In the age of social media, cable talk shows and fast-moving news cycles, what value does opinion journalism, including the opinion and editorial pages of newspaper publishing, bring to the lives of people in a community?
Modern technology has surely opened up civic debate. Editorials and columns in newspapers, and opinion essays in magazines, suffered from limited space and also a kind of bias toward the privileged. The columnists and editorialists were recognized figures, usually from the establishment, and predominantly white and male. The public’s voice was limited, largely, to letters-to-the editors.
Now it seems as if we are awash in opinions. The lines between news and opinion have gotten blurry. And some of the debates we encounter are fake.
Newspaper executives began weighing the ways opinion sections helped or hurt their enterprises in at least the 1990s or early 2000s. But in our current digital, political moment, existential questions about the role of opinion journalism have taken on a new urgency. Some publications have stopped offering editorials. Others have doubled down but become more intensely local. Still others have opened up their editorial pages to more voices in new formats. The urgency about how to be relevant is intensified by financial pressures. And nearly all publications are looking closely at the importance that opinion journalism has to their most loyal readers and to members and subscribers.
In April 2019, API convened opinion editors and journalists to explore ways they can emphasize better dialogue through and around their work.
These questions and experiments were at the forefront of discussions at “Reimagining Opinion Journalism,” an American Press Institute summit earlier this year. We gathered more than 50 leaders in opinion journalism and other experts in dialogue across divides, outside of news. The conversations looked at innovations in opinion content across the country, as well as lessons we can learn from other fields, like psychology and conflict resolution, about productive conversation. We explored what the present and future could look like for better dialogue facilitated by opinion sections.
As a follow-up, we want to continue the discussion about the future of opinion journalism in a way that will add more ideas and involve more people. We are beginning that effort by asking three people from that first gathering to share the new directions their organizations are taking in their opinion work. The resulting essays linked below represent a range of possibilities news organizations are exploring when it comes to the role of opinion journalism in today’s digital, polarized age. The essays are:
- “Why McClatchy opinion sections are speaking boldly.” In Kansas City, Colleen Nelson describes how McClatchy newspapers nationwide are leaning into their editorial voice and influence. McClatchy papers’ opinion writers are encouraged to break news and exercise a strong voice in timely matters of local debate. Opinion sections are important drivers of reader revenue for McClatchy properties and they are pouring more resources into the work.
- “How The Tennessean’s opinion section wants to combat polarization.” In Nashville, David Plazas describes how The Tennessean and USA Today Network: Tennessee put energy toward emphasizing civil discourse. Their “Civility Tennessee” campaign followed the 2016 election, creating in-person and digital spaces to facilitate exchange on local issues, with plans to continue again in 2020. At the same time some people have criticized the idea of civility, the newspaper has upheld it as a virtue it wants to model, defining it as a component of good citizenship.
- “Why the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel replaced opinion content with solutions journalism.” In Milwaukee, David Haynes describes how the Journal Sentinel has traded traditional opinion formats for a different way to support local debate. A newly formed “Ideas Lab” now exists in place of the editorial pages, filled with solutions journalism. Through this reporting that looks at responses to complex issues like housing and healthcare, plus additional engagement, the paper is fulfilling a purpose of opinion content but without the commentary.
These essays represent lessons from three different approaches. At the same time, they just skim the surface of what opinion sections should explore amid today’s polarization and online environment. There is still significant work to do in making many of these spaces inclusive and representative of the public. We invite others who are trying new approaches to be in touch. We hope more essays will follow, and that organically a body of new knowledge about the future of opinion journalism — as distinct from simply opinion and argument — may emerge.
If you’re interested in exploring with us how opinion sections can better support inclusive and productive discourse in today’s digital, polarized age, please sign up for updates about API’s opinion section efforts. If you have a topic or experiment you’d like us to consider for an essay in this series, email me at email@example.com.