Is it time for newspapers to say goodbye to their opinion sections? I’ve always been a defender of the opinion page for its tradition of unsigned editorials that motivate societal change, and for its ability to create a forum to discuss a wide array of differing viewpoints through columns and letters to the editor. But I’m also not blind to the fact that today’s newspaper readers in large numbers don’t seem to “get it.”
Readers don’t have the same relationship with newspapers as they once did. Readers aren’t looking to newspapers to be the forum of cutting-edge thought and discourse anymore.
Newspapers strive to be a source of information and education, which is why robust opinion sections have always been a key part of the daily offering. Modern readers don’t seem to have that same view.
They come to the pages of the newspaper expecting factual information, balanced news stories and the latest happenings in sports and entertainment. The opinion pages, as important as they have been in the past, appear to be confusing to today’s readers.
Understandably, many readers equate the views expressed on the opinion page with the views of the newspaper’s editors and journalists. On the inside of the business, we know that editors and journalists have nothing to do with the opinion sections of most papers, but readers aren’t aware of that. When they see an opinion different than their own, they immediately assume the newspaper itself holds that view and suddenly all of the news stories are tainted in the eyes of that reader.
More disturbing, however, is the large number of readers who can’t seem to tell the difference between news and opinion. Even though newspapers make the best effort to clearly label an opinion section, even though the design of the newspaper makes it clear that this area of the paper is devoted to opinions and letters from readers, there is a segment of the population that cannot grasp this concept.
Perhaps, the time has come to take the hit in subscribers who love the opinion page in order to gain traction and credibility with today’s news consumers.
It isn’t like the industry has been putting out the best in diversity of opinions in the last 30 years anyway. Most newspapers have made a conscious choice based on their markets to have either a conservative-leaning opinion page or a liberal-leaning opinion page. As demographics in an area change, so do the views expressed on the opinion pages in order to maintain and gain subscribers. Very few newspapers actually balance out the opinion pages anymore.
So, what would it look like if we just stopped? What if the newspaper only contained the news of the day, sports and the usual set of entertainment features like advice columns and comics? What if we truly presented the reader with the issues and allowed them to decide their viewpoint?
I’m not rooting for the death of the opinion page, by the way. Freedom of the press has often expressed itself on the opinion pages of newspapers. A part of me doesn’t see how you can have one without the other. But if readers are struggling with the difference in opinion and fact, it may be time to focus more on facts and good journalism for a while until the audience is informed enough to know the difference. We may be leaving our readers behind and if we do that, they will continue to leave us in droves.