Monday, June 20, 2022

Editorial pages and editorials: Gannett move makes editor-publishers reflect; Oregon's Les Zaitz says less can do more

Gannett Co.'s recent recommendation or directive to local editors that they offer less opinion, and keep it local, has prompted reflections by rural editor-publishers. UPDATE, June 21: Here's another.

Justin Hinkley
In an editorial column headlined, "Does a newspaper need an opinion page?" Alpena News Editor-Publisher Justin Hinkley (a former reporter at Gannett's Lansing State Journal) says he sometimes wants to do away with commentary pages because "too many syndicated columnists simply preach the party line, too many letters to the editor come from the same people writing on the same topics," and "Newspaper editorials can get written in a rush and sound either bland or even preachy. And, yes, the nation’s divisions run so deep that too many people don’t want to hear from the other side at all, let alone take the time to respect the difference of opinion. Sometimes, people get nasty."

But Hinkley tells his Northern Michigan readers that he will keep the pages in the Ogden Newspapers daily because a letters section "offers more nuance and civility than, say, opinions blasted on Facebook," syndicated columnists "provide a depth of rationale for their positions that you simply don’t get listening to talking heads on TV," and editorials "show leadership and let readers know where this paper stands . . . for transparency, fiscal responsibility, and responsiveness from government."

Les Zaitz
Les Zaitz of eastern Oregon's weekly Malheur Enterprise, who won the 2018 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism, told The Rural Blog in an email, "I dropped a regular editorial page some time ago, and now I run editorials on a targeted basis -- when I really have something to say, when it's of import. That way, the editorials have more impact. The drill of doing one every week seemed more for us than for readers. I do run columns from time to time."

As for the civic forum usually provided by an editorial page, Zaitz said "Our Facebook page is very robust and we've got it monitored well enough that people are trained to behave themselves. Rarely these days do we have to pull down a comment. You can see from a Facebook post I put up this morning about the latest records mess how quickly readers react." That post was one chapter in the Enterprise's long battle with the county economic-development director, in which the newspaper has taken a strong stand for transparency and accountability. In its latest edition, it had an editorial calling for the director to be dismissed for incompetence.

I think Les is on the right track. The old maxim that readers of a newspaper deserve to know what the editor thinks doesn't apply as well in today's bubbling cauldron of information. Pick your shots and take your best. --Al Cross, director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

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