Until fairly recently, local editorial pages held something close to a monopoly on publicly stated opinion in metropolitan areas.
“There weren't a lot of other places where people were saying this is a good candidate, this is a bad candidate; this is good policy, this is bad policy," says Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard. "The internet, quite obviously, ended that monopoly. If there's one thing the internet does really well, it's the expression of opinion.”
There are no scientific measures of the decline of local editorial boards, but the industry-wide trend is clear: weekday newspaper readership fell from 62.3 million in 1990 to 43.4 million in 2010 - a 30 percent drop. For the first time more Americans now say they read news predominantly online as opposed to in print, where content aggregators like Google and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter mediate the relationship to readers.
From Seattle to Philadelphia, large metropolitan dailies suffer the brunt of the pain. Papers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have found relative stability with a national audience, and small town outfits face less direct competition. But big and medium-sized city dailies are hemorrhaging print advertisers and subscribers, while failing to make up for the revenue shortfall online.
That economic crisis has left a lot of newspapers under-resourced to handle a readership that has suburbanized and fragmented over the past half-century, so many have rethought their editorial page to attract a geographically dispersed and online audience.
In 2009, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution stopped issuing political endorsements, whether for local or national races. The paper’s board had long espoused a left-leaning and pro-civil rights editorial voice, and the move, along with the removal of a number of liberal voices, was widely perceived as an attempt to lure more conservative suburban readers to the paper.
“We have heard from readers — and we agree — that you don’t need us to tell you how to vote,” the editors wrote.
In January, the Chicago Sun Times announced that it too would cease endorsements for any race, citing a desire to appear non-partisan and the sheer volume of internet opinion available. “We have come to doubt the value of candidate endorsements by this newspaper or any newspaper, especially in a day when a multitude of information sources allow even a casual voter to be better informed than ever before.”
But maybe we do need newspapers to help us decide how to vote, if not in national elections then at least lower profile local ones like city and county council races. An exhaustive Federal Communications Commission report released last summer found evidence of an alarming drop in coverage of important local issues across the entire spectrum of traditional media. And while more and more urban citizens are turning to community blogs and email lists to fill the gap, there's a wide range in the quality and quantity of opinion and analysis available in those forums. Even the best bloggers tend to focus on their pet causes, leaving other issues unexamined.
Los Angeles Times editorials still have an impact on local issues and elections, says Cal State Fullerton professor of political science Raphael Sonenshein, including the successful 1999 referendum creating a new city charter.
"The lower the visibility of the race, the greater the impact of the editorial,” says Sonenshein, who was executive director of one of two charter reform commissions. “This is especially true for well-educated voters in the west side of the city who still pay a lot of attention to Times editorials when they are unsure.”
And despite the wealth of political opinion now available online, lots of local editorial boards still have a role to play in national elections. New York Times political stats-man Nate Silver found that the Manchester Union Leader presidential primary endorsement has historically delivered an 11-percentage-point impact on a Republican candidate's share of the vote. Admittedly, these days it’s rather more difficult to unravel how much other factors contribute to a given bump. Indeed, Newt Gingrich nabbed the coveted Union Leader endorsement this year and came in fourth place, with just 9.4 percent of the vote.
“We're living in a dream world if we think we are influencing people who to vote for for president,” says Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editor Martin Kaiser. “We are influential when we're discussing issues...raising the visibility of the issue.”
Take, for example, Herman Cain's videotaped fumbling of a question about U.S. intervention in Libya, which happened during his interview with the Journal Sentinel editorial board. It hobbled his campaign. Cain later called the painfully extended moment a “powerful pause.” But he banned cameras from subsequent meetings.
“After it was over, I knew that we had sat through something very special,” says Kaiser. “Without the video...I don't think that would've been a big deal at all.”
Yet the Journal Sentinel, like other papers, no longer believes in the infallibility of its own voice, and seeks to provide ideological balance on the editorial page by running opposing-view editorials by outside parties that run alongside official pronouncements. The Philadelphia Inquirer began doing the same last summer.
Kaiser sees the move more as an attempt to revive the cacophonous feel of the old urban media environment, when two or more newspapers provided sharp and divergent opinion, than to replicate the polyphony of the internet.
“There is really no reason that only journalists, or people who have been journalists for a long time, can do that,” says Philadelphia Daily News associate editorial board member Doron Taussig, describing that paper's new People's Editorial Board.
The paper took applications from residents across the city and picked ten members for their new citizen board, a diverse cross-section in geographical, economic, racial and political terms. Just two are conservative—one actually self-identifies as a “crank”—but that's fairly representative of left-leaning Philadelphia.
The People's Board collectively tackle a single topic each month—gun violence, or a to do list for the new City Council—and vote on a final editorial. The mayor and a former school district superintendent have addressed the group, and they hosted a debate between gun rights and gun control advocates, and then posted the video online.
“Our survival really depends on having influence,” says editorial-page editor Sandy Shea. But she says the bigger question is how you define that influence. At the Daily News, nicknamed the People's Paper, the goal is to “help shape and participate in a public conversation… That's the coolest thing we can do. To have an ongoing public conversation about a city.”
The People's Editorial Board is also, less glamorously, a way to make do with a much smaller staff. According to Shea, the paper's actual editorial board now has just “3.25” members.
Unlike the Inquirer, which covers the vast Pennsylvania and South Jersey suburbs, the Daily News is a tabloid focused within city limits and popular among Philly's working-class. It punches above its weight journalistically with well-regarded Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting, while the letters page and columnists are in turn insightful, enraging, hopeful, and ignorant—much like the voices one might overhear on any Philly street corner or bar stool.
“We're not a removed critic,” says Shea. “We consider ourselves part of this dysfunctional family.”
Editorial boards—traditionally founts of white and wealthy elite conventional wisdom—were not always the most progressive critics of social dysfunction.
The Los Angeles Times, for example, was for the first half of the 20th century so hostile to unions and avid defenders of Los Angeles' open shop that they referred to organized workers as “tools of designing demagogues” who “run after false gods.” In 1910, enraged labor activists actually bombed the Times building, killing 20 employees.
But greater participation, whether in print or online, may not augment the declining power of what Benton calls newspapers’ “institutional counterweight.”
“Editorial pages were paid attention to because they represented the will of a really powerful institution, and those institutions are a lot less powerful these days,” he says. “It's easy for a state agency to ignore a cranky blogger.”