My Opinion on Opinion

by Dan Ward

Thank you to Jim Romenesko and the Poynter Institute for drawing attention to a blog post by Fast Horse founder Jorg Pierach, which calls for newspapers to “get out of the opinion business.”

Pierach says that newspapers “risk alienating partisan readers, who now have the option of turning to other places for news that more closely fits their worldview,” and that the opinion pages that are good for civic discourse are “also bad for business.”

What’s next after losing the Opinion pages? If people are getting their business news from cable TV and ideologically slanted websites, should newspapers drop business coverage altogether? If more people turn to the Internet for movie reviews, should newspaper reviewers hit the road? If more go online to debate the performance of their favorite sports teams, should we lose the Sports pages?

The day that newspapers take Pierach’s advice will be a sad day indeed. Rather than giving people even one more reason to turn to outlets that “fit their worldview,” we should encourage people to seek out opinions with which they disagree, because that’s how we learn. If you are a rigid ideologue who has no use for those whose opinions do not match your own closely held beliefs, then by all means continue filtering your news. But for those who wish to listen to different voices in order to build their own judgments, the Opinion pages are critically important.

While I often critique our hometown newspaper and its news coverage that has suffered from ongoing budget and staff cuts, I find that its Opinion pages are well done. I don’t always agree with the organizational opinion of the Orlando Sentinel, but I almost always learn something. And rather than be accused of bias, under the leadership of Opinions Editor Mike Lafferty, the newspaper provides an equal measure of columns from the left, right and center.

I agree with Pierach that what sets newspapers apart is solid local reporting, news analysis and in-depth investigations. I also believe, however, that the newspaper’s role in providing opinion on both local and national issues, and in driving conversation and debate, is a unique selling proposition.

I would rather our newspapers go back to focusing on what makes them unique – including the Opinion pages – instead of changing who and what they are to compete for ever-important “Web clicks.”

That’s my opinion.

4 Responses to My Opinion on Opinion

  1. Bob says:

    What part of the newspaper is not opinion?

  2. Jorg Pierach says:

    Dan: Thanks for your thoughts. I think it’s an important discussion. Can we agree that a strong brand is differentiated and relevant? If so, it’s not a stretch to explore whether opinion helps or hurts a newspaper from a branding standpoint. I believe opinion no longer differentiates newspapers. There’s just too much of it out there. The New York Times tried to put their opinion writers behind a pay wall. That flopped. Why? There are too many free alternatives for smart, well-written opinion pieces on virtually any topic you can think of. Truth is: No matter how well done, opinion is now a commodity. I would further argue that opinion is increasingly leaving newspapers irrelevant to those who hold opposing partisan views. Sadly, many people can’t or won’t separate news from editorial. And in some markets, that’s not an inconsequential number of people. I think a for-profit entity ought to put everything on the table in an effort to find ways to make its product more relevant to a wider potential audience. It’s just good business.

    If it were my call, I’d take a damn hard look at what taking partisan stands is doing to the relevance of my brand and the corresponding impact on my business. What do you think would happen if General Mills starting printing partisan editorials on the back of their cereal boxes? I don’t think any sane marketer would recommend that. Just look at what happened when it was revealed that Target gave money to a group that supported a highly partisan candidate for governor in Minnesota. I can assure you they, and many others, learned an important lesson there. Newspapers are simply not immune to something every other other brand out there has to deal with.

    Yes, it would be a sad day if newspapers decided they had to get out of the opinion business. But if such a move ultimately results in saving local reporting and news analysis, which what I think is much more critical and can truly leave newspapers differentiated and relevant, then I would celebrate it.

    The world has changed. The model is broken. And newspapers are dying. In that environment, there can be no sacred cows.

    Thanks again for weighing in.

    Jorg Pierach
    Founder
    Fast Horse

  3. [...] My Partner Dan Ward’s earlier contribution here on the subject of opinions in newspapers sparked an exchange with Fast Horse founder Jorg Pierach about the value of opinion to the vanishing newspaper world I came from … and to businesses in general. [...]

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