Are newspaper editorials a waste of newsprint, money, and the reader's time?
The question isn't entirely new. Ever since sharp minds observed that opinions - many quite well-informed - have been proliferating on the Web at a geometric rate for more than a decade now, it's become unavoidable to wonder whether the newspaper editorial board, once the Supreme Court of acceptable public discourse, has become an anachronism.
Simply put, talk is cheap these days. The advent of cable news lowered the bar of entry into the public discussion; the Internet has almost totally obliterated it.
Today, there are hundreds of bloggers whose output, in both volume and quality of argument, exceeds that of many editorial pages in the US. And at a time when papers across the board are furiously cutting reporters, wouldn't it be wise to shift budget out of the editorial board room and back onto neglected news beats - the life blood of any paper?
"No," opine the editorial boards.
Mark Trahant, editorial page editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, says the Internet has only served to make the editorial process more transparent, rather than rendering it useless. His paper posts drafts of its editorials before they appear, and Trahant says the number of comments the paper receives online throughout the process validates the importance of editorials to the community.
"Opinion journalism is better with the Internet," he says, "because we are so much more connected with those who read what we have to say."
In smaller markets, where Craigslist has yet to erode classified ads and blogs have yet to establish themselves as quality sources of local coverage, editorials are still on correspondingly firmer ground.
"In the field of local news coverage, which remains a newspaper's strong point, locally written editorials still have an impact. We see it and feel it here in Jacksonville," says Mike Clark, editorial page editor of the Florida Times-Union. "There aren't many local online sources of information that can compete with the professionalism of a newspaper staff...And editorials will also be moving online to provide some frequency and depth not available in print."
Indeed, if smaller-market papers can get out in front of the wave of online opinion by using their Web sites to beat bloggers to the punch, they may be able to thrive a while longer. But in larger cities, where most papers have found themselves playing catch-up to Web 2.0, the task is harder. Big papers' editorial boards are searching for ways to retain their traditional gravitas while being nimble enough to compete with the Internet's bells and whistles.
The LA Times memorably blew that task in 2005 with its short-lived "wikitorial" concept, which was shut down after being flooded with the traditional Internet obscenities. Matt Welch, who became the Times' assistant editorial page editor last year, admits having his own doubts about the relevance of the form, but argues that editorials are still extremely useful to core influencers who help determine the course of civic life.
"Editorials certainly aren't the most-read items in the newspaper, I'm sure," he says. "But they are among the most avidly read by [those] who care about the ritual and the discourse."
The main challenge, he says, is to extend the editorial page's impact past that small group and out to the broader readership base. The paper is doing that to a certain extent, Welch says, with its editorial blogs, online discussions, and online background materials.
But maintaining a large paper's classic authority while simultaneously trying to shed light on the minutiae of its machinations may be impossible. As the masses realize they can participate in the public discourse without a third party, newspaper editorials may slowly become - like copyboys and typewriters - a quaint tradition.