Who Writes Unsigned Editorials?

Unsigned editorials are billed as a newspaper’s “official” opinions. Taken literally, this is an odd notion. It’s one thing for a flesh-and-blood person like Maureen Dowd or William Safire to have an opinion, but the New York Times? So, who’s writing these editorials? And why aren’t they signing them?

Each major American newspaper has, in addition to reporters and editors, a small staff of editorial writers who draft the paper’s official positions. The New York Times employs 16 editorial writers, and the Washington Post employs eight or so. Every day, the entire editorial team convenes to discuss and debate the day’s topics, and then the individual writers retire to their offices to prepare the articles. Ordinarily, the editor of the editorial page–Howell Raines at the New York Times, Meg Greenfield at the Washington Post, and Robert Bartley at the Wall Street Journal–has the final say on a particular issue. Occasionally–with candidate endorsements, for instance–the publisher might participate in or even make the decision.

Reporters and editors from the newsroom are never involved in the editorial-writing process. The idea is that if reporters were writing opinion pieces, it would compromise their ability to remain (or at least appear) objective. Of course, no one seriously believes that reporters are without opinions, but, in American newsrooms at least, they’re not encouraged to cultivate them. (British reporters have more leeway for editorializing in news stories and British unsigned editorials are often written by the newsroom editor.) This “church-and-state” separation of news and editorial is taken to extremes at the Wall Street Journal. Recently, the newsroom declined to report on the Juanita Broaddrick allegations (for a primer, scroll down to the previous item) so the exuberantly right-wing editorial page sent a reporter to Arkansas and published her piece on the Broaddrick allegations. The WSJ’s Washington bureau chief wasn’t even aware of the editorial page’s decision until the story appeared in his own paper.

And why don’t the writers sign their editorials? The reason is that individual editorials are supposed to reflect the collective judgment of the entire editorial board. Though written by different people, they are also supposed to speak with one voice and be philosophically consistent. In practice, of course, editorial boards don’t really agree on every issue.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Jodie Allen of U.S. News & World Report.