June 8, 2022

Gannett has decided that the time for a traditional editorial page has come and gone. Beginning in the spring and accelerating this month, the 250-title chain is cutting back opinion pages to a few days a week while refocusing what opinion is still published to community dialogue.

The change is evolutionary, Amalie Nash, senior vice president for local news and audience development, told me in an interview. Experimental approaches in the same vein at papers like The Tennessean and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel date back as far as five years.

A series of reader surveys and a task force of editors have persuaded her and other executives to recommend a new chain-wide pattern as part of Gannett’s push to make digital content its focus.

Among findings supporting a new approach, Nash said, were:

  • Readers do not want to be lectured at or told what to think.
  • Routine editorials, point-of-view syndicated columns and many commissioned guest essays consistently turn up as the most poorly read articles online.
  • Readers can find a range of opinions on hot national issues on the internet — so replicating that sort of content locally is a waste of time, space and budget.
  • In the digital space, readers may not easily distinguish opinion pieces from straight news reports.
  • A more promising approach, as an April strategy document puts it, is “highlighting expert local voices that are not the same-old talking heads and political hacks.”

The new opinion program is a strong suggestion, Nash emphasized, but not an edict. Editors at individual properties are free to tailor the general principles to what they think best suits their community.

Nor is the approach a first step to phasing out editorials entirely, Nash said. Quick response, a strongly expressed position and front-page play will be appropriate at times, she said, and that emphatic institutional voice “resonates more if you don’t do it” too often.

Many syndicated contracts have been canceled, but regional papers are free to use opinion content from USA Today. And local columnists with identifiable personal styles can continue on as is.

I received tips or complaints from a half-dozen retired editors, who see the changes as a veiled cost-cutting move and abdication of the principle that a newspaper needs to stand for something and say so regularly.

At the Asheville Citizen-Times, columnist John Boyle objected in a published piecethat weekday editorial pages disappeared without explanation. “We have a strong push on to garner as many subscriptions as possible, as that helps with our stability moving forward, and I think moves like this are nonsensical. I also feel strongly that as a community newspaper that’s all about clear communication and transparency in government, we should have done a better job communicating the change. For that, I apologize to you readers.”

More objections came from groups representing editorial cartoonists. “What I wanna know,” wrote one “is what does a newspaper become without an editorial page? #pennysaver.”

The Des Moines Register is a good case in point for looking at the changes and how they have been explained.

Opinion editor Lucas Grundmeier wrote in a March column: “Many of you have told us you’re tired of opinion content that:

  • Repeats the same old partisan talking points.
  • Seems aimed at stoking divisions rather than discussing solutions.
  • Makes readers with differing opinions feel lectured to rather than respected.”

“Our emphasis will be on quality, not quantity, shifting to publication of a weekday opinion page on Thursdays only,” he continued. “Our current four-page Sunday section will continue.” And the remaining content will be local and even hyperlocal, he said, with a focus on solutions as well as identifying problems.

(Nash, who was editor of the Register before taking her present role, said that the Register can continue to interview and endorse presidential candidates in advance of the caucuses.)

She also offered, as an example, changes at The Columbus Dispatch, “which had a pretty traditional seven-day a week editorial page.” A new opinion and public engagement editor, Amelia Robinson, has flipped all that. She wrote in an introductory column in December that she sees her mission as “being able to provide platforms for the exchange of ideas … I see myself as a conversation facilitator.”

I first wrote about the shifting editorial page landscape in December 2017. The trend of deeply cutting back editorial board staffing was well underway. Newsletters and video were being explored as adaptations for digital opinion journalism. Solutions journalism was finding its way as an alternative to the old ways, as David Haynes of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel renamed what was his opinion section “Ideas Lab.”

Endorsements have been another moving target, with some papers and their websites abandoning them (too polarizing and too preachy). Others restrict them to local races, though interview meetings with candidates can prove to be a ton of work.

My own take is that well-crafted editorials and opinion columns need not come off as lectures, can indicate respect for different viewpoints and always have a strong underpinning of evidence and original reporting.

But I get that there probably is a generational divide at play. Older readers, who have stuck with print or e-editions, may — like the retired editors I heard from — view editorial pages as an essential (however much the material is read).

Gannett’s April strategy summary, headlined Opinion Content Recommendations, describes them as “research-backed ideas for a smarter, sharper, more constructive discussion, with our local news brands at the center.”

That, at any rate, is the giant chain’s pitch. Whether news customers will be buying is about to be tested in real time in (pardon the expression) the court of public opinion.