Some thoughts on The Boston Globe’s Shirley Leung appointment

Shirley Leung via LinkedIn

The choice of Shirley Leung to run The Boston Globe’s editorial pages on an interim basis is an interesting one. The paper’s top two editors — the editorial-page editor and the editor of everything else — have traditionally held fairly low-profile positions before their appointment, at least in terms of their public profile. But Leung, a business columnist (and former business editor), is one of the Globe’s most high-profile personalities.

In that respect, the choice of Leung resembles the elevation of Brian McGrory to the top of the masthead in 2012. Unlike his predecessors, McGrory wrote a widely read metro column. At a time when newspapers can hardly afford to give up features that draw readers, that was a significant loss. Likewise, Leung’s column will be missed unless the Globe is able to find a suitable replacement. We can all hope that Leung finds the time to write under her own byline at least occasionally, but that’s going to be tough.

As a columnist, Leung is a provocateur who seems to enjoy taking controversial stands — most notably, advocating for the Olympics to come to town. There’s nothing wrong with an editorial-page editor who likes to think counterintuitively. But she’s now going to have to express her opinions as part of a team that includes the editorial board as well as owners John and Linda Henry.

Leung’s predecessor, Ellen Clegg, who retired last week, served a long time as the interim before finally being named to the job. Clegg led the pages through some significant accomplishments: a redesign of the print section that allowed her to cut the number of unsigned editorials from the traditional three per day to (usually) one; innovative editorial projects on gun violence and other topics; new voices such as Michael Cohen, Renée Graham, Niall Ferguson and Richard North Patterson; and an uptick in web-only content. Leung has large shoes to fill, but my guess is that she’s being groomed as the permanent replacement once her six-month interim stint is up. (Disclosure.)

It’s also interesting that Leung’s appointment comes just after deputy editorial-page editor Marjorie Pritchard led a nationwide campaign to persuade newspapers to editorialize against President Trump’s anti-press rhetoric. Ultimately more than 400 papers signed on. Which means that Leung will be even more closely watched than might have otherwise been the case.

Best wishes to Shirley. The full text of the Globe’s press release is below.

SHIRLEY LEUNG NAMED INTERIM EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR

August 20, 2018, The Boston Globe Boston, MA – The Boston Globe announced today that starting August 27th, Shirley Leung will assume leadership for the Editorial Board for the next six months and will be named the interim Editorial Page Editor.

Leung has been a bold voice in Boston. For the past five years, she wrote an impactful, must-read, often counterintuitive column in The Globe’s business section. Prior to that, Leung served as The Globe’s business editor overseeing coverage of the Great Recession. Her experience brings a deep understanding of the business community and connection to the newsroom that will help lead transformation across the organization. Leung will be the fifth woman in The Globe’s 142-year history to hold this position, and the first person of color to do so.

In naming Leung, Linda Henry, The Globe’s Managing Director, said “We need the strength of a courageous thinker, someone who knows both the newsroom and the world of opinion well, and who knows how to challenge assumptions, and while I am reluctant to lose her column, I could not be more excited about this new role for her. “ Henry added, “I am proud of the board’s progress and bold initiatives, and look forward to the board becoming an even more vibrant voice serving our community locally and nationally.  We want to make certain that we take our time to think strategically about the board, who the next permanent leader will be, and how it will be organized.”

Prior to the Globe, Leung spent six years at the Wall Street Journal. A graduate of Princeton University, Leung started her career at her hometown paper, The Baltimore Sun.

“The Globe’s editorial board last week spoke loudly and with purpose with its #FreePress initiative driving a national conversation on the role of journalism,“ said Leung. “I am proud and humbled to take on this new post and have my voice join theirs.”

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Why the Globe is leading a nationwide push to counter Trump’s anti-press rhetoric

Pro-Trump rally in Washington. Photo (cc) 2017 by Ted Eytan.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org

Consider the humble newspaper editorial. Unsigned and often unread, these gray exercises in cautious chin-stroking — representing as they do the theoretically awesome power of the institution — assert, applaud, deplore, and urge. But only rarely do they leap off the screen or page and grab the reader by the throat.

For the past several years, though, The Boston Globe’s opinionators have been trying desperately to break free from that swirling vortex of irrelevance. A satirical front page imagining a Trump presidency drew applause, moans, and brickbats. More successfully, the paper published several digital editorials about gun violence that incorporated interactive data presentations and online tools for contacting elected officials. (Here’s the most recent example.)

Now the Globe has embarked on its most audacious campaign yet: a call for newspapers across the country to publish editorials this Thursday condemning President Trump’s repeated assertions that journalists are “the enemy of the American people” and purveyors of “fake news,” an outrageous tactic that has led to threats against reporters at Trump rallies. More than 200 papers have signed on so far. “This dirty war on the free press must end,” the Globe said in announcing the coordinated effort, which you can follow on Twitter at #EnemyOfNone.

The idea originated with Marjorie Pritchard, the Globe’s deputy editorial-page editor. She told me by email that she brought it up at a meeting of the editorial board (journalists who work for the opinion section) and got the go-ahead to begin contacting the editorial boards of other newspapers. Given the difficulty of changing anyone’s minds in this era of hyperpolarization, I asked her whether she thought the effort could truly make a difference. She took the optimistic view.

“This effort is an attempt to break through sides and remind everyone of the importance of a free press, no matter what their political preference is,” she said. “A free and independent press is one of the most sacred principles enshrined in the Constitution. It must remain so.”

