Wikitorials and other changes at the Times editorial page by Michael Kinsley and colleagues are argued from five directions in the new journal of the National Conference of Editorial Writers. The pieces run under the banner of "The Big Blow Up at the L.A. Times and the Future of Editorial Pages." Longer excerpts follow, since the publication is not online. First up is Andrés Martinez, Editor of the Editorial Page at the LAT. He includes the news that the Times has stopped using freelancers and outside contracted writers to pen editorials. Only members of the editorial board will write, but the board includes a new "visiting fellow" slot. The first of those, Gregory Rodriguez of the New America Foundation, begins a three-month stint next week.
Should newspapers still run unsigned editorials that speak for the institution, taking positions on the pressing public policy debates of the day? Absolutely. Indeed, because of all the “chatter” out there – the deluge of news and innuendo provided by traditional media, the 24/7 cable universe and the blogosphere – the need for principled, authoritative commentary has never been greater. At a time of vanity-driven celebrity journalism, a deliberative editorial board’s positions acquire greater credibility and can have greater impact.
People these days crave absolute truths. Editorials may not quite deliver that, but a good editorial page does provide readers with a filter through which to interpret the news and all that chatter. The filter consists of a coherent worldview and an adherence to certain core principles.
At the Los Angeles Times, we have renewed our commitment to the editorial page. Since Michael Kinsley and I arrived in 2004, we have engaged the newspaper’s leadership in a thorough internal (and sometimes public!) discussion of ways to modernize and strengthen this venerable institution. All options were on the table, but the changes we have adopted in the end will disappoint those who wanted a radical departure from the traditional editorial page’s form and mission.
The Los Angeles Times will continue to publish daily unsigned editorials that speak on behalf of the institution....We are beefing up our expertise in such areas as technology, immigration and healthcare. And to reinforce the separation of the opinion pages from the newsroom, the editorial page will now report directly to the publisher, instead of to the editor. I should also note that during this period of intense navel-gazing about the edit page’s future, we haven’t exactly been standing still. Most prominently, we have done a series calling for non-partisan state redistricting, another one calling attention to the ravages of malaria in Africa, and we are campaigning for the mayor to take control of the L.A. school district.
As a means of making our pages accessible to readers in more ways, we are experimenting with new online content. Most famously, inspired by the wikipedia, we posted an editorial online on the situation in Iraq and invited readers to edit it collectively. The results were impressive, as hundreds of people took the exercise seriously, until someone posted some pornography and we had to pull the cord. We are still committed to trying more of these “wikitorials” once we work out all the kinks.
Dissents and support come from Stephen Burgard, a former LAT editorial writer now director of Northeastern University's School of Journalism; Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review; Jan Schaffer, director of the Institute for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland; and Jack Nelson, the Times' retired Washington bureau chief. [* Update: Blog take from Dan Kennedy, also a professor at Northeastern.] Some snippets, first from Burgard:
What my old newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, has been doing in rethinking its editorial page for the web is juvenile at best and destabilizing at worst. Some smart people have clever ideas, but they are drawing flawed conclusions about the influence of editorials and the role of the newspaper as institution.
This audience knows better than anyone that a newspaper's pronouncements
may not sparkle every day. Many need to be spruced up or stronger. But that
doesn't mean we should bring on the bloggers as consultants, which seems to
be the operative philosophy at the Times under Michael Kinsley's restless
direction. In the Times' first experiment with “wiki” editorials, it was
astonishing to watch the web experts wrestle “live” with distinctions of
fact and differing opinion that seasoned editorial page people have lots of
experience handling and routing.
The key for online is to find suitable new formats that supplement the
printed page, and to transfer the best standards of our discipline to any
web-based “citizen journalism” initiatives like wiki. In the formulation of
public policy, this nation has been served well by one of those fixed
stars, what I call the compact between editorial pages and readers. It has
to do with being clear about who is talking in the unsigned editorials, the
letters that come in response, and the signed oped articles that inform and
That basic understanding is being unraveled in Los Angeles.
Niles also used to work at the Times, and in addition to running OJR created the website Theme Park Insider.
Don't dismiss the wikitorial too quickly.
The Los Angeles Times' experiment with interactive editorial writing
failed within 24 hours, after Web users inundated the site with
pornographic images. But The Times' failure to properly execute its bold
innovation should not deter better-prepared editorial pages.
A relatively inexperienced web developer could have configured The
Times' wiki software to block all images from users. A simple dirty word
filter can keep out most obscene language. And a reasonably competent
computer programmer could have found a way to force wikitorial
contributors through The Times' website registration process, which
would have given the paper a better way to identify, and thus deter,
Actually, newspaper editorial writing shares much in common with wikis
-- online articles that any reader may edit. Both are collective
efforts, reflecting the view of a group of writers, rather than that of
an individual. And both strive to report an enduring truth that
encompasses more than just a single point of view
Schaffer also thought the wiki-torial was a good idea:
The spotlight shone on the handful of hijackers who shut down the site with a flood of obscene messages and photos. But in the shadows hovered a more important group: the 1,000 readers who, over only two days, were animated by this newfound opportunity for civic engagement.
All around, the clues are unmistakable: Tech-savvy citizens, empowered with new information technologies, want to interact with the news. They yearn to offer their expertise, their ideas, their knowledge of their communities.
They have already started to blog, post photos, launch community news ventures, truthsquad mainstream stories and, yes, write editorials.
Nelson wrote his piece before Martinez said the Times would discontinue using freelance editorials:
No newspaper can afford to dismiss new ideas out of hand. Many newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, are far better today than they were 40 or 50 years ago because they have been open to change.
But I think Kinsley’s plan to outsource editorial writing could turn out to have a subtle but dangerous side effect: It could erode the newspaper’s fundamental relationship with its readers. The heart of that relationship is the reader’s belief that the paper – in addition to being a business – is a member of the community. Readers may not articulate that belief, may not even realize they hold it. And they are certainly not happy with their newspaper all the time. But if newspapers are to have readers who keep coming back, there must be a sense that the paper is an enduring, committed institution – that it plays a role “in the lives of the people of their years.’’