Newspaper Editorial Pages Have Changed Greatly, Says UMass Amherst Faculty Member

AMHERST, Mass. - The editorial pages of American newspapers have undergone significant change, according to Stephen Simurda, a member of the journalism faculty at the University of Massachusetts. Dramatic changes have taken place on editorial pages during the past decade, including an increasing number of local editorials, page redesigns, more illustrations, expanded letters sections, and more local columns. There has also been a shift in focus, from national and international issues to topics that hold state and local interest.

Simurda studied the issue in detail, interviewing editorial page editors and analyzing the editorial pages of 16 newspapers from across the country, ranging from The Daily Tribune of Ames, Iowa, to the tiny Times Argus of Montpelier, Vt., to The New York Times and USA Today. His findings are detailed in the Sept./Oct. issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. It is his 11th article in the prestigious journal.

"Who are we writing for? Does anybody care what we think? Are we just an anachronistic throwback to a time when people actually wrote letters or had opinions?" Simurda asks. His answers: lots of people, yes, and probably not.

There were some common factors, he says. First, editorial page editors unanimously felt it was very important to have divergent opinions, rather than espousing a particular political or ideological view - a finding which might surprise some readers. And the editors agree that editorials can still play a major role in shaping public opinion, and the outcome of political decisions. A third common factor is that although changes have been made on editorial pages, "there’s a fair amount of disagreement over what those changes should be," says Simurda.

Some of the changes have included full-page editorials, editorials signed by an author, editorials prepared by readers. The Pioneer-Pressof St. Paul, Minn., occasionally declines to run editorials at all.

The goal of editorial pages is to provide readers with informed opinions about important issues, and to offer a context and perspective to the news of the day. "There’s no other place to get that," Simurda says. "Television doesn’t generally editorialize any longer, and talk radio is more of a forum to let people vent."

"Taking positions strongly and clearly is what we need to be doing," agreed Edward C. Jones, managing editor and former editorial editor of the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., one of the editors interviewed by Simurda.

What makes a good editorial? Newspapers must start with accurate reporting, says Michael Gartner, editor of The Daily Tribune in Ames, Iowa, and winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. "Facts. You can’t do anything without facts."

"Too many (editorials) are long, tentative and dull," says Robert Haiman, former longtime editor of the St. Petersburg Times and president emeritus of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. Haiman has chaired a Pulitzer Prize nominating jury for editorial writing, and says he looks for clear thinking, innovation, community connection, and relevance. "An editorial should not be an eat-your-peas experience," agrees Howell Raines, editorial page editor at The New York Times.

Simurda is a lecturer in the UMass journalism department, where he teaches media criticism and magazine writing. He has worked as a freelance journalist specializing in business and economics, the media, racial issues, and New England, and is a regular contributor to the Columbia Journalism Review, The Boston Globe, and The Globe Sunday Magazine. His articles have also appeared in Lingua Franca, Mother Jones, Worldbusiness, The Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, and many other newspapers and magazines.