Facing reduced circulation, The Times is apparently trying to create buzz by making its editorial pages more interactive and surprising. Unfortunately, editors are abandoning standards and traditions that make readers want to read its editorial pages. The paper is concocting a Frankenstein's monster of new and old media -- call it blogotorial.
Personality-driven writing is the province of the blogosphere. Editorials have traditionally been institutional positions crafted by a board, following community input and argument about the community's best interests -- not what a few clever people think is witty, cute or the wave of tomorrow. Readers don't have a chance to do a lot of research, so editorials break it down for them analytically.
But the mad scientists behind blogotorial are shifting direction from journalistic focus on community and policy toward the personality-driven narcissism of blogging. It's a move from reasoned commentary to mere personal comment.
The valuable real estate of the "letters to the editor" section -- the only place for readers to speak -- is regularly carved out so editorial writers can comment on "Editorials Elsewhere." As if anyone cares what the Los Angeles Times has to say about what the Washington Post has to say?
The new "Thinking Out Loud" feature -- "an experiment in making up our minds in public" -- often has been nothing but a group blog. To let editorial writers "think aloud" about traffic, for instance, all letters to the editor were canceled on June 16. Apparently the mundane details of editorial writers' commutes -- including graphics of their departure and arrival times -- held more import than a day of readers' commentaries about the news.
Editorial analysis will also be abandoned for the editorial page's new "SoCal Life" feature -- allowing writers to "reflect on life in this region." Editorials are usually devoted to the rough and tumble of policy and social issues, not why it's so hard to find a nanny.
One senses a preference for talking heads from editor and onetime "Crossfire" host Michael Kinsley, who oversees the editorial page, op-ed and Current. Editorial Page Editor Andres Martinez recently told the New York Times: "Michael does like to ask questions, such as, 'In today's world, what is the continuing relevance of a newspaper editorial board?' "
Relevance is not, however, injecting more personality onto the page, as Martinez and Kinsley have done by each writing a column of personal opinion every week on the op-ed page -- which once stood for "opposite the editorial page." Now it's a colony of it. Beyond that, The Times has increased from three to 11 the number of regular columnists that inhabit the daily op-ed page. That narrows the space for community voices and first-person accounts.
Nearly all the new columnists could be bloggers in that they have a common way of conversing about conventional wisdom rather than presenting original points of view. If I wanted to hear Margaret Carlson's June retread of well-traveled headlines on President Bush and the Republican Party, I would watch her on CNN.
Times managers should learn from their stillborn "wikitorial" -- which for two days allowed readers to rewrite editorials online. The site succumbed to pornography, including what Wikipedia -- the interactive encyclopedia -- dubs "goatse." That is, photos of a man wearing a gold ring on his left hand and nothing else -- while stretching sensitive parts of his anatomy in ill-advised ways.
Shock, rant and personality-driven theatrics are all desirable online because they make people interact. The same elements can be the kiss of death for a newspaper editorial page because they undermine trust. Clarity and reason from an institutional voice is what readers search for in a confused and complicated world they don't have time to unravel. Abandoning editorial tradition and standards for "surprise" begets a goatse.