"WHAT HAPPENS TO THE INSTITUTIONAL VOICE?" It disappears, that's what. And it may be about time. Veteran media reporter Alicia Shepard, a former American Journalism Review stalwart writing her first piece for the expanded New York Times media section, today takes a look at Michael Kinsley's controversial efforts to shake up the Los Angeles Times' editorial page.
Kinsley has been cutting staff, using freelancers, and generally trying to reinvent what is often the most stodgy section of any major daily newspaper. He's also reportedly groping his way toward a radically different Web version of his pages. Shepard quotes an old-timer, political reporter Jack Nelson, as saying, "I think it's absolutely crazy to have outsiders writing editorials at all. What happens to the institutional voice?"
Kinsley is dealing with a conundrum. Opinion-writing is the most popular part of any paper (in sports, especially, but in politics, too). Yet the unsigned editorial - that is, the institutional voice of the newspaper, speaking from on high - has seen better days. In a Web-based media culture increasingly shaped by multiple opinions and talking back, that kind of one-way communication seems less and less relevant - the newspaper equivalent of what Les Moonves disparagingly calls the "Voice of God" when referring to the old-fashioned anchormen.
Opinion - well-informed opinion that responsibly seeks to inform and persuade - is vital to any news organization. Today's Boston Globe offers an interesting model: the lead editorial is a signed piece by Donald MacGillis - the first of a series on carbon-free energy - on the politics of wind power, reported from Denmark, a windmill haven.
Jay Rosen acidly observes that though the "religion" of journalism plays down the importance of opinion, the New York Times recently sent precisely the opposite message when it announced that the online edition will begin charging for columnists this fall. Readers want opinion-writing. It's the Voice of God they're tired of.