For these folks, it's a matter of opinion Newspapers: Editorials, say the people responsible for producing them, are not a dying art. But no thundering allowed.

We took ourselves over to the National Conference of Editorial Writers conclave yesterday to ascertain the state of the craft, as well as the condition of our world and society. The latter are common preoccupations for the people who get out the views of the nation's newspapers.

(Having done this work before, it wasn't hard to slip into the first person plural: we are quite comfortable wearing the august "we," so to speak.)


The opening speech, by Reg Murphy, a former publisher of The Sun and currently president and CEO of National Geographic magazine, was titled: "The future of the editorial page." (Or, in the convention of those on hand, "Whither the Editorial We?") Murphy reassured the editorial writers they were still important in the national life. Then he chided them:

"To be sure, you are more respected than the politicians, as you deserve to be, but the margin in your favor is not great enough to make you comfortable."


He complained of having met too many editorials across the country with hardly a fact to hold them up. More facts, he demanded. Fewer opinions.

The editorial writers arrived in Baltimore early this week, about 150 of the NCEW's 600 members. They came to shmooze, grapple with the big issues and generally illuminate the glass tower of the Hyatt Hotel with their intellectual candlepower.

They visited museums. They tasted the steamed crab. They met the mayor. The governor came. He asked them to support the issues he supports and to stop picking on politicians.

After the speeches, they turned to their weighty agenda. Topics include the soundness of the Social Security fund, the wisdom of public financing of sports stadiums, the future of race relations -- and this one, which suggests a U.S. News & World Report touch: After AIDS: The top-10 diseases.

Despite a faint reputation for stuffiness that clings to the editorial writing practice, some irreverence, perhaps even levity, may emerge today when a panel decides the relevance, or lack of it, of H. L. Mencken.

Relevance -- not of Mencken, but of editorial pages -- is a vexing question within the Fourth Estate. It has engendered some anxiety, and some remedial change.

"There was a time when editorial writers tended to be reporters with arthritis," said Sig Gissler, a veteran of the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal.

They were men (nearly always men) who wrote about strategic choke points and warned of the Red Menace. Today the overall concern with foreign events on newspapers has diminished, in both the news and editorial columns. Many editorial pages, mainly on smaller papers, deal only with local subjects.


The people guiding the industry believe this is what readers want. Though probably true, that doesn't mean editorial pages are thriving on the strategy. The St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Charlotte Observer have broken with tradition and don't even run editorials every day.

"The problem with editorial pages is, and has been, that some are so mealy-mouthed that they don't say anything, and don't deserve to be read," said Creed Black, the retired publisher of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Though certainly not a dying art, editorial writing is not widely taught in journalism schools any more, said Earl Conn, dean of the college of communications at Indiana's Ball State University. Why not?

"I guess that the writing of editorials and the editorial page doesn't hold the prominence it did at one point," he said, sadly.

Not everybody agrees, of course, and Black's assessment is not so broadly condemnatory as it seems. There may be a few editorial pages that have the clarity that Vermont Royster gave the Wall Street Journal's, he suspects, or the eloquence the late Price Day bestowed on the Baltimore Sun's.

Black does not believe the growth of electronic media, the Internet or other gee-whiz stuff has nudged the editorial page into oblivion. These are systems for moving information, news. They leave a lot of space for commentary and analysis.


And Rena Pederson of the Dallas Morning News, the current president of the NCEW, says she and her colleagues expect a bright future. Aware of the competition for the public's attention, they will fight for every minute of it.

"People will go where they can find good writing, humor, sharp-edged truth," she says. "They need a voice of reason. An honest broker to sort through the political gamesmanship."

Black began writing editorials in 1950 on the Nashville Tennesseean: "We had a two-man editorial page. I was an expert on almost everything. Had to be."

Black is reminiscent of the archetypal American newspaper editor. They dwelled in small towns and large; their interests and vision often reached far beyond local concerns. They pronounced on everything, thundered against turpitude near and far.

That was yesterday. Today, thundering is not encouraged. In many papers, editorial writers try for balance, for sensitivity to other views.

"You should have someone [on the staff] in the mid- to late-20s," says Gissler, now professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. "You should have someone [old enough] who understands why elderly people get so excited about Social Security."


"It's not that blacks and Hispanics write only about these issues," he says. "But that they bring an additional perspective to the work."

An NCEW-sponsored study pubished in 1989 revealed that the demographics of the editorial page had changed much over the previous 20 years. Editorial writers became younger, better educated, less political. More were female.

Little progress was evident for minorities. Since 1989, though, anecdotal evidence indicates many more have joined editorial pages staffs. The NCEW has about 40 minority members.

Editorial writers consulted for this article, both at the convention and around the country, nearly all urge "sharper, harder-edged editorials" to win back the public's attention. "Take firm positions," urged Robert Comstock, former editor of the Bergen (N.J.) Record.

Good advice, perhaps, but it runs against a trend some see toward excessive "sensitivity" or "balance," and the regrettable mealy-mouthedness.

In fact, the frank and pointed editorial is not always appreciated. Many newspaper readers have formed themselves into identity groups based on ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or ideology. They are sensitive -- and vocal. Many of the changes these factors represent go under the rubric of political correctness. When asked how PC influences what they do, some editors are dismissive. Others point to its insidious power.


Gil Cranberg, who ran the editorial page of the Des Moines Register for more than 30 years, said newspapers used to endorse political candidates for office on the basis of their qualifications, regardless of gender or skin color. Today these are important factors in editorial decision making, he said. He regards the practice as unhealthy.

He also complains that many of the people who read newspapers have become too literal-minded. Satire is lost on them.

Recently, Cranberg wrote a tongue-in-cheek criticism of welfare reform. In it he advised single mothers that they could get jobs flipping burgers, and by working only 80 hours a week, keep their heads above water.

People wrote in, he said disgustedly. "They congratulated me for my ode to the work ethic."

Pub Date: 10/03/96