The latest issue of The Masthead, published by the National Conference of Editorial Writers, has a diverse roundup of commentary on Michael Kinsley’s controversial stewardship of the Los Angeles Times’ editorial and opinion pages. But you can’t read it without jumping through some technological hoops. (The website LA Observed has a meaty summary online here.) Given that the whole point of Kinsley’s reign has been the melding of newspaper editorials with the Web, that’s more than a little ironic. I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, a brief recap.
Kinsley – who has said he’ll likely be leaving his post this fall – has raised hackles with such dubious innovations as publishing freelance pieces as unsigned editorials and, most disastrously, posting a “wikitorial” on the Times’ website that readers could revise as they saw fit. Not surprisingly, the piece became a magnet for X-rated contributions. There’s no doubt that the editorial and op-ed pages of daily newspapers could use some serious rethinking. But Kinsley, despite a long, successful career editing publications such as The New Republic and Slate, as well as co-hosting CNN’s “Crossfire” back when even Jon Stewart would have liked it, seemed to lose his way.
The Masthead contributions range from pro-wiki commentators such as Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review, to the more traditionalist Stephen Burgard, director of Northeastern University’s School of Journalism. Both Niles and Burgard have worked for the Times, Burgard as an editorial writer.
Yet unless you’re a member of the editorial-writers group or a subscriber to The Masthead, you are almost certainly not going to put in the effort needed to read these pieces. Because The Masthead, oddly enough, is not on the Web. You can find it online through some specialized databases; I was able to access the articles via EBSCO, available for free with my public-library card. But the path I had to take was nonintuitive bordering on counterintuitive.
By not making its contents freely available, The Masthead is withholding itself from what could be a broader conversation. Romenesko loves this stuff, and a posting on his site would have guaranteed national distribution to an audience of both professionals and lay people – which is what this package deserves. Bloggers would have at it, too. I can’t imagine the editorial-writers group would suffer much of a financial hit by giving away The Masthead. If anything, the organization would achieve a higher profile, and perhaps more people would join.
Jay Rosen, among others, is a staunch advocate of free, permanent links, explaining:
ROSEN: If you linked to the Los Angeles Times, your link would be dead in a week or two, as the content moved, in some grindingly mechanical fashion, off the “free” site, into an closed and gated archive, with tolls, thereby removing the journalism part from circulation on the Read/Write web, which means removing it from Google, from active cultural memory, and interrupting the very patterns by which value is added to a piece of journalism – post-publication, online, because of how the web works.
The danger, of course, is that news organizations, already hard-pressed for revenue because they’re giving away their current content on the Web, will lose yet another revenue stream by giving away their archives. Yet surely there is reputational value in taking part in the national conversation. When was the last time you heard anyone talk about The New Republic? It’s not because it’s not just as good as it ever was; it’s because it now hides most of its content behind a subscriber-only wall. Now the New York Times is ready to places its columnists off-limits to non-subscribers. Many observers are predicting that people who don’t subscribe already will simply find new columnists to read – and I think those predictions are right.
What’s obvious is that if you’re not on the Web, you’re not part of the conversation. The Masthead’s LA Times package could help foster a wide-ranging discussion about the future of the editorial page. But not if only a select few can read it.