Do Editorial Boards Still Matter?

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

One day back in 2005, when I was reporting a book on Gov. Schwarzenegger and his use of ballot initiatives, Todd Harris, then a political consultant for the governor, greeted me triumphantly.

“36 for 36!” he said.

Harris was talking about Prop 77, the redistricting reform initiative the governor was backing on the special election ballot that year. After many weeks of work, the governor’s campaign had convinced all 36 of the state’s largest newspapers to endorse Prop 77.

The editorials didn’t make a bit of difference. Prop 77 lost.

In recent weeks, when I ask people on different sides of the special election ballot measures what they’re up to, the answer is often: I’m on my way to meet an editorial board.

My next question is: Why do you even bother?

I haven’t received a good answer to that question yet.

Let me be clear. Newspapers are crucial to our democracy and to free and fair elections. The economic difficulties of and downsizing at California newspapers are bad for our state, our country, and our world. And newspaper opinion pages provide an indispensable forum for public debate. If anything, we need more space for opinions and public debate in newspapers than ever before.

But I’m less sure about the value of the unsigned editorials newspapers publish to represent their official positions on a matter. The very concept of such editorials doesn’t work. Does anyone believe that newspapers, with their diverse array of reporters and editors and executives, have an official, coherent position on anything? The notion of an institutional position at a newspaper is, almost by definition, a lie. I worked as a full-time reporter for three different newspapers – the Baltimore Sun, the Wall Street Journal, and the LA Times – and I never once thought that an editorial represented me. On the few occasions that a news source would try to associate me with an editorial, I’d quickly and loudly reply that I couldn’t be held responsible for whatever crazy things the opinion side folks were writing.

My skepticism of editorials is hardly original. A few years ago, when he was leading the LA Times editorial pages, the journalist Michael Kinsley also questioned the value of unsigned editorials. I do believe there is some modest benefit to the endorsement process. Newspaper editors get to sit down with both sides of each issue. And the advocates often are forced to develop better arguments in their efforts to convince the skeptical, independent journalists who make up editorial boards. But I’ve never seen any data that newspaper editorials move poll numbers or change votes. And newspaper readership surveys suggest that the unsigned editorials are not well read.

As someone who writes occasionally for op-ed pages, I wouldn’t mind one bit if newspapers ditched the unsigned editorials and used the space to publish more signed pieces from columnists and members of the public with interesting stories to tell.

And I suspect people in politics would be better off devoting the time they spend on editorial boards to making convincing web videos, seeking endorsements, participating in public debates, or writing signed pieces that make their argument.

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