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Tom Henderson: Opinion pages designed to promote civil community discussion

Content management specialists — we called them “editors” in the previous century — just completed extensive market analysis at the Statesman Journal in Salem and reached a startling conclusion.

After scrutinizing subscription cancellations and consulting with focus groups, they discovered — hold on to your skivvies — people don’t like it when other people disagree with them. Who knew?

Sadly, they frequently encounter such disagreeable people when reading the opinion pages of the newspaper. They therefore dislike editorials, columns, political cartoons and letters to the editor.

So the local content management specialists made the entirely rational and responsible business decision to discontinue that product line. After all, the customer is always right, right?

Imagine the owner of a candy store selling chocolate only to customers willing to also buy a stalk of celery and sit through a lecture about how chocolate is unhealthy, and how a quarter of cocoa laborers in Ghana, many of them children, work without compensation.

How many businesses would stay in business if they sold customers products they didn’t want to buy and told them things they didn’t want to hear?

Yet newspapers do that all the time. At least they did in the old days.

The Statesman Journal is not the first paper to rethink traditional opinion pages. The nearby Polk County Itemizer-Observer runs guest opinions and letters to the editor, but has all but abandoned staff editorials. It makes occasional exception only for brief statements that couldn’t possibly alienate anyone, such as: Yes, Virginia, motherhood is good.

Decisions to drop or limit opinions make perfect sense from a business perspective. You have to be a business before you can be a mission, and newspapers are already imperiled. Papers can’t afford to continue losing readers until the lights go out and they can no longer do any good for anyone.

The Statesman’s executive content management specialist, Cherrill Crosby, explains readers’ attitude thusly; “Readers want to be educated about the facts so they can make up their own minds as opposed to being told what to do.”

So who can argue with the decision to drop opinions? Sure. Give it a shot.

I spent most of the past 40 years writing newspaper opinions, usually as the managing editor of one community weekly or another. I also spent several years doing it full time as an editorial writer and columnist.

One thing the past four decades has taught me is that Cherrill Crosby is dead wrong. People love opinions.

For proof, see the opinions posted on Crosby’s announcement that the paper is dropping opinions. See also all of the other opinions posted online, as well as America’s continued obsession with Twitter, Facebook and all forms of social media.

Even this piece is bound to generate some online opinions. That’s a lot of opinions for people who don’t like opinions.

The difference is, we call those “online comments.”

Traditional letters to the editor are different. They require people to identify themselves by name and hometown. They also tend to be more thoroughly thought out.

Posting a quick anonymous zinger online is easy. Articulating an opinion one has to stand behind publicly usually makes for more thoughtful, sober, articulate and civil commentary.

People hate that in an age when they would rather lob rhetorical Molotov cocktails anonymously at one another.

Newspaper editorials are traditionally unsigned. That’s because they speak not for an individual but for the institution as a whole.

However, most newspapers make no secret of who serves on their editorial boards and thus helps form the consensus eventually articulated in their editorials.

Yes, it’s true that editorials often fly in the face of prevailing public sentiment. They assume the customer is not always right and frequently say so with words that infuriate said customer.

How can they get away with that? Why should they get away with that?

It’s because newspapers aren’t selling candy. They are providing news and information.

Rather than a candy store, imagine a doctor’s office. Should your physician tell you only what you want to hear?

“That giant bulge growing out of your head? Oh, that’s just a beauty mark. If you ask me, it’s actually quite fetching.”

News and information frequently need to be put in greater context, and demand wider discussion than you can get from your friends on Facebook and Twitter.

News and opinion should indeed be kept separate, though. That’s why that greater context and wider discussion are placed on clearly labeled opinion pages.

It’s not a one-sided conversation. Readers can respond. And they do it in what has traditionally been a robust conversation.

However, the conversation is mediated.

It is the setting for a high school debate rather than a cafeteria food fight. You can call the latter unfettered expression, but it’s really just childishness. It’s freedom without responsibility.

The Statesman Journal’s new policy stuns me. I suspect it may well be self-defeating.

When I toiled as an editorial writer and columnist, I worked for a mostly liberal paper in a mostly conservative community. Yet the paper never lacked for subscribers. In fact, it had readership numbers that would turn the Statesman Journal, and almost any other paper, green with envy.

“Love us or hate us, people read us,” the publisher said. “And it’s always better to be hated than ignored.”

Readers often asked him why he didn’t hire a conservative writer to balance out the liberal one. He responded it was because people ultimately don’t respect a mealy-mouthed paper that doesn’t stick to its guns.

He also said something Cherrill Crosby and other content management executives should heed as they try to keep readers happy: “When you try to be all things to all people, you end up being nothing to no one.”

What stings the most about Crosby’s explanation of the Statesman’s new policy is her assertion that columns and editorials tell readers what to do.

Wow. I can understand a reader reaching that conclusion as a gut reaction to an objectionable opinion.

However, Crosby has been in journalism even longer than I have, with a resume that many people would argue, if they were into opinions, that puts mine to shame. Does such a newspaper veteran seriously believe newspaper editorials and columns tell people what to do?

During my time on the opinion desk, I frequently told people I would be suspicious of anyone who agrees with me 100% of the time. Even I don’t agree with me 100% of the time.

My perspectives on things shift and evolve over time as I shift and evolve, as new information and insights emerge.

Ask me just a couple of years ago, and I would have said this business of using “they” as a singular pronoun is the veriest poppycock. Now I accept it as a welcome change in society.

Would I cancel my subscription to a newspaper that opined otherwise? Certainly not. Likewise, I would not have called the editors “woke libtards” two years ago.

We can do better than that as a society. Newspaper opinion pages help us do so.

Offering an opinion is NOT telling you what to think.

I used to keep a quote from Fred Friendly posted on my computer, during my stint as an opinion writer.

Older readers will remember Fred Friendly as the president of CBS News and creator, along with Edward R. Murrow, of the documentary program “See It Now.” He later joined the faculty of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Friendly said: “Our job is not to make up anybody’s mind, but to open minds, and to make the agony of decisionmaking so intense you can escape only by thinking.”

This newspaper still provides a weekly opinion section. I hope you appreciate that, as the community will lose much if it goes away.

P.S. A quarter of cocoa laborers in Ghana, many of them children, work without compensation.

Tom Henderson has spent decades working as a reporter and editor at papers in Oregon and Idaho. His stops included the News-Register, where he once covered City Hall.

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