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Expertise Rules : Editorial Pages: New Directions

First in a series

March 24, 1985|DAVID SHAW | Times Staff Writer

Several editors and editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal were sitting around the office one morning last summer, chatting about a variety of ideas and issues.

Over the course of 45 minutes, half a dozen or so writers drifted in and out of the office--sitting, standing in the doorway, leaving one conversation in mid-sentence, joining another. When most of the writers had finally wandered back to their own offices, a young intern who was new to the Journal editorial page turned to George Melloan, deputy editor of the page, and asked when the paper would have its daily editorial board meeting, the formal conference at which the paper's official editorial-page opinions for the next day would be decided.

"That was it," Melloan told the startled intern.

Casual System

The Journal probably has the most casual system of any major newspaper in the country for determining editorial policy. But most newspaper readers would probably be surprised to learn that the majority of big-city papers these days decide their daily editorial-page positions in a not altogether dissimilar manner--more by informal group discussion than by front-office fiat.

In fact, on the largest papers, an editorial is more likely to be the product of a single editorial writer's informed opinion than of either the publisher's dictates or the editorial board's consensus. Major metropolitan newspapers now generally have editorial boards of one or two editors and five to 10 editorial writers, each specializing in specific subject areas--defense, the economy, the Mideast, education--much as the news staff of the paper has specialists covering various areas.

Many newspaper reporters have long regarded their editorial-writing colleagues either as geriatric cases kicked upstairs pending retirement or as would-be philosophers, bloviating from their ivory towers, divorced from the real world of daily journalism. In generations past, there was some justification for these judgments. But increasingly in recent years--on the larger papers anyway--editorial writers are doing much of their own reporting. They read, they interview, they meet regularly in their offices with leading local, state, national and international authorities. They go to City Hall, the state capital and Washington; sometimes, they travel across the country and around the world in search of information to help form their opinions.

Editorial writers who acquire such expertise tend to carry the argument most of the time when they propose editorials in their daily meetings with colleagues, editors and publishers.

"Technically, the opinions on the editorial page are the opinions of the publisher," says Donald Graham, publisher of the Washington Post. "In fact, luckily for readers of the . . . Post, there are a bunch of people writing editorials here whose opinions are somewhat better-informed . . . and who think more interesting thoughts than I do."

Nevertheless, the old image of the editorial writer still persists--with the public and in the press itself. Thus, Katharine Graham, chairman of the board of the Washington Post Co., has described the process as one of "studied incoherence" combined with "a certain sense of mystery."

In an effort to penetrate this mystery--and to study this seeming incoherence--a Los Angeles Times reporter recently spent several weeks interviewing newspaper editorial page editors, editorial writers and some publishers and editors at seven major newspapers: the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer.

Daily Meetings

At five of these papers, the reporter also sat in on the daily editorial board meetings, at which the paper's editorial positions were discussed and determined. (Only the Post and the New York Times did not permit the reporter to attend their editorial board meetings; only Arthur Ochs (Punch) Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, refused to be interviewed for this story.)

The common perception among most readers is that the publisher of a newspaper tells his editors virtually every day just what he wants the editorials to say, based largely (if not exclusively) on his personal, political, financial and social interests and inclinations.

Historically, there is good reason for this perception. After all, the earliest American newspapers were often founded for the avowed purpose of promulgating their owners' views, in the news columns as well as on the editorial pages. Partisan, personal journalism dominated at least the first century of American newspapers.

That began to change in the late 19th Century and, especially over the past few decades, partisan and personal journalism has increasingly given way to corporate and chain ownership.

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