Newspapers: Wear your hearts on your sleeves

Ask news editors if they want their publications to be relevant, to be talked about, to make a difference and to speak truth to power, they won’t answer yes. They’ll answer “Hell, yes!”

Good. Now it’s time for them to put the action behind that “Hell, yes!” They need to speak to their readers about what is happening in their state capital. And they need to do it with fist-pounding editorials on the front page, rather than carefully worded opinions on a page inside the paper.

Consider what the state legislature has done or is working on:

* Restricting the opportunity to vote.

* Interfering with the operations of local governments.

* Taking the possibility of Sharia law in N.C. courts seriously.

* Cutting benefits to thousands of unemployed citizens.

* Cutting public education funding.

* Mocking protesters and calling them names.

* Protecting the health of corporations who promote fracking rather than the health of residents who live in fracking areas.

* And, of course, restricting access to abortions in a surprise move — surprise to opponents, but supporting organizations were invited to watch.

There are others but you get the picture.

The General Assembly’s actions don’t make the front pages of many of the state’s newspapers. They should, though, because they are changing the culture and future of all of the state’s citizens. If that doesn’t call for front-page editorials, I don’t know what does.

News organizations have the opportunity to fulfill the purpose of journalism: to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing. So why do it through front-page editorials rather than news stories?  Because these issues are too important to leave the newspaper’s opinion to the inside pages. Thousands of people are protesting the state’s actions and dozens are being arrested for it. Now is the time for paper’s to stand up and shout.

The obvious objection is that front pages are for news, not political opinion, which is hogwash. Columnists run on front pages all over the state. Frankly, there is little to lose and much to gain. People already think newspapers are biased, and efforts to explain the difference between news and editorial pages fall on deaf ears.

Letting people know where the newspaper stands in strong language will win the paper respect. Most people like intelligence and courage. (Television stations could do the same, but it’s a rule that they don’t offend any viewers. Fear of people changing the channel is too great. Newspapers don’t have that problem.)

Some say that no one reads newspapers any more, but we know this to be true: the people who vote do.

Tomorrow, Americans celebrate freedom with parades, flag-waving and fireworks. What better time for newspapers to do the same thing?

21 thoughts on “Newspapers: Wear your hearts on your sleeves

  1. Because these newspapers did not aggressively go after the Democrats as they drove the state in debt, rewarded donors with crony contracts, etc.; it is doubtful readers will believe the newspapers today. Sure the Republicans have strayed from their campaign promises; but, who can honestly throw the first believable headline.

  2. Mr. Moore,

    It may be up to the independents like us at the Camel City Dispatch. We weren’t around during Democratic rule and we are just as hard on Dems here locally and on the state level as we are on Republicans… and we have been very hard on the Republican Supermajority down to coverage of the issue today.

  3. I will wholeheartedly agree with you IF you said the same thing during the time Democrats ran the state government. Both parties practice the same deceptive policies, and most in the populace only cry foul if the trickery’s end result is something they don’t like.

    Do you also support the newspapers who agree with the state government posting their opinions on the front page as well?

    • The argument that “the other side did it, too” is among the weakest. It is up there with “he started it.”

      It is different now. Changes under the rulers now are quicker and more dramatic than when the Dems were in power. When was the last time thousands of people rallied at the state capitol week after week?

      Still, to answer your question, yes.

      • Dismissing a valid argument by trivializing it is a pretty weak argument in itself.

        But I digress. Of course it is different. The main difference is that you (in the collective sense) don’t agree with the changes being made.

        And even if the changes are more swift, that doesn’t change the motivation. The problem is that politicians (of both persuasions) make laws that benefit the specific groups who provide them with money and votes (i.e. power). Neither of the two parties has the best interest of the whole population at heart.

        Using the argument that one party’s pandering is somehow better than that of the previous bunch of crooks only serves to make the problem worse. From one side I hear how the NCGA and Pat McCrory are ruining the state we love, and from the other side I hear how Obama and the Democrats in Congress are ruining the country. And you know what? Neither is right.

        • Here is my argument: the state’s direction is being changed dramatically. I don’t like it but that isn’t relevant. Newspapers should editorialize about it with power. But accepting it as business as usual or well, the Democrats did it too is a failure for an editorial position.

          • Sorry. I don’t mean you, Brad. I mean newspaper editorial pages.

