Pick up a newspaper in many towns in South Carolina and you’re likely to find something missing: a robust editorial page.
Over the last few years, editorial pages have been dying as big media organizations with an eye to profit made cut after cut, relegating many pages of opinion to shadows of their former selves. Blame it on greed. Blame it on the rise of social media or Internet competition. But one thing is clear -- a reduction in opinion is not a good thing for communities that want to remain vibrant.
“A newspaper without a good editorial voice is a newspaper with a fairly weak soul,” said Ferrel Guillory, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) media professor and former Raleigh editorial writer.
“Newspapers don’t demand that people agree with them, but are a principal instrument in setting a community’s agenda,” he said. “And so when you lose that voice, you lose part of its identity, part of the soul of a community.”
You don’t have to agree with what’s said on an editorial page. What some writer professes might make you spit up your morning coffee. But that’s what a good community newspaper is supposed to do -- to challenge readers to think and give them information that they can use to make informed decisions about their town, county, state and nation.
Newspaper editorial pages are just as important to democracy as bills, votes and public meetings. A good local newspaper with a thoughtful, sometimes cantankerous, editorial binds a community. Without a good editorial and watchdog voice, communities drift, relying too often on big personalities, chambers of commerce or something else for leadership. Throw a newspaper into the mix and you have a calming and vigorous voice that can spearhead change for the good.
“The community and newspaper depend on each other,” Guillory said. “The community has important decisions to make. An editorial page helps the community come to grips with the big issues facing them. And part of the way we do that in a democracy is debate.”
Unfortunately across America, local newspapers are dying. A new study by UNC-CH shows more than one in five newspapers have closed in the last 15 years. In South Carolina,
Allendale County has no newspaper. In neighboring Georgia, 28 of 159 counties have no newspaper. Across the country, nearly half of 3,143 counties have just one newspaper, usually a small weekly.
But just as alarming are “ghost” newspapers that are shells of what they were. Compare The State in Columbia or the Greenville News in Greenville, both vibrant and thick newspapers 20 years ago, to today’s product, now owned by big corporations. Despite good journalism still coming from local reporters at those papers, the daily newspaper feels flimsy. Their editorial voices have dimmed.
“The newspaper industry has, largely, put a gun to its own head with many decisions it has made,” notes editorial writer Richard Whiting of the Greenwood Index-Journal. “Corporate ownership launched the big decline.”
He said he understands how many newspapers cut editorial staff to save money and tried to fill the void with national syndicated columnists and more attention to letters from readers. But ultimately, that is an abdication of responsibility by organizations that are supposed to “be a beacon of knowledge and to attempt to steer where the community is going.”
Sam Spence, editor of the alternative Charleston City Paper, observed that social media seems to chill some traditional media outlets. “Afraid to be lumped in with the red-hot, quick-fire reactions on social media, you rarely see much insightful opinion from [establishment] media anymore. Sure, some papers may use the institutional weight of their masthead to urge action on an issue, but rarely anything novel that you haven’t seen consensus crystalize in the few days prior.”
Our country, still mired in division most recently evidenced in the longest-ever shutdown of the federal government, is desperately seeking unity. Editorial voices from newspapers are a vital component to help people vent, share ideas and find common ground. But for editorial voices to do their jobs to be a glue for communities, media owners have to stop killing them off.