Editors: PR man wrong about newspapers and opinions

Melanie Sill

Two editors have responded to Jorg Pierach's claim that newspapers would be smart to get out of the opinions business. "My view is opposite," says former Sacramento Bee executive editor Melanie Sill. Her thoughts:

Opinion pages are one of the true unique franchises of local newspapers. They host the original reader comment (letters to the editor) and community voices (op-eds). They were original aggregators of opinion from all over (syndicated columnists and guest writers) Many are stodgy and ripe for overhaul, and just about all of them sat on the sidelines of digital communication far too long.

Newspapers don’t need to get out of the opinion business, in my view. They need to get better at it, bringing in a greater variety of views and voices, using digital tools and print innovations to extend a unique and valuable role in enabling community discussion and debate.

Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial page editor Scott Gillespie sent me his response to Pierach ("You’re dead wrong about opinion journalism.") It's after the jump.

Hi Jorg –

Your provocative but incredibly weak argument on the value newspaper opinion sections failed to address a number of key questions, most notably whether people are reading them. In the case of the Star Tribune, where recent readership surveys have shown strong and growing audiences for our print and digital opinion content, the answer is clear. You opine that opinion pages are “good for civic discourse” but “bad for business.” Your business case, apparently, is based on the perception of this and other newspapers as having a liberal slant. You fail to offer any evidence that without that perception our business model would be strengthened. Would subscription orders skyrocket for a blander, less interesting newspaper after it gave up what was “good for civic discourse”? Would more advertisers - presumably, using your thinking, newly supportive conservative advertisers - line up at the door with checkbooks in hand? Seems a stretch, but feel free to offer any factual information on gains made by any of the newspapers that have either cut back opinion content in recent years. You might start in Atlanta or even St. Paul.

I had some of the same doubts about the relevance of opinion pages that you have when I moved down the hall from our Newsroom almost four years ago. And then I started answering the phone, talking to readers and opinion leaders from around the state who were more engaged in our opinion pages and website than I could have imagined before sitting in this chair. And then the calendar filled up with Editorial Board meetings with U.S. senators, mayors, CEOs, nonprofit leaders , special interest group representatives (some of them conservative, too, by the way) – all of whom wanted our ear and our support because it carries more weight and reaches a much larger audience than a Facebook post or a tweet lost in the flood. When they weren’t meeting with us, they were filling our inboxes with commentaries and letters they desperately wanted published in the Star Tribune because of what that means – exposure to by far the largest media audience in the state and region. And they were talking with our editorial staff members, who do the kind of reporting you seem to value so that we can offer what’s most needed today – smart and informed opinions.

No, Jorg, you’re dead wrong about opinion journalism, as were the many headline seekers who beat you to your tired argument over the past decade or so. Both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal see the light and, fortunately, so does the Star Tribune. Today’s journalism is a battle for relevance and readership, and thoughtful, important opinion page content is helping us win that race.

  • Jim Romenesko

    From 1999 to 2011, Jim Romenesko maintained the Romenesko page for the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based non-profit school for journalists. Poynter hired him in August of 1999, after seeing his MediaGossip.com, a hobby site he started in May of 1999.


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