Michael Kinsley Edges LA Times Editorial Pages Into The 2st Century
Michael Kinsley. one of the most independent and unpredictable political writers and editors of his generation, is shaking things up at the Los Angeles Times where some writers are leaving, new nonprofessional writers (the public) will come in — and the traditional concept of the editorial pages is being forcibly nudged into the 21st century.
It was revealed in this seemingly institutional announcement that the paper ran yesterday — an announcement that, if these renovations succeed, could one day be a kind of journalistic historical document since it shakes up the whole idea of the editorial page.
The bottom line is that Kinsley (whose writings get people on the right and left mad because he doesn’t follow any party’s talking points and can compliment one while blasting it) is attempting take traditional newspaper editorials, the op-ed page, and the Sunday opinion section beyond it’s current very limited audience of political elites, academics, the most staunch partisans — and bloggers.
Newspaper readerships are trending down. The new generation clearly doesn’t care about newspapers as much as the last (which cared about newspapers less than the one before that). And Internet technology — as limited as it may be impact on the OVERALL public — changes the way politics is now dissected, discussed and packaged.
It’s interesting to do a search of the Internet and look at a list of the world’s top 100 newspaper circulations. Number One is Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun. You don’t SEE an American newspaper until you get to the Wall Street Journal (19) and USA Today (23). Both of those are “national papers,” with clear identities, carrying out their “missions” quite well. The first “local” American newspaper you see is the LA Times (40).
Kinsley seems to be trying to incorporate some of the new Internet and political discussion culture to broaden the depth and diversity of opinions and feedback in his newspaper. Just a few of the points Sunday’s announcement made:
â€¢ A box on this page, in the letters space, will appear some days, critiquing editorials in other newspapers.
â€¢ Analytical editorials that grapple with fundamental principles underlying a policy debate will be labeled “Framework.” These will be archived on our website (latimes.com/opinion) and also in a separate outline by subject matter that we hope, over the years, will evolve into a coherent and consistent political philosophy.
â€¢ “Thinking Out Loud” is an experiment in making up our minds in public. Starting with two national issues, immigration and traffic, that are especially important to us in Southern California, we will devote space in all of our precincts â€” editorials, Op-Eds, the Sunday Opinion section (and watch out for a redesign and name change there!) and our website â€” to exploring aspects and alternate views of these subjects. We don’t have a solution, and there may not be a good one. But that is no excuse for failing to come up with the best one. We hope this process will help us do it.
â€¢ We will allow board members to dissent from editorials they disagree with â€” though only once a year each. Judy Dugan has already used up her 2005 allotment with a strong rebuttal to our editorials endorsing the Republican Senate leadership’s efforts to kill the filibuster
â€¢ Watch next week for the introduction of “wikitorials” â€” an online feature that will empower you to rewrite Los Angeles Times editorials.
â€¢ You may see more editor’s notes like this one, where we step out from behind the curtain to update you on what we are doing, or comment on some of our past editorials.
A New York Times piece notes that this journalistic revolution like most revolutions has sparked some upheaval:
Michael Kinsley shook up the editorial staff of The Los Angeles Times recently, transferring four of his eleven writers, letting one go, and outsourcing some editorials to freelancers.
With Kinsley, anyone who’s followed his career knows he isn’t just doing this for budget cuts: he has thought (and deeply) about what he’s trying to do. The staff discovered his plans by accident (he left them in a photocopying machine). The Times notes that Kinsley often asks question like how editorial pages are still relevant…a good question, particularly since weblogs (like this) are often extended op-ed pages that don’t require a reader to pay for a subscription (perhaps virus removal, but no subscription..). MORE:
While some editorial pages have been nudged into new directions, Mr. Kinsley, the editorial and opinion page editor, is making the boldest attempt to make them more dynamic, argumentative and interactive with several innovations aimed squarely at online readers, while being less like an unseen voice of authority.
The changes, announced in yesterday’s edition, include allowing editorial writers a once-a-year chance to write a signed piece dissenting from the editorial position of the newspaper. “Writer Judy Dugan has already used up her 2005 allotment with a strong rebuttal to our editorial endorsing the Republican Senate leadership’s efforts to kill the filibuster,” Mr. Martinez wrote in yesterday’s paper.
This week, the newspaper, will introduce an online feature called “wikitorials,” as a way for readers to engage in an online dialogue with the paper. The model is based on “Wikipedia,” the Web’s free-content encyclopedia that is edited by online contributors.
“We’ll have some editorials where you can go online and edit an editorial to your satisfaction,” Mr. Martinez said. “We are going to do that with selected editorials initially. We don’t know how this is going to turn out. It’s all about finding new ways to allow readers to interact with us in the age of the Web.”
Mr. Kinsley said that he was just trying something new with the wikitorials.
“It may be a complete mess but it’s going to be interesting to try,” he said. “Wikitorials may be one of those things that within six months will be standard. It’s the ultimate in reader participation.”
There are some other changes (read the whole piece). But the bottom line is this: give Kinsley credit for trying something new.
Of course, there will be some who will oppose it because it’s new — something that isn’t the way it has been done for years. Such as:
Mr. Kinsley said he planned to hire three researchers to work on the editorial Web site. He also plans to have a three-month visiting fellow, most likely a scholar or foreign journalist, write editorials.
As for outsiders writing editorials, a domain traditionally reserved for the newspaper’s staff, that is up in the air. “We might have a few adjunct board members with special knowledge write editorials that we commission and we would set the editorial line, but we haven’t decided,” Mr. Martinez said. The paper has already run three such editorials.
That notion troubles Jack Nelson, the newspaper’s former Washington bureau chief. “I think it’s absolutely crazy to have outsiders writing editorials at all,” he said. “What happens to the institutional voice?”
Answer: it CHANGES.
It still HAS an “institutional voice” — but it adapts. Just like music seems to adapt with every generation, only in this case Kinsley is not talking about totally throwing out what is here now but adapting it to include modern technology and younger reader expectations of a more proactive role.
Even if he is not totally successful, Kinsley deserves a lot of credit. Just as his writings represent some of the freshest thinking (even if you don’t always agree with them) of his generation, his re-thinking of his department’s role is also a brave one. If his plan fails, it’ll be an instructive experiment; if it succeeds it could be a trend-setter.