  4. This isn’t a two sided argument. It’s radicalism versus common sense and common decency. Not everything is or should be balanced – nobody would expect a story about a holocaust survivor to include the opinions of a holocaust denier to “balance” the piece, right? These aren’t left versus right issues, this are sane versus radical issues.

  5. Our local paper, Wilmington Star News, already gives us a belly full of leftist editorial opinion on the front page. They call it “new” but in reality it is thinly disguised editorial opinion. Move on, nothing ” fair and balanced” to read here.

  6. AT one time, “Journalism” was defined as “being in the truth telling business.” There is a point where truth isn’t present in the editorial, and the truth of what is supposed to be factual reporting versus editorialization is often lost on the editors themselves. Either that self-delusion is the case with N&O, or they just like to P***** off conservatives by claiming they are really unbiased.

    I don’t care if N&O want to continue to commit suicide by being biased towards liberal Dem politics when their reader based is, at best, split 50-50. I ponder whether the N&O owners want to emulate the “success” of the Madison Capital Times and the Ann Arbor News, or for that matter, the chronic money-losing NYTimes.

    What would be a great news story is that when a newspaper has only 25% of their readers as self-identified liberals (online polls), and only 45% voted for Obama (again, online N&O polls), they chose to go with the minority opinion in their obvious slant. At this point I can only conclude that the N&O, and their parent organization, are NOT focused on long-term viability, but rather have followed something akin to a religious pursuit of liberal Dem politics. You know, sold their soul?

    • You confuse fundamental philosophical principles with the profit motive. The N&O has a long history of liberal principles on its editorial page. You shouldn’t expect it to change those principles because technology has changed and given people more news choices. Besides, the N&O is still quite profitable.

  7. John, your beloved president loved Kenya voter
    Not one person would not be able to vote with voter id cards!
    Benefits cut? we were borrowing that money to pay the benefits.
    Cutting public funding, 2 out 3 high students can not do basic math.
    So your answer is to throw more money at it?
    Mocking protesters, you had no problem going after the Tea Party!
    What do you know about fracking? not a thing!
    Fracking has been done safely for years.
    When John, was at the N@R the democrats in Raleigh were perfect, even all of those that went to jail.
    What John wants and the other liberals want is for NC to be like California.

    • Let us deconstruct that. Your first comment about the president doesn’t make sense.
      The legislature wants to cut the early voting period in half. That is restricting access. Since you brought up the topic, did you know it’s going to cost $3 million to enact voter ID?
      Two of three students cannot do basic math? Baloney. But feel free to make the case that providing less money will help them.
      I never mocked the Tea Party and I don’t recall the governor or legislative leaders doing so. If you can point to such a news story saying it, please do.
      Fracking? The Senate is moving forward with legislation to keep secret what chemicals are blasted in the earth. Maybe it’s OK with them doing it in your neighborhood?

      • Would any other blog readers prefer that John be able to spend his time pursuing a higher calling than correcting the multiple errors in missives from surly know-nothings? It’s not like they’re lacking for soapboxes elsewhere online….

