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Considering the value of editorials

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Greg Peck
January 23, 2013

Stuart Leavenworth, editorial page editor for The Sacramento Bee, recently grabbed the torch for his editorial-writing colleagues across the nation.

In a column, Leavenworth wrote:

“The editorial director of an influential California news organization, one that says it is dedicated to producing ‘stories that hold those in power accountable,’ believes there should be fewer voices dedicated to that cause.”

“Newspapers will start to taper off writing editorials,” predicted Mark Katches, editorial director of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

“They’ll find that they can be a leader in their communities by engaging audiences, moderating forums, holding events and curating roundtable discussion—while avoiding the pitfall of alienating a significant percentage of their audience by telling people what to think.”

Leavenworth responded: “There are so many things wrong with Katches’ conclusion I barely know where to start.”

He added: “It probably wasn’t intentional, but I find Katches’ characterization to be offensive. Newspapers have long published editorials for a simple reason—they want to be leaders in their communities. The very definition of leadership is taking a stand, defending it and constantly reassessing it.”

Leavenworth says no one on his newspaper’s editorial board “suffers under the delusion that our editorials ‘tell people what to think.’ We have a pretty high regard for our readers, who are fully capable of forming opinions on their own.”

I know that those on the Gazette Editorial Board think the same way.

In an follow-up email, Katches said he wasn’t advocating that newspapers drop editorials, just that it was a trend that was likely to continue. Yet he suggested that eliminating partisan editorials would be a smart move if newspapers want to keep readers.

“Sorry, but there is no evidence that strong opinions are hurting newspaper readership…,” Leavenworth wrote. “Well-researched, smartly argued editorials are part of what newspapers do to hold public officials accountable.”

The comments from Katches follow those from Kristina Ackermann, managing editor of Editor & Publisher, who urged newspapers to stop issuing election recommendations.

“Between accusations of biased coverage, waning power to influence readers, and the very real potential to drive away advertisers, newspapers are better off keeping their political endorsements to themselves,” she wrote last month.

Countered Leavenworth: “Would you want to read a newspaper that only sailed to the prevailing political winds and made decisions to avoid upsetting advertisers?

“Obviously, it’s a bad business model to go out of your way to alienate subscribers and businesses that might want to purchase advertising. But a newspaper that is void of anything that might upset anybody would be bland beyond belief. Indeed, if upsetting nobody was the goal, newspapers … would cease publication of investigative reporting.”

I'm a member of the Association of Opinion Journalists, and I'm confident the vast majority of my colleagues gave Leavenworth a round of applause.

I'm also glad to serve as Opinion page editor at a newspaper where owner/Publisher Sidney "Skip" Bliss is a staunch advocate of strong editorials.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook



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