Does a newspaper need an opinion page?

The nation’s largest chain of newspapers wants to get rid of newspaper opinion pages.

The suits at Gannett, publisher of USA Today and about 250 other newspapers around the country (including my former employers, the Battle Creek Enquirer and Lansing State Journal), have told the publishers of their newspapers they ought to scale back opinion pages from a daily feature to a rarer occurrence. Some Gannett papers now publish only one opinion page a week.

When their newspapers do publish opinion pages, the Gannett corporate folks want those pages focused on “community conversations,” instead of syndicated opinion pieces. Gannett already has canceled several syndication contracts, according to Poynter, a journalism industry watcher.

According to Poynter, the Gannett folks say they recommended (they did not mandate) the change because hardly anyone reads the opinion pieces online, anyway. Reader surveys show that’s because readers feel like newspaper commentary lectures at them, rather than informs them, and they don’t want their newspaper telling them what to think. Readers also feel the opinion pages tend to stoke division, no matter how much newspaper editors call for unity.

I have mixed feelings.

In an ideal world, commentary pages in local newspapers act as a sort of town square, a place where people of every stripe can share their thoughts on the issues of the day.

Letters to the editor act as public comment, so everyday folks can have their say about the goings-on of their town, their state, their country. Columnists act as guest speakers, people with a bit of expertise in the subject matter of their columns who share that expertise with the general public to provoke thought and conversation. Through editorials, the newspaper — the moderator of the town square, keeping people civil and making sure both sides get heard — offers leadership on those issues by speaking for the betterment of the community.

In that ideal world, the readers of commentary pages — the participants in that town square — can agree to disagree. Sometimes, minds get changed. But, always, at the very least, readers better understand people on other sides of the issues and walk away with a respect for other viewpoints.

If we’re being honest, here, the pages don’t always end up that way.

Too many syndicated columnists simply preach the party line. Too many letters to the editor come from the same people writing on the same topics. Yes, newspaper editorials can get written in a rush and sound either bland or even preachy. And, yes, the nation’s divisions run so deep that too many people don’t want to hear from the other side at all, let alone take the time to respect the difference of opinion. Sometimes, people get nasty.

I’d never say every one of my columns come out perfectly.

Sometimes, I’d like to scrap The News’ Commentary pages, too.

But I’ll never do so, because, despite any shortcomings, I still think these pages have great value.

While I’d love to see more diversity of opinion from letters to editor, I still believe the process of writing something for the newspaper — and the mandate that writers include their first and last names — offers more nuance and civility than, say, opinions blasted on Facebook.

While our syndicated columnists can get predictable — and I’d love to have more local columnists — they still offer expertise in their subject matters and provide a depth of rationale for their positions that you simply don’t get listening to talking heads on TV.

And, while our daily editorials can sometimes be rushed, I still believe they show leadership and let readers know where this paper stands. Regular readers of our editorials should know The News stands for civic participation and for transparency, fiscal responsibility, and responsiveness from government.

And I think I turn out a good word or two in this column every now and again.

However many or few, I know some of our readers appreciate our opinion pages as the town square they’re meant to be, that they read the pages to learn from others who think differently than them, and that they appreciate and respect that difference of opinion. I know that some readers occasionally have their minds changed or at least learn to think differently, themselves, about an issue.

And that helps our community.

And that, to me, is a good enough reason to keep the pages around.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-354-3112 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.


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