The question to a panel of editorial page editors at a recent workshop may have struck a little too close to home for comfort: With so much newspaper content migrating online these days, what's the future of the Opinion page? Do you think it's going to be around five, 10 years from now?
At least one panelist was worried, if not overly so. He sees newspapers around the country that have dropped their editorial pages, and notes that precedents have a way of becoming trends in this, as all, business. I'm more confident. Anything can happen during volatile times in an industry, of course, but my take is that the editorial page -- whether online or in print -- is actually more valuable than ever, and plays an increasingly important role not just as the institutional voice for a news provider, but also as a reliable forum for diverse voices in the conversations that help a community determine the directions it will take on various issues.
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As with almost everything involving information, the Internet has hosted an explosion of debates and conversations on every issue under the sun. But, also as with almost everything involving information, that explosion has resulted in a massive confusion of misinformation, borne of various combinations of indolence, vitriol and feeblemindedness. Citizens committed to sincere efforts to improve themselves and their communities need agents they can trust to provide the engaging analysis and argument that ultimately shape their thinking.
That's where the newspaper's editorial page fits in.
The page has always been something of an effervescing pond within the generally solid land mass of the overall newspaper. Outside of the editorial page, you are supposed to find news and information, all of it containing diverse and sometimes passionate ideas, to be sure, but to the extent possible within humans, very little of it fueled by those passions. It is news, and readers should be able to digest it and process it according to their own interests, reasonably assured that it is meant to examine a given story from all angles, without the goal of pushing the reader in a certain direction.
But here, on the editorial page, is nothing but push. Roiling, passionate, insistent, demanding, challenging thoughts and ideas about all that news out there. Nearly every item, this one included, aims to persuade you of something -- and probably leads you to think of something else neither you nor the writer ever expected. In Fence Post, everyday citizens have their chance to sound off on the stories that move them. Opinion columnists make their studied cases. The newspaper itself offers its own ideas and visions on everything from the management of driver's ed classes, as you see today, to the selection of candidates for school board, county government, governor, Congress, president and more.
With all of this, you get something you don't get with a lot of the undisciplined rampaging that takes place on the Web. You get trust. Oh, you may not like our opinions or those of certain columnists you read. You may disagree violently with them. But you also know certain things about them. You know they come from sources that have some authority on the topics they discuss merely by virtue of the fact that they do so much reporting on them. You know they have a certain consistency, and that they've been researched, written and edited according to certain standards.
There remains a bit of a Wild West feel to much of what happens online, especially as it involves analysis and the expression of opinions, and actually that is a good thing. To flourish, creativity and growth require a little unruly independence. But to succeed, they also need to be harnessed and tamed. The editorial pages have become a reliable tool for that function in print, and they will only be more valuable to corral all the stampeding online.
Jim Slusher, firstname.lastname@example.org, is an assistant managing editor for the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.