Do opinions still belong in newspapers?
“Not all opinion pieces have to be complaints or deal with issues. Sometimes it is enough to share old memories or new experiences with others. Sometimes, it is actually better as it brings us together rather than driving us apart.”
— SMN reader
I got a personal letter on Monday from a reader who complimented my travelogue columns that were published in early July while I was traveling in Scotland, and it contained the paragraph above. The letter was much appreciated. Sure, it stroked my ego a bit as it praised my writing. More importantly, though, it got me to pondering the place of opinion in newspapers and what it means for publishers in the current journalism ecosystem.
It’s always been a challenge — trying to make sure readers know what’s news and what’s opinion — but more so today than ever. People not familiar with newspapers often can’t tell the difference. We publish a letter to the editor or guest column from someone who holds views that lean to the political left, and online comments pile up saying it’s The Smoky Mountain News and its leftist political commentary. But it’s not, it’s a reader’s opinion, not ours.
Back in the day, most readers of newspaper easily distinguished the difference. If you read a paper every day or every week, you know its format, you know where the news is placed, where opinions reside, where to find the arts news and the outdoors or sports news.
But online, those reliable guideposts that helped readers know what they are reading have disappeared. You see a story, see that it’s from some particular news outlet, and readers immediately jump to an opinion that the news source is — you guessed it — opinionated. And since it’s well documented that when we read online we tend to skim rather than dig deep, the problem is magnified, individuals start making incorrect comments, groups get angry, the country becomes more divided.
How to solve the problem? Gannett, which owns 250 dailies and is the nation’s largest newspaper publisher — it owns the Asheville Citizen-Times — has recommended to its newspaper that they do away with opinion pages altogether or reduce how many days per week they publish them. Basically, no more opinions, guest essays, or letters to the editor.
According to Gannett, polling revealed that readers do not want a daily diet of opinions and that, not surprisingly, those same readers have difficulty distinguishing between opinion and straight news — particularly online.
At least one of its North Carolina papers, The New Bern Sun Journal, has taken the company’s request to heart and stopped published opinions.
Those of us in this business watch Gannett closely. It’s the biggest of the big boys, the corporate behemoth that often sets trends or is a barometer of the industry. But we independents also know that much of what it does is related to costs rather than better journalism. When staffs are cut and don’t have time to do their jobs well, then opinions — like news — will be poorly written and won’t reflect the issues important to the community where the newspaper is located.
On the other hand, Gannett also encouraged its papers to use more local opinion and fewer nationally syndicated columnists. The higher-ups realized that those columns on national issues covered the same topics that the cable news networks and their ear-splitting, divisive talking heads were screaming about all day and night. So they encouraged their regional papers to put out less opinion on those topics.
I just don’t think fewer opinions is the answer. Maybe we need to re-learn how to argue, disagree and then forge compromises. It’s OK to disagree ideologically and politically. The problem is that we can’t treat those we disagree with as the enemy, as un-American, as stupid or unethical. So we’ll continue to publish columns, essays, and letters to the editor, and we’ll encourage those who think differently to contribute rebuttals and offer up solutions.
As the letter writer noted at the beginning of this piece, some opinions can bring us together instead of dividing, making us realize we have more in common than some would like us to believe. Amen to that.