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Gannett urges hundreds of newspapers to cut op-ed pages

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The country’s largest newspaper chain believes its opinion pages are alienating readers and becoming stale.

So newspapers owned by Gannett Co. – publisher of USA Today and more than 250 daily newspapers – began to drastically reduce and reinvent their editorial sections, publishing them fewer days a week and abandoning traditional features such as syndicated columns and editorial cartoons. Even political endorsements and letters to the editor are reduced.

The company has been pushing for the cuts for years, and they’ve become increasingly visible to readers since a committee of editors officially recommended them at a meeting in April. “Readers don’t want us to tell them what to think,” said the editors, who hail from Gannett newsrooms across the country, in an internal presentation. “They don’t believe we have the expertise to tell anyone what to think about most issues. They perceive us as having a biased agenda.

Not only are editorials and opinion columns “among our least-read content,” the committee said, but they are “frequently cited” by readers as a reason to cancel their subscriptions.

While Gannett says recommendations aren’t mandatory and most of his papers still have editorial and commentary pages, at least four of his papers have cut their daily opinion offerings in recent days. Others should follow.

The Arizona Republic announced last week that it would only publish an opinion section in its print edition three days a week so that it could “refocus our time and efforts on facilitating a deeper dialogue about key issues affecting Arizonans”.

Similarly, Gannett’s Cape Cod Times in Massachusetts and Treasure Coast Palm in Florida said last week they would run editorial pages only two days a week. The New Bern Sun-Journal in North Carolina will run one day a week.

Opinion pages began to appear widely in American newspapers in the 19th century, and most newspapers have since built a code of ethics around them, including firewalls to prevent opinion columnists and columnists to influence journalists and editors who often work in the same building. . While journalists on the news side are generally discouraged from sharing their opinions on the topics they cover, their opinion-side counterparts can supplement their reporting with analysis, commentary, political endorsements and criticism. sometimes regrettable on social networks.

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The Gannett committee, however, argued that the traditional model is confusing and repulsive to readers.

His recommendations include reducing “unsigned” editorials that don’t state who wrote them, limiting political mentions to local races, and eliminating national syndicated columns. Gannett also urged his newspapers to stop publishing letters to the editor online, limiting them to print editions except in rare cases.

Recommendations and discounts will likely be followed closely by other newspaper owners. Gannett, based in McLean, Va., owns about 1 in 5 daily newspapers in the country and is often a proxy for other chains, said Rick Edmonds, industry analyst at the Poynter Institute, a journalism foundation.

American newspapers have long since eliminated once-commonplace features such as stock price charts and TV listings. Faced with fewer subscribers, less ad revenue and crippling layoffs in the digital age, some have dropped entire print editions to save money. Some smaller newspapers have removed opinion pages altogether.

Gannett, in particular, has plenty of incentives to seek out all the savings he can find. Its merger with GateHouse Media in 2019 formed a newspaper giant, but put the larger business in debt just as the coronavirus pandemic hit. The company lost $670 million on sales of $3.41 billion in 2020; it lost $135 million on $3.2 billion in revenue last year.

Gannett says his internal research — mostly reader surveys — suggests editorials, guest commentary columns, op-eds and letters to the editor have lost relevance in a time when opinions are spilling over onto social media. . According to the company, young readers often can’t tell the difference between news stories and opinions, especially online, where stories appear outside of traditional sections. Worse still, readers often mistakenly believe that the news is dictated by the newspaper’s editorial staff.

“Today’s contemporary audience is often unable to distinguish between objective reporting and opinion content,” the editorial board wrote in a previous iteration of its recommendations in 2018. society that had a greater culture of information. But in today’s digital/social environment, we as an industry have been challenged to clarify these differences.

The company now recommends that its newspapers avoid making endorsements in presidential, House and Senate races, given their waning influence and potential to turn away some readers.

“Approve less, if at all,” reads a 2018 planning document obtained by The Washington Post. “Reserve approval for local issues and races that are important and undercovered. …Each property will find its own way, but the view here is that it’s time to get out of the presidential endorsements.

The Phoenix-based Republic has already taken up the suggestion. It stopped making endorsements in 2020, four years after it made global headlines for endorsing a Democratic presidential candidate (Hillary Clinton) for the first time in its 126-year history.

The recommended changes reflect Gannett’s desire to focus on local issues and serve as a “modern public square” for readers, said Michael Anastasi, editor of the Tennessean, Gannett’s Nashville-owned newspaper and lead author of the company recommendations. He suggests that newspapers can play a more constructive role by ‘convening’ local experts to give their opinion in guest columns, rather than systematically emphasizing the institutional voice of the newspaper.

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Others think getting rid of editorials would be a mistake. Randy Bergmann, who was fired in 2020 after 18 years as editorial page head of Asbury Park Press in New Jersey, said in an interview that he tried to talk Gannett out of it through of an unsolicited note.

“I argued that thought leadership was one of the most important functions of the newspaper,” he said, quoting politicians who called him and other writers to discuss editorials. of his diary. “I’ve seen the impact of the editorials I’ve written locally.”

But changing the mix, and in some cases shedding traditional opinion hallmarks, can be a way to keep up with contemporary readers, said Kristen DelGuzzi, opinion editor at USA Today. “It’s part of the overall evolution of our industry,” she said. “Opinion pages seem to be the last part of the newsroom to evolve.”