Newspapers Should Get Out Of The Opinion Business

June 23, 2011

If you want my opinion, it’s time for newspapers to get out of the opinion business.

Yes, opinion pages are good for civic discourse – but I believe they’re also bad for business. At some point soon, for-profit daily newspapers are going to have to choose one or the other. The conversation has already started at The New York Times.

A column by Executive Editor Bill Keller in last Sunday’s edition laid out plans to make over the Gray Lady’s Sunday opinion section, heretofore called Week In Review. Starting Sunday, wrote Keller, the section will be renamed Sunday Review, “the last vestiges of a weekly summing up replaced by a more general timeliness, and that dividing wall breached, so that argument (which will be labeled Opinion) can appear alongside explanation (which will be labeled News Analysis.)”

I’d argue that’s a step in the wrong direction.

When I was a kid, my buddy’s dad was fond of telling us: “Boys, opinions are like assholes, everyone’s got one.” Back then, water coolers and backyard fences, or, in my case, my buddy’s dad’s Northeast Minneapolis auto body repair shop, were the kinds of places you would turn for opinions on current events. In those days, newspapers were still a powerful and influential community voice, and, given the lack of competition, it made sense for them to take a stand on the issues of the day. Beyond the rants of a soap-box-toting neighbor, readers simply had fewer authoritative opinion options.

Today, however, people have largely ditched the water cooler, backyard fence, and newspapers for that matter, and are finding and expressing opinions on countless blogs, forums, Yelp, Twitter, Facebook, news media comment sections, and on and on. Want opinions on the latest movie? You used to have to wait for the newspaper’s critic to weigh in. Today, you can turn to Rotten Tomatoes and countless other sites. Music? Same. Sports? Politics? You get the idea.

Amidst this digital cacophony, I believe newspapers continue to risk alienating partisan readers, who now have the option of turning to other places for news that more closely fits their worldview: Huffington Post, Drudge, etc. The business problem for newspapers comes down to increased competition and branding.

Locally, for example, the Star Tribune has shifted its editorial voice a bit more to the right, but it is still widely considered a liberal paper, derided and dismissed as the “Red Star” among those on the right. Most daily newspapers have a well-cemented ideological “brand,” and more partisan readers increasingly see no distinction between “objective” news stories and opinion. You need only peruse the reader comments following any online news article to watch the inevitable ideological skirmish break out. It’s usually not long before the paper is accused of bias in its reporting.

In short, in this digital age, when the entire newspaper is colored by the same ideological brush, the perceived lack of objectivity can now keep a good many readers away. And that’s bad for a newspaper’s business.

I acknowledge the critical civic role a well-reasoned newspaper editorial plays. Unless we can clone I.F. Stone, however, opinion is still much easier to replace than a newsroom full of good journalists working beats and reporting on local, national and international issues and stories. I have fewer concerns about the marketplace filling the opinion void. It’s already happening, as previously noted. The reporting void? Scares the hell out of me. There are some non-profit models popping up, like ProPublica and MinnPost, while for-profit, online-only entities like Talking Points Memo and the hyper-local sites are doing some good stuff, but I fear that with each daily newspaper that dies, we forever lose a critical local mass of experienced journalistic boots on the ground.

I do agree with Keller that newspapers ought to stay in the news analysis business. A good reporter can offer depth and perspective to a news story that comes with knowledge gleaned while working a beat. In an era of news breaking on Twitter, even the basic who, what, where, why and when is in danger of becoming a commodity the same way opinion is. But the in-depth reporting and analysis of a seasoned and well-informed journalist will forever be in short supply. People who want to see bias will always find it. But the point is that the paper’s opinion pages will no longer validate their claims, offering the opportunity to reclaim more partisan readers over time. Some can even hasten the change by rebranding. In short, newspapers would do well to increase the potential pool of readers, not shrink it with continued partisanship.

To save themselves, and preserve what remains of the critical Fourth Estate role they play, newspapers should ditch opinions altogether and focus on what truly sets them apart in their markets – solid local reporting, news analysis and in-depth investigations. Focus on quality. Cover local news, business, arts and sports better than anyone.

But that’s just my opinion. What’s yours?