By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Shifting the time-space continuum

Steve Outing of the Poynter Institute has a piece in Editor & Publisher on how technology is being used to open up the editorial page. Every one of the ideas he mentions is worthwhile, from the Seattle Post & Intelligencer’s “virtual editorial board,” to blogs by editorial writers, to offloading worthwhile material onto the limitless space of the Web.

Still, I find the mentality expressed in this excerpt problematic:

OUTING: Editorial pages can open up to more voices by giving them space on the Web. If four people submit Op-Ed pieces on, say, a controversial local land-use plan, then all four can run. A logical approach in a print/online publishing environment is to choose the best for print publication and then refer to additional public Op-Ed essays online. Or, the print Op-Ed page can serve more as a table of contents to what’s published online, with abstracts of each of the four articles and Web addresses for the full articles.

It’s the same space issue with letters to the editor, of course. The online editorial page frees letter writers up from the old tyranny of editorial-page editors. For instance, at the Post-Intelligencer, the policy is that an individual can only have a letter published once every three months in the print edition. Yet for the letters areas of P-I Web site – and the same goes for submissions to the Virtual Editorial Board – a prolific letter writer can be published every day.

What this means is that in time, the editorial page of a printed newspaper becomes a highlights page for a much richer presentation of viewpoints and opinion on its respective online area. Interesting, thoughtful and lengthy conversations on important issues can be boiled down and summarized in print – a “Cliff’s Notes,” if you will, of the full issue discussion online. Online = depth. Print = a quick read.

What is the idea of a daily newspaper? To me, the idea is to present a coherent compilation of the news. In putting together that coherent picture, the editor’s most important job is deciding what to leave out. You want to help the reader who can only give you 15 minutes to navigate through a complicated news-scape, while at the same time providing depth to those who can spend an hour.

But even a newspaper’s most devoted readers need to know that there’s an end – that, at some point, intelligent editors have decided that enough is enough, and that any more would represent a diminishing rate of return. What Outing favors, by contrast, could easily turn into a situation in which the print newspaper declines in importance while the Web edition morphs into a bottomless pit.

The Web provides limitless space. But that doesn’t absolve editors of the responsibility to respect their readers’ very limited time.

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Steve Outing responds


  1. Steve

    You only have to read Usenet (or Free Republic, or the comments section of most popular blogs) for a while to appreciate the function of an Editor. When a Letters to the Editor column publishes EVERY letter, it all but guarantees that no letter will be read.Similarly, if a paper’s webpage publishes all manner of op-eds, how will the paper be able to check the credentials of the authors and the veracity of their facts? Even large and prosperous papers are having problems with that now.This misses the REAL selling point of newspapers over random blogs – the value and credibility that is added by judicious editing.

  2. Steve Outing

    Dan,I absolutely agree that editors should be working to nurture and select the best content to cover an issue in the limited time that most readers have available. What’s changing is that there are more voices to choose from, which makes the editor’s job more difficult. If an editorial page is covering the topic of, say, laws that would restrict public panhandling, then there are opportunities to recruit “op-ed” pieces from various involved parties: a homeless person who relies on panhandling to survive; a local business owner who feels her business is hurt by panhandlers; a shopper who feels that his safety is threatened by aggressive panhandlers; etc. Personally, as a reader, I’d find it valuable to have all that range of perspective available to me. (Whether I’d have time to read it is another matter. But as you note, a minority of readers do care enough to want that kind of depth, and today’s Web publishing technology allows that.)These kind of contributions from the public are part of the “citizen journalism” trend that’s on everyone’s lips lately. It allows a wider range and a larger group of voices to be part of the editorial page, which becomes more of a community discussion ground than editorial pages of old. Personally, I think that’s a good thing. The public doesn’t trust newspapers as much these days; supporting getting their voices into the paper and/or its website might help ease that distrust. (And I do NOT think that the old letters to the editor space is anywhere near adequate.)What you describe as a Web bottomless pit doesn’t have to be that way even if it gives space to many voices. I think the editor’s job in such a scenario is to give everyone a voice (well, those who agree to abide by the rules and standards that are set), then to use those classic editing skills to craft a page or package that highlights the best arguments.What you end up with is a nice editorial-page package that covers all the bases, but in a succinct presentation that respects people’s time-starved lives. The bottomless pit aspect is there, in my scheme, but is presented in a way that doesn’t overwhelm. What I mean is: If some issue brings in a ton of reaction — hundreds of letters to the editor; a dozen op-ed submissions; etc. — then why not give everyone (who’s rational and plays by the rules) a voice. It’s just a matter of presentation. Pull out the best stuff and play it prominently. For the 90 letters and 9 op-ed submissions that aren’t so great, run them only on the Web and displayed in a downplayed list of headlines, under the title “Additional voices” or whatever. The tiny minority that wants more on the topic will dive into that, even if most of us ignore it.Plus, there are techniques to use the audience to rank such content. “Did you find this letter/article useful? (1-5 stars).” The 1-star stuff gets shuffled to the bottom of the pile as your “citizen editors” do their job. That sort of thing.I contend that editorial pages need to open up and allow more people in. And I agree with you, Dan, that editors must do their thing to serve readers who have limited time available. I think that both goals can be met. And we’ll have better editorial pages than we do today.

  3. Secret Agent Cathy

    I don’t have anything to add to all this thoughtfulness, but I just wanted to poke my head in and say it’s really sad that people’s lives are “time-starved.” We all know this is bad and we all have ideas about why it’s happening (rats racing, Mammon-worship, a weakened labor movement, Americans taking fewer lunches and vacations than the citizens of any other developed country, &c.). But, for me, the horribleness of the trend as it affects intellectual discourse is amply summed up by the Metro’s foul motto: All the News You Need, When You Have Time to Read.

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