New LAT critiqued

You can't say that Michael Kinsley hasn't gotten people talking about the L.A. Times editorial and opinion pages, though Kinsley and his colleagues might wish that more of the chatter was about the substance of their positions and ideas. Today, former L.A. Times editorial writer Stephen D. Burgard, now director of the Northeastern University School of Journalism, reacts strongly and in depth to Kinsley's changes in a letter posted at Romenesko's Media News. Burgard argues not just that Kinsley has little respect for the conventions of newspaper opinion, but that the Times' pursuit of online interaction is sacrificing an editorial page's advantage over blogs. Burgard takes off from today's New York Times story (reported lower on this page), but he seems to have been biting his tongue for awhile now.

For years, editors have debated how to enliven editorial pages, but something more radical is going on at the Los Angeles Times under Michael Kinsley, as reported in today's New York Times. The LA Times editorial page is sending conflicting signals to the readers and to the industry, and I don't think it quite knows what it is doing. One message is that it is going to be more interactive, which is fine. The second, is more serious and evident through statements from two top editors, Kinsley, and the paper's new editorial page editor, Andres Martinez. It is that it is restructuring the basic understanding that editorial pages of major newspapers have had with readers in the modern newspaper era.
Some of the elements of the "contract" are: "We live here and have primary allegiance to this community, even if we are owned by somebody far away, and even if our editorial mission is global. The unsigned pieces are researched and written by our staff, and represent the voice of the publisher, who delegates but can weigh in. We know you are busy, so we make these recommendations, and are clear that the news side has a different mission. We provide alternate space for reply and for columnists and experts. In doing so, we make it clear what's our opinion and what's not. We admit our mistakes, but also will defend our mission and positions. All this is informed by a belief in the power of newspapers to make a difference."

This working agreement has become a staple of American print journalism. The basic form - editorials, letters, oped articles - continues at the Los Angeles Times, and was reinforced yesterday in a message to readers from Martinez. But if one follows the public statements and writings of Kinsley, it now seems clear that the newspaper has signed on an opinion pages editor who doesn't really think much of newspaper opinion as we have come to know it. To this former staffer who has admiration for the conventions of the editorial page, this is quite different from hiring a celebrity journalist to liven things up.

Kinsley has brought a keen intellect and restive mind from the online and magazine worlds, which is obviously what the Times bargained for. But in thinking aloud, Kinsley has spoken and written as if the basic model is broken, which is another question altogether. If he is right, then he is a prophet intent on guiding an outmoded industry format out of the wilderness. I happen to think otherwise, that the operating agreement as it has evolved on editorial pages is one of journalism's best traditions, and that it simply needs adaptation to the digital age.

[fast forward]

The overarching concern I have is whether Kinsley is creating confusion in the minds of readers that later will have to be undone in the interest of clarity and credibility for the newspaper...

A top opinion editor should recognize that having editorial pages be less chattering than blogs is a plus, not a minus, even with the opportunity to take advantage of online forms. Editorial pages were doing opinion long before the new guys, and they know a lot more about where the land mines are. Who's the teacher here, anyway? That is not to say that the editorial page can't use the digital opportunity to full advantage, and to put a lot more reader opinion and commentary online than ever before.

The larger challenge for editorial pages is not so much to change their ground rules to somebody else's game. It's to be liberated by publishers to be less boring and predictable, to be better written and reported and to be willing to rethink an established position, and to be more relevant to the concerns of readers who increasingly are online.

More over at Romenesko.

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