The newspapers taking part will each write and publish their own editorials. “The impact of Trump’s assault on journalism looks different in Boise than it does in Boston,” Pritchard wrote in announcing the campaign. “Our words will differ. But at least we can agree that such attacks are alarming.” That should at least partly counter any claims made by Trump supporters that the mainstream media are marching in lockstep with the Resistance to drive the president out of the White House. Still, there is a certain predictability regarding who’s for it and who’s against it.

In addition to the 200-plus newspapers that have responded to the Globe’s call, organizations such as the New England Newspaper and Press Association and the American Society of News Editors are lending their support. Last Friday on WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press,” Tom Fiedler, the dean of Boston University’s College of Communication, gave the idea a hearty “rave.” For press advocates, the campaign is an opportunity to stand up for First Amendment values in the face of president who seeks to delegitimize journalism in the eyes of his followers.

But Trump-supporting media outlets have mocked the effort as the usual drivel from the usual suspects. “This is just another day at the office,” wrote Karen Townsend at Hot Air. “The press has never supported President Trump and both print and television network coverage has been grossly skewered [sic] negatively against him.” Over at Breitbart, John Nolte called the Globe a “far-left” outlet and, not surprisingly, turned the very fact that newspapers are working together on its head. “The bottom line,” Nolte said, “is that this coordinated attack coming from all corners of the establishment media only serves to validate the criticism coming from Trump and other media critics.”

In a sense, the effort is a perfect illustration of the dilemma facing the press right now. On the one hand, mainstream news organizations are attracting more subscriptions, donations, and readers. On the other hand, that increased interest is almost entirely restricted to opponents of Trump, as his supporters have gravitated to their own media ecosystem dominated by Fox News and Breitbart.

As someone who has written my share of unsigned editorials over the years, I doubt that more than a handful of hearts and minds are going to be changed on Thursday. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Journalism is under siege. Last week, incredibly, a new poll showed that 43 percent of Republicans believe the president should have the authority to shut down “news outlets engaged in bad behavior.”

It’s time for us to stand up for our values and to remind the public of what the First Amendment is all about. What we’re not: perfect. What we are: an independent monitor of power, the absence of which would make this fraught moment infinitely worse.

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The Globe drags its opinion pages into the 21st century

Of all the hoary traditions of 20th-century newspapering, few seem quite so hoary as the editorial and op-ed pages. Mixing editorials (unsigned because they represent the institutional views of the newspaper), cartoons, columns by staff members and outside contributors, and letters from readers, the opinion pages often seem anachronistic in the digital age — a bit too formal, more than a bit too predictable and way too slow off the mark.

Starting today, The Boston Globe is attempting to bring that nearly half-century-old construct up to date. No longer is the left-hand page labeled “Editorial” and the right “Opinion.” Instead, both pages are unified under “Opinion.” Content — some of it new, some familiar — is free-floating.

Much of it is what you’d expect: a pro-Olympics editorial (sigh) as well as staff columns by Joan Vennochi and Dante Ramos. Some is new: a roundup of opinion from elsewhere called “What They’re Saying,” a very short take by staff columnist Joanna Weiss on a much-delayed skate park, and an amalgamation of letters, tweets and online comments rebranded as “Inbox.” (The changes are outlined here.)

“You could look at this as a meal where you want snackable content and meatier content and the occasional dessert,” says interim editorial-page editor Ellen Clegg. Some of the ideas, she adds, were developed by experimenting with the opinion content of Capital, the Globe’s Friday political section.

Globe Opinion pages

Regular columns have been cut from 700 to 600 words. But op-ed-page editor Marjorie Pritchard says that the new Opinion section will also be more flexible, with pieces running from 400 to 1,200 or more words. (Coincidentally, this article in Digiday, in which Kevin Delaney of Quartz calls for the demise of the standard 800-word article, is the talk of Twitter this week.)

The Globe’s opinion operation has been on a roll under Clegg and her predecessor, Peter Canellos (now executive editor of Politico), with Kathleen Kingsbury winning a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing last month and Ramos being named a finalist in 2014. But the look and feel of the pages haven’t changed much since the 1970s.

And then there’s the whole matter of print in the digital age. Globe editor Brian McGrory recently told his staff that a print-first mentality still prevails, writing that “too many of us — editors, reporters, photographers, graphic artists — think of just print too often.”

McGrory does not run the opinion pages, as both he and Clegg report directly to publisher John Henry. But the redesigned print section, with its careful attention to art and graphics, has the look and feel of a print-first play. In fact, Clegg is pursuing a two-track strategy — an improved but tightly curated print section and a larger online Opinion site. “Brian as usual captured it beautifully,” Clegg says. “I think that captured the ethos of where we’re all going, where we’re all headed.”

For some time now Clegg herself has been writing an online-only “Morning Opinion Digest” with summaries and links to provocative content elsewhere. Opinion pieces often run online before they appear in print. And some pieces are Web exclusives, such as this commentary by editorial writer Marcela García on the cultural stereotypes surrounding Cinco de Mayo.

Says Pritchard: “We’ve run a lot of online exclusives in the past, and we’re trying to beef that up.” Clegg adds that “we certainly don’t want to shortchange the print reader, but we want to enhance the digital experience. There has to be a balance.”

It was a half-century ago that The New York Times developed the modern op-ed page. Times editorial board member John Oakes, the Ochs-Sulzberger family member who was largely responsible for the idea, once called it “one of the great newspaper innovations of the century,” according to this Jack Shafer piece.

By contrast, the Globe’s new Opinion section should be seen as a modest improvement. But at a time when newspapers, both in print and online, are fighting to maintain their relevance, the Globe deserves credit for trying something new.

Also posted at WGBHNews.org.