Gannett, publishers of USA Today and owner of the nation's largest newspaper chain, began to eliminate editorials from its more than 300 newspapers two years ago, arguing that local editorials have been among its least-read articles.

Gannett, publishers of USA Today and owner of the nation's largest newspaper chain, began to eliminate editorials from its more than 300 newspapers two years ago, arguing that local editorials have been among its least-read articles.

The Virginia Press Association has awarded an annual prize for “editorial leadership in the community” since 1988, recognizing one newspaper in the state for crusading editorial writing each year. That is, it did until last year when no award was given. The reason? The group received just one entry for the prize. This year, the award was scrapped altogether.

Newspapers once routinely weighed in with unsigned columns on the myriad issues facing their communities, from school funding to local development to endorsements in local political races. The newspaper’s institutional voice could be predictable, staid, and self-serving. But it could also offer moral clarity and shape public opinion, as Pulitzer Prize-winning editorials on prison reform, income inequality, racial relations, and the environment have over the past several decades.

The demise of the Virginia award is a trivial symptom of a more complex and serious malady. As another presidential election looms, the traditional newspaper editorial is withering — another casualty of the same forces that have gutted basic news reporting. The tone was set by Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, which began to eliminate local editorials from its more than 300 daily and weekly newspapers two years ago. “Readers don’t want us to tell them what to think,” a panel of Gannett editors wrote in an internal presentation endorsing the cutback. “They don’t believe we have the expertise to tell anyone what to think on most issues.”

Gannett’s opinion on the value of staff opinions appears to be widely shared. Two decades ago, The Hartford Courant, the nation’s oldest continuously published newspaper, employed 30 people to produce its daily editorials, op-eds and letters to the editor, according to Stephen Busemeyer, who formerly oversaw the Courant’s opinion pages. When Busemeyer left to join the non-profit Connecticut Mirror in 2020, he was the section’s last full-time employee. Similarly, The Roanoke Times once had six editorial writers, said Dwayne Yancey, who served as its editorial-page editor for seven years. Like Busemeyer, Yancey was the last man standing in the department when he resigned in 2021 to become co-founder and executive editor of a non-profit start-up, the Cardinal News.

Lee Enterprises, owner of the nation’s third largest newspaper chain, began curtailing local editorials around the same time as Gannett. In their place, the company distributed to its papers standardized editorial pages consisting of commentary from national columnists and its editorial board. The change might have been a boon for those seeking yet another opinion about presidential politics, Congress, and international affairs, but it did little for commentary about events occurring down the street from Lee’s 77 daily newspapers. One of the syndicated columns Lee distributed to its papers earlier this year lamented the decline of local journalism and urged more support for it, an irony given the company’s cuts. (Lee didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Gannett has justified its retrenchment by pointing to reader surveys indicating that local editorials have been among its newspapers’ least-read articles. It also has said many readers had trouble distinguishing between routine news reporting and editorial commentary, especially when an editorial was published online, unmoored from a traditional opinion section. Rather than offering staff-written editorials, Gannett now sees its role as “convening conversations” among community members, said Michael McCarter, Gannett’s opinion editor, in a statement.

That approach, however, all but eliminates a newspaper’s own voice, and signals a retreat from its direct engagement in community affairs, a historic change. Newspaper editorials predate America itself. Colonial newspapers inveighed for and against rebellion; a pamphleteer named Thomas Paine galvanized the independence movement by beginning his lengthy series of editorials this way: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” 

In a hyperpolarized environment, in which readers increasingly seek opinions that reinforce their biases, newspapers can still serve as authoritative, credible, and dispassionate voices, particularly on topics too small to attract the attention of cable news or partisan websites, says Yancey. “I have no special insight into presidential politics,” he said, “but I do know about state and local issues. How many places are there to get an informed perspective on a zoning issue?” 

Or about city finances? Or a teachers’ strike? Or countless other community controversies? Rather than dictating what readers ought to think, as Gannett’s editors wrote in 2022, the best editorials parse complicated issues and provide what Busemeyer calls “a clear path through the thicket.”

Among the countless unsigned columns Busemeyer wrote for the Courant, one of the most significant, he said, was an editorial in 2018 urging a local congresswoman, Elizabeth Esty, to resign over her handling of allegations of sexual harassment by her chief of staff. Esty didn’t take the paper’s advice, but her decision not to seek reelection after three terms suggested the editorial had nonetheless resonated. That a local paper called for her resignation “really meant something,” Busemeyer said. 

Busemeyer reflects on what’s lost as editorials disappear. “We lose the spirit that lurks behind every news story, the idea that something ought to be done about this,” he said. 

Without a credible and informed watchdog, one with a long and deep investment in the community’s well-being, Busemeyer says, what’s being lost is an authoritative voice that can say, how dare you?

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