“What happens to the institutional voice?” asks Jack Nelson, former Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. He is complaining about my friend and former boss Michael Kinsley’s plan to have outsiders write some of the L.A. Times’ editorials. It’s a question best put in the past tense. The institutional voice of the Los Angeles Times was always something of a fiction. Whose opinions were these, anyway? A small team of editorialists couldn’t possibly represent the views of something as sprawling as a large newspaper staff; and anyway, convention dictated that said staff wasn’t supposed to have (or at least express) views at all. During my six years as a reporter in the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau, my opinions were nearly always in opposition to the line laid down by the Journal’s conservative editorial page, and the same held for most of the other reporters I knew, too.
The editorial page has never really represented the opinions of the newspaper’s owners, either, unless you’re prepared to believe that the typical newspaper owner formulates on a daily basis three or four detailed opinions on matters of local, national, or international significance. (I’m lucky if I can come up with one opinion a day, and I don’t bear responsibility for paying Slate’s bills.) The L.A. Times didn’t become a good newspaper until the publisher, Otis Chandler, started ignoring the broadly reactionary impulses of the other owners within the Chandler family. As I understand it, it was the relatives’ dissatisfaction with Chandler’s transformation of the L.A Times into a newspaper of the first rank that eventually convinced them to sell the L.A. Times to the Tribune Co. Chain ownership of newspapers has demolished even the pretense that a newspaper editorial board represents the views of its owners. The Tribune Co. will frequently express one opinion in an editorial at its flagship paper, the Chicago Tribune, and then turn around and express the opposite opinion in an editorial in the L.A. Times.
If the newspaper editorial were, in itself, a compelling journalistic form, it might be worth going on pretending that editorials represented something more than the opinion of a few journalists assigned to the editorial page and their boss, the editorial page editor. But the genre has certain built-in defects. One is that editorials typically lack sufficient length to marshal evidence and lay out a satisfactory argument. Instead, they tend toward either timidity, at one extreme, or posturing, at the other. Almost every editorial I’ve ever read in my life has fallen into one of two categories: boring or irresponsible. Most are boring, because, in addition to the length problem, the opinions expressed in the editorials are usually either arrived at by committee, or arrived at by an individual writer or editor who has internalized the views of that committee, real or imagined. Whenever that happens, the end product can’t avoid being bland.
I therefore suggest that Kinsley, in shaking up the L.A. Times editorial board and proposing all sorts of innovations, should embrace the most obvious one: Eliminate the editorial page.
Three decades ago, the New York Times created the editorial page’s logical successor: the op-ed page. “Op-ed” is shorthand for “opposite the editorial page.” A mixture of regular columns and freelance pieces, the op-ed page quickly became a thousand times more compelling than the editorial page it stood opposite. The articles were longer—typically 750 words—and therefore more amenable to real argument, as opposed to the mere stating of an opinion. (Having once worked as a junior editor on the Times op-ed page, I can attest that you can—just barely—fit a satisfactory argument into 750 words.) At their best, the columns and freelance pieces on the op-ed page displayed the quirky intelligence that could be achieved only when a writer was speaking for himself alone. The format also allowed for a wider range of opinions, since the Times took personal responsibility for none of them. Overall, the op-ed page was such an obviously great idea that every other newspaper in America quickly followed suit.
The only problem with the op-ed concept was that it wasn’t taken far enough. Really, it should have been called the “instead-ed” page and lengthened to two full pages rather than one.
Why has this natural evolution failed to occur? One reason is that editorials do come in handy once in awhile. The main function readers continue to rely on is the editorial board’s recommendations about who to vote for in local elections. Most of us lack much of a clue when it comes to choosing candidates for the more obscure local offices, and simply knowing that a reliably centrist and cautious entity has thought this through for us comes as a welcome relief. All right, then: Whoever remained behind in charge of the instead-ed pages could meet the candidates and write special who-to-vote-for editorials whenever the need arose. He or she could also weigh in with a special editorial on those rare occasions when the newspaper really did want to speak with one voice—usually, I would guess, on matters affecting its own ability to cover the news. These extra responsibilities for the instead-ed editor, and perhaps an assistant or two, would not weigh heavily: I can’t imagine the need for a special editorial arising more than four or five times a year. When such an editorial did appear, it would lack the usual space constraints, and its mere appearance would be something of an occasion, according special editorials much more impact than regular editorials have today.
Another reason we haven’t yet seen the withering away of the editorial page is that its elimination depends not only on the imagination and guts of editorial page editors to buck respectable opinion but also on the willingness of these editors to eliminate their own jobs. It is a very prestigious thing to be editorial page editor of a major newspaper; within recent memory, two editorial-page editors of the New York Times went on to become executive editor of the entire paper (minus the editorial pages, which are run independent of the news staff). This social reality makes it very difficult for an editorial page editor to kill his editorial page. Conceivably a publisher might do so instead, but he or she would immediately fall prey to the charge that he was doing it to dumb down the newspaper and shore up the bottom line. The real reason to eliminate the editorial page, though, is … editorial. Nobody wants to read editorials. Even sober policy wonks usually avoid them. The compelling format for expressing opinions is the signed column or op-ed. Long may they rule.