The largest newspaper chain in the country wants to get rid of newspaper opinion pages.
Lawsuits from Gannett, publisher of USA Today and about 250 other newspapers across the country (including my former employers, the Battle Creek Enquirer and the Lansing State Journal), told the publishers of their newspapers that they had to reduce the opinion pages of a characteristic daily newspaper to a more rare occurrence. Some Gannett newspapers now only publish one opinion page per week.
When their newspapers run opinion pages, the people at Gannett want those pages to focus on “community conversations,” rather than syndicated opinion pieces. Gannett has already canceled several syndication contracts, according to Poynter, a journalism industry watcher.
According to Poynter, the folks at Gannett say they recommended (not mandated) the change because hardly anyone reads opinion pieces online, anyway. Readership surveys show that this is because readers feel that newspaper commentaries are lecturing them, rather than informing them, and they don’t want their newspaper telling them what to think. Readers also feel that opinion pages tend to stir up division, no matter how hard newspaper editors call for unity.
I have mixed feelings.
In an ideal world, the comment pages of local newspapers act as a kind of public square, a place where people of all persuasions can share their thoughts on current issues.
Letters to the editor act as public commentary, so everyday people can have their say on events in their city, state, country. Columnists act as guest speakers, people with a bit of expertise in the subject of their columns who share that expertise with the general public to provoke thought and conversation. Through editorials, the newspaper – the town square’s moderator, keeping people civil and making sure both sides are heard – offers leadership on these issues by speaking out for the good of the community.
In this ideal world, the readers of the comment pages – the participants of this public square – can agree to disagree. Sometimes minds change. But, still, at the very least, readers better understand the people on the other side of the issues and come away with a respect for other points of view.
If we’re being honest, the pages here don’t always end that way.
Too many union columnists simply preach the party line. Too many letters to the editor come from the same people writing about the same topics. Yes, newspaper editorials can be rushed and seem bland or even preachy. And, yes, the nation’s divisions run so deep that too many people don’t want to hear the other side at all, let alone take the time to respect the difference of opinion. Sometimes people get mean.
I would never say that each of my columns comes out perfectly.
Sometimes I would also like to remove The News comment pages.
But I never will, because despite all the shortcomings, I still think these pages are of great value.
While I would like to see more diversity of opinion between the letters and the editor, I still believe that the process of writing something for the journal – and the mandate that writers include their first and last names of family – offers more nuance and civility than, say, opinions lambasted on Facebook.
While our syndicated columnists can get predictable – and I wish we had more local columnists – they still offer expertise in their topics and provide in-depth justification for their positions that you just don’t hear on TV.
And, while our daily editorials can be rushed at times, I continue to believe that they demonstrate leadership and let readers know where this journal stands. Regular readers of our editorials should know that The News is synonymous with civic participation and transparency, fiscal responsibility and government responsiveness.
And I think I produce a good word or two in this column from time to time.
No matter how many, I know that some of our readers value our opinion pages as the place in town they are meant to be, that they read the pages to learn from others who think differently from them, and that they appreciate and respect this difference of opinion. I know that some readers sometimes change their minds or at least teach themselves to think differently about an issue.
And that helps our community.
And that, to me, is reason enough to keep the pages around.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-354-3112 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.