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Newspapers Should Stay in the Opinion Business - Radio, TV Stations, and Networks, Too - Charlie Warner

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Published: July 12, 2011 at 03:20 PM GMT
Last Updated: July 11, 2011 at 03:20 PM GMT

By Charlie Warner

Advertising/PR practitioner Jorg Pierach posted a blog titled " Newspapers Should Get Out of the Opinion Business " that got picked up by Romenesko and Jason Hirschhorn's MediaReDEFined, so it got noticed and created some healthy debate.

Here, in part, is what Pierach of advertising/PR/marketing firm Fast Horse wrote:

If you want my opinion, it's time for newspapers to get out of the opinion business.

Yes, opinion pages are good for civic discourse – but I believe they're also bad for business. At some point soon, for-profit daily newspapers are going to have to choose one or the other. The conversation has already started at The New York Times.

A column by Executive Editor Bill Keller in last Sunday's edition laid out plans to make over the Gray Lady's Sunday opinion section, heretofore called Week In Review. Starting Sunday, wrote Keller, the section will be renamed Sunday Review, "the last vestiges of a weekly summing up replaced by a more general timeliness, and that dividing wall breached, so that argument (which will be labeled Opinion) can appear alongside explanation (which will be labeled News Analysis.)"

I'd argue that's a step in the wrong direction.

Later in the post, Pierach put forth the heart of his argument::

Amidst … [the]… digital cacophony, I believe newspapers continue to risk alienating partisan readers, who now have the option of turning to other places for news that more closely fits their worldview: Huffington Post, Drudge, etc. The business problem for newspapers comes down to increased competition and branding.

Pierach echoes one Eli Pariser's main points in his groundbreaking book The Filter Bubble 

that America is becoming more polarized in part because of Google's algorithms which show us only relevant search results, which in turn means that we see only what we agree with – also referred to as confirmation bias. So the problem of polarization, also described brilliantly in Cass Sunstein's book Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide is increasing because of technology's push toward relevancy – giving us what we want and what we agree with.

But, Fox News, MSNBC, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times are not turning off partisan viewers and readers by proffering opinions in the form of opinionated talk show hosts and newspapers editorials. Opinion is good for their business,

The trend toward polarization that is pushing Americans to extreme positions on the right and the left is certainly no reason for newspapers and other media outlets to stop presenting opinions. It is not the editorials and the opinion pieces that are causing the polarization, it is the entire spectrum of more sophisticated technology and the instant availability of diverse information and opinion that allows us, even motivates us, to seek out only those facts, information, and opinions that agree with our view of the world and our own multiple biases.

I can see why someone in advertising or PR would not want newspapers to influence people by editorializing – give management's opinion on issues – because that is the function of advertising and PR practitioners, to spin the news and the facts to influence readers and audiences. Spinmeisters would prefer bland news to surround their slanted content.

But all media outlets should resist the efforts of PR people to get them to avoid editorializing or expressing multiple opinions. Media outlets should create a public dialogue on controversial issues of importance to the community. Contrary to Pierach's assertion that editorializing is bad business, editorializing is good for business – it is differentiating content that gives readers and audiences not only an additional reason to read or view but also it is content that gives credibility to the outlet and establishes a perception of expertise for that outlet.

Furthermore, responsible editorializing acts as an important service to a community. For example, who would know what judges to vote for if the local newspaper didn't do the research and endorse a slate of candidates. Writing editorials isn't just about spouting opinions, it's also about doing in-depth research on issues and candidates that ordinary citizens don't have the time to do.

All media outlets (newspapers, magazines, news websites, radio and TV stations, and broadcast and cable networks) should editorialize and present diverse opinions – create "civic discourse" as Pierach suggests – as a vital public service.

When the only criteria for making decisions in media outlets is what is good for business – the bottom line – and not what's good for society and the community, not only will greed rule, but the media will abrogate its public service responsibility and leave influencing and persuading to the spinmeisters, which is just what they want.

Until he retired in 2002, Charlie Warner was Vice President of AOL's Interactive Marketing division. Before joining AOL, he was the Goldenson Endowed Professor at the Missouri Journalism School where he taught media management and sales, and he created and ran the annual Management Seminar for News Executives. Charlie can be contacted at charleshwarner@gmail.com.

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