Mark Glaser is away on vacation this week, but we’re happy to have Mark Tapscott filling in as a guest blogger. Tapscott is editorial page editor of The Washington Examiner, proprietor of Tapscott’s Copy Desk blog and the Distinguished Journalism Fellow at The Heritage Foundation. Glaser will return here next Monday, Oct. 9.
At least not until this proud editorialist gets another job, that is! Actually, after reading the case for abolishing traditional editorials presented by the always interesting Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine.com, I have to nod my head in agreement with much of what he says even as I vigorously disagree with his marquee assertion.
Jeff says this:
“Embrace new voices and viewpoints. Listen before lecturing. Break free of the limits of paper and use the Internet to create a limitless platform for experts to inform the discussion. Become moderators and enablers of the debate that is already going on in the community. In short: Join the conversation.”
I agree. In fact, that is an excellent summary statement of what I am trying to do with the editorial section I oversee at The Washington Examiner. It’s not happening nearly as quickly as I would like but then I suspect Jeff and I are rather a lot alike temperamentally. The WECAN project I discussed in this space yesterday is an illustration of one approach to a newspaper being a moderator and an enabler of others in the community to come together to share experience, insight and expertise in search of solutions to community problems.
Jeff also says this:
“Rather than one cold voice of the institution, shouldn’t they try to gather many new voices and viewpoints? Instead of one opinion from on high, wouldn’t it be more useful to an informed society to share the best arguments around issues so we, the people, can make better decisions?”
And again I agree. Gathering “many new voices and viewpoints” was the purpose behind my creating The Washington Examiner Blog Board of contributors, which includes a dozen of the best bloggers representing a broad cross section of opinion on the Blogosphere. Among the dozen are such disparate voices as Dan Gillmor, Bob Cox, Jeralyn Merritt, Ed Morrissey and Lorie Byrd. Every Tuesday and Thursday (and sometimes more frequently), Examiner readers get a piece written exclusively for the paper on a current topic. These pieces are consistently among the Top 10 most well-read features in the paper.
But the conclusion Jeff reaches (he actually states it at the outset of his post) is this:
In this age of open media, when every voice and viewpoint can be heard, when news is analyzed and overanalyzed, and when we certainly are not suffering a shortage of opinion, do we need editorialists?
No. I leave it to you to argue whether we ever did. But there can be no question that, as the rest of media and journalism go through wrenching change and — I hope — radical reexamination, so should the editorialists reconsider their roles.
But wait, is Jeff’s conclusion that we should kill all the lawyers and the editorialists? Or is it that editorialsts had better start looking at their jobs in an entirely new and different way? Jeff is a shrewd writer. Note that he lures us into his post with a provocative question and answer, then proceeds to explain why his declaration doesn’t actually admit of such a conclusive answer.
I don’t see any difference on one level between a well-written editorial that makes people of differing views think more carefully about their positions than a blog post that does the same thing. The significant difference is the openness to dialogue that accompanies both. Jeff is absolutely right that the day is long past for Olympian editorial pronouncements from on high by The New York Times or my friends down the way a bit on 15th Street here in D.C., or even by The Washington Examiner, correct and wise though the latter would undoubtedly be! The reality is that smart editorialists realize they have no choice now but to listen and participate in the discussion, not seek to rise above it, manipulate it or otherwise direct it. We are participants, not censors.
That said, despite all the truths embodied in Gillmor’s maxim that news is no longer a lecture but a dialogue and the consequent necessity for editorialists to engage discussion, not end it, the role of editorialist remains a vital one. Why? Because he or she gets what most others in the conversation don’t — namely, a regular paycheck to study, think, listen and write about issues others care about or are discussing.
Even in the Internet age, the vast majority of folks with something to say in cyberspace spend most of their time making a living and living their lives. The issues of the day aren’t their first concerns, nor should they be. Editorialists on the other hand make their living doing that thinking/listening/studying/writing thing. Taken seriously and carried out in an intellectually honest manner, such a role ought to carry some weight.
Whether as mere conversation starter, discussion referee or assessor of others’ positions and policies, the editorialist fulfills a function that is even more important as the parties to the public policy discussions expand in number and volume.
And because there is no longer anything remotely resembling a media monopoly, the editorialist succeeds by enabling more independent discussion, analyses and participation and by always remembering that, as Jeff says, “smart opinions are not delivered fully formed; they are enriched by the conversation.”