the dangers of antagonizing somebody or other, including the publisher’s wife, he can’t write anything worth reading and it is not worthwhile hiring him …

Good editorial writers exist. After all, Pulitzers are still being awarded for quality editorials, aren’t they? (In 2012, three teams of writers were named as finalists, but no Pulitzer was awarded.)

In a digital universe both blessed and cursed with opinions by the gazillions, why do many if not most newspapers still believe they must produce daily editorials?

Granted, there’s plenty to opine about, but should a newspaper opine every damn day? Given that the sheer volume of editorials has a “blenderizing” effect that produces edits with the clarity of mud, why produce sludge every day instead of competence and credibility once a week or so?

Think more, write less. That simple formula might rescue the Meaningful Editorial™ from oblivion.

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