Two quotations: “The prestige of the editorial is gone …. There are journalists who think the time is at hand for the abolition of editorials and the concentration of the whole force of journalism upon presenting to the public the history and the picture of the day …. Editorials neither make nor mar a daily paper.” And “Michael does like to ask questions, such as, ‘In today’s world, what is the continuing relevance of a newspaper editorial board?’”
Ah, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The first quote is from James Parton, a noted biographer of the 1800’s, and it appeared in the North American Review in April 1866. The second quote is from Andrés Martinez, the editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times, and it appeared in The New York Times in June 2005.
The “Michael” that Martinez referred to is Michael Kinsley, who was then the editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times. Kinsley had been shaking things up at his newspaper, moving writers around, asking outsiders to contribute editorials, letting insiders offer dissents, and—in a brief experiment—encouraging readers to rewrite editorials on the Internet.
Kinsley was just the latest—but he certainly won’t be the last—among the legions of people who have been debating, dissecting, or disparaging the editorial page ever since Horace Greeley invented it in the 1850’s. (Until Greeley set apart a page for opinion in The New York Tribune, newspapers readily mixed reporting and editorializing—something critics say that newspapers continue to do today.) Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World abandoned editorials in the 1880’s, and USA Today went to a controversy-averse format when it was launched 100 years later.
Making Editorials Matter
Parton and Kinsley are right, of course, in raising questions about the editorial page. But history shows that neither they nor USA Today has the right solution. It is folly—and dereliction of duty—for newspapers to abandon editorials, and it is equal folly to move to group-edit or groupthink. Editorials can—and should—always be strong parts of newspapers. Especially today, in this era of instant news and instant rumor, thought is a commodity in scarce supply.
The problem editors face today is no different from the problem editors have faced for 150 years: How do you get people to read editorials? The answer, too, remains the same. Report thoroughly, think clearly, write gracefully. Be passionate in your beliefs. Be persuasive in your writing. That’s the formula that worked for the four greatest editorial writers in history: Greeley of the Tribune, Henry Watterson of The Courier-Journal of Louisville, William Allen White of the Emporia (Kan.) Gazette, and Vermont Connecticut Royster of The Wall Street Journal.
These men wrote in four different eras, but they had much in common. They held strong beliefs, and they were stirring. The editorials of a young White helped put William McKinley in the White House. The editorials of an old Watterson helped stir a nation to war. Greeley, in his day, was as influential as any politician. Royster, in his way, set the political agenda for business leaders and the business agenda for political leaders. Greeley, Watterson, White and Royster, and their newspapers, had something lacking in most of today’s editorial writers and newspapers: personality. And that personality—personal and institutional—made the men voices to be listened to and made the institutions forces to be reckoned with. They wrote anonymously, but they were far from anonymous.
There’s something else, too. Greeley and White owned their newspapers. Watterson had an ownership interest in his. And Royster worked for a benevolent family, and a benevolent company president, who encouraged him to be as outspoken as an owner.
Watterson, who left the Courier-Journal in 1918 in a dispute with the new owners over their favorable views on the League of Nations, “was the last of the great editors, for the reason that he was the last of those editors who wrote with the power of ownership,” Arthur Krock, a great journalist himself, wrote. “A hired journalism, however zealous, however loyal, however entrusted, however brilliant, cannot be great because it speaks through the mist of subordination.”
Restoring an Editorial Voice
Neither Michael Kinsley nor anyone else is going to undo chain ownership, of course, but Royster—and a handful of others—proved that corporate-owned newspapers can have vigorous editorial pages. “The proprietors have put up with my prejudices while by no means always sharing them,” Royster wrote after he retired. Indeed, that tradition probably continues. The Wall Street Journal continues to put out perhaps the best editorial page in the nation—the editorials are well-reported, well-reasoned, and well-written and often outrageous and outlandish and outspoken. It’s hard to believe that the owners and executives agree with every word and every position.
The now-retired Richard Aregood, one of the best in the modern era of editorial writing, wrote editorials for newspapers owned by Knight Ridder and Newhouse, and clearly they and their editors gave him great freedom. “It’s about time for Leonard Edwards to take the Hot Squat,” began a 123-word Aregood editorial in the Philadelphia Daily News of 1975. And after outlining the crimes of “this piece of human crud,” he ended the editorial by saying: “Fry him.”
“A lot of people don’t have opinions,” the opinionated Aregood told an interviewer from the Poynter Institute in 1993. “That’s where the passion comes from. You’ve got to believe in something. There are a lot of things I believe in and strongly. And you’ve got to care about what you’re writing or,” he laughingly told the interviewer, “it reads like an editorial.”
Kinsley need only look in the files of the Los Angeles Times to find some of that passion. On April 23, 1943, at the height of World War II, the Times ran an editorial with the headline: “Apology to Rattlesnakes.” It began:
“Once or twice since Pearl Harbor, The Times has likened the Japanese to rattlesnakes. This is to apologize to the rattlesnakes.
“Compared with self-styled human beings who strike from the dark and slay without provocation or warning, who torture their helpless victims and murder them in cold-blooded defiance of honor and decency, the rattlesnake is one of nature’s noblemen.”
Today, the chain-owned newspapers tend to use editorial pages as convenient rest stops for reporters and editors who have lost their edge—or their patrons—in the newsroom. And it shows. “Most journalists come to [editorial writing] because they have been good reporters,” Royster noted, “and it is assumed that because they are knowledgeable about, let us say, government or foreign affairs they will have opinions worth listening to. Sometimes it’s true, often not. Many a good reporter has been ruined by asking him to think.”
History is the best teacher. So here’s some advice to Kinsley in his noble endeavor to make the Los Angeles Times’s editorials readable and relevant: Find some people who can think. And who can write. Find some people who are passionate. And who can be outrageous.
Then leave them alone.
If that doesn’t work, call up Richard Aregood.
Michael Gartner’s book, “Outrage, Passion & Uncommon Sense: How Editorial Writers Have Taken on the Great American Issues of the Past 150 Years,” will be published by the National Geographic Society in October. Gartner, who won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1997, now is principal owner of the Iowa Cubs and president of the Iowa Board of Regents.