David Arkin's blog

It’s time for opinion editors, departments to move into the digital era

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Last week, the largest newspaper in Indiana did a really cool thing with its front page. And then it laid a goose egg online.

Last week, before the state of Indiana reversed legislation that would have allowed businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians, the Indy Star wrote this great editorial calling out the state for the move. And in a very bold move, they put the editorial on their front page with an amazing design. Cool stuff.

Online, they didn’t do much more than just post the editorial. And rightfully so, they were called to the mat on it. Nieman Lab had this headline “When your newspaper wants to make a big statement, make sure you’re making it online too.” Some user experience issues got flagged, but more than that was the fact that the paper didn’t do anything special online as it went super big with the editorial in print.

A day after the editorial came out, a colleague told me about the Nieman article as I was complimenting the paper’s bold print move. And I unfortunately wasn’t surprised at all.

While the industry has made a lot of digital transformation progress in the newsroom over the years, one area that really has not changed is the opinion department. Voice on our editorial pages is critically important, but the reality is the majority of opinion departments are still very traditional. Opinion editors write a few editorials each week, manage letters to the editor, pick cartoons, edit syndicated columnists and work on guest commentaries. The job basically hasn’t changed in 50 years. And it shows online.

What should the Star have done?

— They should have had a poll on the issue.
— They should have asked readers to share their thoughts on their editorial in the commenting section.
— They should have offered a live chat with the opinion editor to discuss the editorial.
— They should have featured a video from the editor or publisher explaining the decision to put the editorial on 1A.
— They should have gotten active in social media, seeking comments and ideas from readers on what should happen with the legislation.
— They should have hosted an online debate. The Economist has a great model that chooses two experts to debate an issue and encourages comments during the debate. People can vote during the debate and change their minds as many times as they like. It’s terrific interaction.

I’d guess that before running the editorial on the front page, the website had a poll and maybe led a chat. It would have been helpful to have featured that prior work with this new editorial.

I’m not going to single out the Star because at GateHouse we struggle with the same cultural issue. We don’t want to lose any of the editorial voice our newspapers feature today, but we know that driving that conversation online is critical in an effort to ensure we’re reaching out to our audience where they are. The days of just writing five editorials a week are over. Opinion editors need to host forums, run live chats and find new ways of bringing more voices onto our platforms. When we don’t do that — and that’s way more than when we do — we are not fully optimizing the conversation with our readers.

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