It’s a paradox that while the internet teems with commentary and opinion, the hometown newspapers where viewpoint journalism was born are growing chilly to their progeny. Hence word that the country’s biggest local news chain, Gannett, is asking its 260 daily papers to dial back their editorial and Op-Ed pages from every day to once or twice a week.
Gannett has concluded, according to an internal PowerPoint from the editors who prepared the cutback recommendations, that its opinion pages are “among our least-read … (and) least-understood content” and are “directly tied to our problems in perceived credibility, trust, objectivity, balance …”
Summing up, “Overarching theme from our research: Readers don’t want us to tell them what to think.”
To be sure, for the biggest player in a troubled industry, money is also a concern. When Gannett was acquired in 2019 for $1.2 billion by a private-equity firm, it was expected to find $300 million in cost savings. The company, most of whose papers are small and whose flagship is USA Today, is still losing money, $135 million on revenue of $3.2 billion last year, thanks to the enormous debt it must repay to the asset management firm that is determined to make a bundle from the merger.
The dreary financials don’t help, and as Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies pointed out, Gannett has been looking to scale back its opinion pages for the past five years. To a market-sensitive publisher that frets over any reader disaffection, they are a lightning rod for a fractious audience constantly spoiling for a scrap. Controversy is no longer considered, even relished, as a staple part of news publishing; now it’s an expensive luxury. Gannett’s new policy will do away with nationally syndicated writers and put a premium on locally generated opinion focused on “local” matters — at lower cost, naturally.
So the question remains whether humility, its owners’ quest to be profitable or a simple loss of nerve is driving this new policy.
But at a moment when the country is convulsed by rancor over broad political direction, when deeply anti-democratic forces of unprecedented size and resolve are putting core institutions in jeopardy, it’s impossible to see Gannett’s move as anything less than a sweeping act of unilateral disarmament. The company’s supposed pivot to “local” matters is pure jive; local communities aren’t defined by zoning disputes and pet controls; they are torn by the same issues of justice and social purpose that obsess national audiences. How do you otherwise weigh in on the choice of local officials without declaring whether 2020 election deniers are qualified for office? Or on abortion access?
Moreover, as owner of one-fifth of the country’s dailies, Gannett’s move can’t help but darken the wider prospects for traditional opinion journalism — to the dismay of the shrunken corps of editorial cartoonists — and cast a shadow over the future of a discourse that once defined the essential civic mission of the whole news enterprise.
Nowadays it’s reporting, and the determination to expose hidden factual realities, that’s the core duty that journalists are encouraged to pursue. But for many years it was the editorialist who epitomized the press — the crusader who sought to persuade not with fresh facts, but with a fresh insistence that known facts be understood in a particular light. The editorialist argues over what the facts mean and why they matter. An abolitionist’s polemic didn’t break the news that slavery exists; it argued that slave holding was incompatible with the country’s values and urged ways to put an end to it.
Opinion writing is part of an engagement that some audiences may find irritating, but there’s good evidence that when it’s done well readers throng to it as provocative and worthwhile. On a given day as many as half The New York Times’ most read offerings are from its opinion pages. The popularity of successive waves of internet-based commentators indicates a powerful hunger for interpretation, argument and reflection.
So why not via newspapers? Why disqualify the organizations whose entire mission consists of paying close attention to matters unfolding in the public sphere and explaining them to the rest of us?
True, as the Gannett critique points out, some of the chain’s opinion pages have grown stale and redundant, but that argues for an editorial reboot, not closure. And the idea that opinion columns improperly taint news reporting with institutional preference should be confronted, not surrendered to. Depriving readers of reasoned and thoughtful comment is no way to correct bias if it’s tilting news coverage.
Obviously, I write this with bias of my own, since I’ve been writing opinion for a long time and believe firmly in the value of commentary. Moreover, this piece comes to you only thanks to this organization’s belief in comment as part of a nuanced presentation of the issues of the day and its faith in controversy as essential to a robust public sphere.
City and regional newspapers have long been the backbone of the U.S. news business, and even now, they have been battered and diminished, but not replaced. The success of online commentators speaks to the public’s hunger for content that interprets and explains, and the news business needs to feature fresh and imaginative ways to satisfy that hunger, not decide it’s no longer their job to satisfy, and shut down the country’s traditional home for local, independent voices.