  8. John, I agree with much of what you recommend, but I disagree with part of your premise: “Ask news editors if they want their publications … to speak truth to power … (t)hey’ll answer “Hell, yes!” With regret, I predict the reply will be a much-less-passionate, “Heck, yes!” It might be part of the Vision Statement on the conference-room wall, but “speaking truth to power” isn’t on many editors’ to-do list for tomorrow, next week or next year. It certainly wasn’t a priority at my last job where, as a daily newspaper’s editor, Job No. 1 was to get enough work out of a greatly reduced staff to fill Page 1 with local stories and the inside pages with as much community news as we could process. In daily budget meetings I’d always ask, “What story will people read tomorrow?” and “What one’ll they be talking about?” Relevance? I pushed our political reporter — an old-school, feisty one with sharp elbows, but an unfortunate tendency to bury the lede — to write nut grafs that spelled out clearly how officials’ latest actions related to the average citizen. However, when it came time to choose editorial topics, the publisher and I tended to pick milquetoast topics I could write about off the top of my head, because I didn’t have time for much research into complex issues. It wasn’t like that at my previous paper where, over almost four years starting in 2002, I wrote a million words (fact!) in editorials and columns. That publisher not only encouraged me to write forceful editorials, he demanded it. My only regret is inflicting so many lengthy, tortured arguments (“Here’s one side, here’s the other, and this is what we believe and why”) on hapless readers. Even so — you’re right about this, too — readers appreciated straight-shooting opinions and in return they sent us a load of lively letters to the editor that in turn generated more readership. In 2002, though, I had a 10-member staff to cover a circulation area with about 25,000 people. At the newspaper I left in 2011 I had a six-member newsroom staff (down from 12 when I started in 2008) to cover a county of 70,000. Fewer bodies means fewer hours for writing, reporting, even for thinking. Similar cuts across the nation have gutted the ranks of newspaper opinion writers. In 2002, the old National Conference of Editorial Writers had 554 members; today the Association of Opinion Journalists (NCEW renamed itself in an attempt to expand its appeal to broadcast and web-based writers) has 267 members, down by half. Further evidence, if any is needed, is the crashing decline in the number of editorial cartoonists, to fewer than 90 working fulltime for U.S. newspapers. No matter how hard you spur the horses, a smaller cavalry just can’t fight as effectively. Also, arguably, adding 40 pounds of digital devices and demands to their saddlebags doesn’t increase their impact, it slows them down. If newspapers want to adopt your battle plan, John — and I agree they should — they need more hard-striking editorial cavalry. Our colleague Michael Gartner — never a shy wallflower on the dance floor of political debate; I wonder whether he still writes the anonymous, acid-tongued Civic Skinny at Cityview in Des Moines — observed in a Nieman Reports column eight years ago that griping about newspaper editorial pages doesn’t change ( Rarely one to point out a problem without also proposing a solution, Gartner wrote, “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.” Good advice then, good now. However, I doubt that bottom-line-obsessed corporate newspaper owners will embrace your suggestions now any more than they did Gartner’s in 2005.

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  10. This is probably the worst advice for newspapers that I have seen on this blog. Newspaper circulation is down in large part because people simply don’t trust journalists. The digital age and availability of free news plays a big role, too . . . maybe the single largest role. But one cannot deny the distrust factor. Multiple opinion polls within the industry bear that out. Newspapers have done themselves irreparable harm by trying to tell the reader how he should feel, how he should vote, how he should shop, etc., etc., for years.

    If newspapers want to remain (regain?) relevance, they should offer in-depth, BALANCED analysis of what is happening in their communities and in their states. Offer the sort of insight that readers cannot get from the nightly TV news, the radio political minute, the online blogs, etc., but do it with an even-keeled approach. News stories that have been perceived as thinly-veiled opinion pieces have played a role in the demise of traditional news sources. While shifting editorials to the front page and becoming more demonstrative in criticisms of the majority party might be a more honest approach than some of our colleagues have taken in years past, all that will be accomplished is to cement the readers’ distrust.

    Republicans did not rise to power in N.C. by accident. They got there because voters put them there. Obviously there were more voters who felt the Republicans’ policies were the best way forward than there were who felt the Democrats’ policies were best. Why on earth would newspapers who want to be relevant wish to alienate that many readers? Because that is exactly what you do when you take the approach you advocate — you prove right the not insignificant number of conservative newspaper critics who say that journalism is becoming a propaganda arm of one political party. What you see as regression on major issues in N.C., a large number of readers/voters see as progress, and vice-versa.

    Editorials serve a purpose, but it is a much smaller purpose than newspaper editors and publishers have traditionally believed. The editorial voice of newspapers is no longer relevant, and probably has not been for a long time. I have won multiple press awards for editorial writing, but I also realize that the best editorials I have ever written have changed few minds. Most of those who read editorials are like-minded people who need their opinions validated; who feel good about reading something that makes them want to pump their fist in the air and say, “Hell yeah! That’s what I’m talking about!”

    The bottom line is simple, from where I stand: Newspapers should be about informing people, not influencing people. There is a distinct difference there. The former gains readers’ trust; the latter alienates readers, regardless of whether the newspaper’s editorial tendencies are liberal or conservative.

    • Thanks, BenG. My response to that is that that is the approach that all newspapers are taking now. No, let me rephrase: that is the approach that all newspapers think they are taking now — a balanced, in-depth analysis on local and state issues. We can debate whether they are and we might even agree. But that doesn’t matter because newspapers think they are being objective and fair.

      And that approach isn’t working as you say.

      So, I’m suggesting they try something different. I don’t know that it will help, but it sure can’t hurt.

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