Are daily opinion pages headed to the morgue?

At the end of February, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel eliminated weekday print editorial pages except on Wednesdays.

An economizing move, of course, but to me also a marker of a tipping point where opinion has started to join other traditional newspaper staples as digital-first. Put another way, it might be that the daily print editorial page is on its way to becoming an old-fashioned thing that no longer makes sense in a pinched economic climate.

The Journal Sentinel ranks among the half-dozen top metros in my view and that of others. In particular its investigative reporting has regularly contended for Pulitzers and other industry honors over the last decade.

"We have decided that our highest engagement comes from enterprising, in-depth, explanatory reporting," editor George Stanley said in a phone interview. "So we are keeping that intact."

The Journal Sentinel chose to exempt investigative reporting as the need for big newsroom cuts began nearly a decade ago. Research since from the American Press Institute and Gannett, the Journal Sentinel's parent company, Stanley said, has confirmed that complex, hard-hitting reporting meets the test of "what you, and only you, can do" for readers.

At the same time, editorial page editor David Haynes was contemplating the case for an all-digital editorial staff. He and Stanley agreed that creating "a safe place for civil discourse" — especially in politically polarized Wisconsin — was the primary mission of an opinion department. (Print letters-to-the-editor will continue to run on the off days for the editorial page).

"The ex-cathedra voice of the newspaper is still important, but we are going to use it more strategically," Haynes said. The right kind of moderated discussion free of comment chain nastiness will be a higher priority.

Stanley and Haynes each wrote detailed columns explaining the changes and the rationale for them the weekend of Feb. 25. There are now an assortment of blogs, newsletters, video, events, online and radio chats to beef up the Journal Sentinel's digital opinion offerings.

Editorials sometimes will run first or even exclusively in the digital section. And if a big breaking news story demands immediate comment, Stanley said, he won't hesitate to run a print editorial elsewhere in the paper, including the front page.

Stanley and Haynes had not expected an all-positive reader reaction, and indeed complaints have outnumbered shout-outs. Older print readers are especially disappointed. One said he planned to cancel his subscription except for Wednesdays and Sunday (if that was possible).

If you regard print and digital audiences as fairly distinct, Haynes conceded, there is a case to be made for continuing to give the print loyalists what they have come to expect over decades of developing a newspaper habit.

In the end, though, Stanley said that he and Haynes were not swayed by that argument. "We can't be a news service for people 55 and older. We are not connecting nearly as well with people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, and we need to."

The Journal Sentinel is ahead of the curve but not alone in taking a scalpel to daily print editorials. The Seattle Times dropped print pages several days of the week several years ago, and editorials editor Kate Riley said the new pattern is now well-accepted. (The Times does a particularly good job displaying editorials and opinion in digital format — not always the case elsewhere).

Many metros have added digital opinion features, but Haynes said that his counterparts in many cities — Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, Boston and Tampa Bay are also keeping print editorial and op ed pages as is or even expanding.

With the Gannett merger, the Journal Sentinel is lead among the company's 11 Wisconsin papers. Creating shared regional opinion projects will be a coming priority, Stanley said.

Haynes has had an inside view of the steady shrinking of traditional editorial writing. He was president of the trade group, the Association of Opinion Journalists, until it shut down as an independent entity this December and merged into the American Society of News Editors.

"We were down below 200 members (from a peak of 600)," Haynes told me. His own staff now has just four writers, one currently detached for an investigative project.

A conference program at Poynter in late 2015 drew only 40 or 50 attendees. "People can't afford to take time off or can't get their travel covered."

"We had plenty of money in the bank," he continued. After the merger, a large part of that was donated to Poynter to continue annual training of minority opinion writers. "But we were down to a core group of about a dozen, and that's not enough to run an organization."

Neither Stanley nor Haynes would exactly say that they made the move with regret or that it marked an historic turning point. But Haynes came close at the start and close of his column:

For years, our readers came to us. They went to the drugstore, plunked down a buck and picked up the paper. Or, they subscribed, and the paper was delivered with a thunk on their doorstep each morning. Many of you still get your news that way — and we thank you for that. But as technology has revolutionized the way readers consume information, many people want us to meet them wherever they are — to deliver news and commentary to their smartphones, to discuss the issues of the day with them over Twitter or Facebook or at a town hall meeting as we did last week....

Change is always hard. But change we must. We have to go where the readers want us to be. We hope we’ll see you there.

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