In New Media World, Opinion Pages More Relevant Than Ever

Steven Greenhut
Greenhut writes for American Spectator, Reason and the Orange County Register.

One of the main criticisms I’ve received from readers over the years is that I’m biased. “Yes, indeed, I have biases,” I always reply. “Columnists actually are paid to express them.” As newspapers carve out a sustainable role in an internet-based media world filled with opinionated Facebook and Twitter rants, this raises a question: Are commentary pages important anymore? The world isn’t suffering from a lack of bias.

Yet opinion pages not only play a crucial role in the community — their role is more crucial than ever. Readers often misunderstand, say, the difference between an editorial (the unsigned official institutional view of the newspaper) and an op-ed (personal views expressed opposite of the editorial page). But these pieces are as vital to a functioning democracy as the investigative coverage found on the news pages.

Commentary pages serve as a community forum. They take the news a step further. Ideally, a newspaper’s reporters fairly report the news. Sure, they have their biases, but they are supposed to provide reasonably balanced accounts of the day’s events. Then editorial writers and columnists draw conclusions and hold any offending politician’s feet to the fire. They can demand that heads roll and that policies change.

Sometimes editorial writing is no more influential than spitting in the wind, but other times it leads to new laws, additional oversight, even prosecutions. Sometimes such writing stops officials from doing the wrong thing. One council member complained that the editorial page’s attention to his redevelopment policies kept him from using them more often. As a critic of redevelopment, I took that as the highest compliment.

Some editorial writers have the high hope of “changing the world.” That’s embarrassingly naive. But they can accomplish some important goals. They can set the terms of debate. They can spotlight issues that would otherwise be brushed under the rug. They can host a reasonably civil debate that engages the broader community and includes myriad viewpoints. They can directly hold accountable misbehaving politicians and others.

What’s the point in tooting the horn of the Southern California News Group’s commentary pages? Well, other pieces in the newspaper today are focused on the challenging future of the newspaper business. Editors at our sister publication, the Denver Post, recently stirred the pot with provocative pieces critical of its ownership. As the newspaper emphasizes the importance of news reporting, it also needs to recognize the value of vibrant editorial pages.

Printed newspapers first emerged in the 1600s. The modern newspaper industry took off in the mid-1800s as newfangled printing presses allowed the distribution of cheap printed copies. In my neighborhood growing up, virtually every family had a paper delivered daily to the door. Different newspapers had different political philosophies, which were (in theory) contained to the editorial pages.

But the internet has revolutionized the distribution of news and opinion in a way not seen in two centuries. The traditional approach — teams of reporters, massive presses, delivery vans that drop copies at people’s front door (or in the bushes) every morning — is facing tough times. Newsrooms are dealing with persistent layoffs — and that means fewer reporters to sift through public records, sit through school-board meetings and cover important events. It also means fewer editorial writers who can connect the dots and call out the offending parties. Fewer writers can set a narrative the way, say, the Orange County Register’s libertarian editorial voice still influences the county to this day.

This column recently focused on the concept of “creative destruction” as it applied to other established businesses, such as taxi companies. That describes how old business models face existential crises as upstarts, buoyed by emerging technologies, grab market share. Internet news sites offer great opportunities for news distribution, but they also make it tougher for established news operations to continue their work.

Does it really matter if you ride across town in an Uber rather than a taxicab? But it does matter if the public can’t get reports about the goings-on in city council meetings. It also matters if a community’s residents don’t have a common forum to debate contentious issues. The new media world is appealing and here to stay, but it has reinforced the tribalism that is eroding the rational discourse needed to maintain a democratic society. We’ve got to have a way to talk to one another, even those with whom we stridently disagree.

Maybe it’s a sign of being a geezer to look back at the “good old days” when, on the newspaper editorial page, there was time to zero in on sheriffs, mayors, school boards and county supervisors. Politicians still are smarting from things the editorial page wrote about them 15 years ago. Today’s world isn’t suffering from a lack of debate, of course, but such debates in the context of an editorial page seem more important than ever.

Originally published in the Orange County Register.

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