Local Papers, National Issues

There is an interesting item up at Romanesko right now. The editorial page editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune is leaving because her and the publisher disagree on the role of the editorial page. In a letter to the staff, publisher Chris Harte writes:

We have a professional disagreement about the role of the editorial pages and how they should be edited. The main shift I want to see is toward even more locally focused editorial pages.

I believe the role of a metro newspaper is changing radically and rapidly in a world of instant global access to information. I see the need for our editorial pages, like the rest of the newspaper, to concentrate more heavily than ever on local, state and regional issues. This is where we can stake a claim like no other media can.

Our readers can go to many places to get informed opinion on the Iraq war or global warming. But there are very few places they can go for expert opinion on local issues. And that is where I want us to dwell, with the active participation of our readers.

Harte's view here is a common one. Local papers want to cover local news, and indeed that makes perfect sense. But I do think there is a serious argument that rarely gets enough attention, for having local papers comment on national and international issues.

If all local papers leave larger issues alone, then the opinion commentary from newspapers comes from few too places: the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal etc ...

And this is a problem. National issues have local implication. Global warming and the War in Iraq effect people everywhere. And it is not healthy for a country to have just the papers in New York and Washington opine on whether or not a country should go to war.

For an obvious example of this, we can go back and look to see how newspaper editorial pages around the country reacted to Powell's speech in Feb. 2003. You will notice that the editorials from most of the major papers had similar sentiments. To find opinions that countered this, you needed to look elsewhere.

The Washington Post editorial board called Powell's speech "irrefutable." The New York Times wrote: "Mr. Powell's most convincing evidence was of efforts by Iraq to shield chemical or biological weapons programs from United Nations inspectors " and that it was "all the more convincing because he dispensed with apocalyptic invocations of a struggle of good and evil and focused on shaping a sober, factual case against Mr. Hussein's regime." USA Today called it “new and forceful evidence” of Iraq’s weapons programs and terrorism links. The LA Times bought the claims as well, and the editorial page editor later said "I do wish we'd been more skeptical of Powell's WMD claims before the UN." The Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune were, likewise, utterly convinced in the merits of Powell's speech.

“If and when the administration gets editorial support from the elite media, it’s just about a done deal, because the public will fall in line,” said David Domke a professor of communication at the University of Washington in Seattle.

So clearly, given the near monolithic voices that major editorial pages have had on the major issues of our time, there is a real case for encouraging local dailies in smaller cities to step up and say what the big papers will not.