Thursday, May 31, 2012

Read this, Mr. Governor

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett came to Montgomery County this week for an editorial board meeting with a group of editors from our Philadelphia area Journal Register Company newspaper group. Four of us -- me, Stan Huskey, editor of The Times Herald; Phil Heron, of Delaware County Daily Times, and Andy Hachadorian of the Daily Local News - alternated with questions to the governor in a videotaped, live-tweeted, photographed interview session. Reporters and other editors from our papers, plus The Trentonian and the York Daily Record/Sunday News joined the hour-plus session.
Corbett was more engaging, more personable than we expected from a governor who is being criticized within his own party for not working hard enough on relationships or getting out in front of people on issues.
He was also more evasive than we anticipated with actual answers to our questions. (News story is here)
But on one point, he was both personal and clear: In reply to a question about what he plans to do about the pension crisis in Pennsylvania, he suggested that the media should do more to highlight the problem and pressure legislators for action.
My reply: "We've all written those editorials."
His reply: "You and I read editorials; no one else does."
Though a surprise, considering the audience, and somewhat deflating, considering the speaker, Corbett's frank comment was not off-base.
Although I am a steadfast champion of the weight of an editorial voice to a daily newspaper, in recent years I have become less certain of the power of that voice to accomplish change.
People comment on editorials, it seems, when they support something they also support. But rarely if ever do I learn that an editorial changed opinion or reversed a course of action.
Corbett went on to say we should be writing news stories that explain the pension problem as opposed to editorials that advocate change.
Is the difference that news is on the front page versus the third-from-the-back-of-the-front section Opinion page? The Breaking News bar versus the Opinion dropdown on a website? Does a news story rank higher in a Google search than an Opinion piece?
When a newspaper writes a front-page editorial, as The Reading Eagle did on May 20, it gets attention, at least among other editors. The Eagle broke out of its consistent design to take over the front page on that Sunday with an editorial, "Take Charge," calling on the mayor and city leaders to address the problem of violent crime and its effect on the city and its reputation. Did it have an effect, inspire action?
The Harrisburg Patriot-News last year won nationwide acclaim for a full front-page editorial calling for Penn State Board of Trustees President Graham Spanier and football coach Joe Paterno to resign for their roles in failing to address or to cover up the alleged sex abuse charges against former football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. Paterno and Spanier were both removed from their jobs the next day. Did the editorial influence those actions?
The Mercury has printed front-page editorials twice in the past decade, the first to call for public response in the wake of the 2005 late-night pay raise by Pennsylvania legislators. The second one was to push for change in teen driving laws to impose passenger limits after four local teens died in two crashes.
In the first case, the pay raise was repealed months later after an aggressive citizens campaign. The Legislature eventually passed teen driving laws more than a year after our editorial insistence they do so.
Are we, as the governor implied, voices in the wind?
The power of a newspaper editorial has changed, I believe, along with the changes in our industry. Opinion pieces don't go viral in the way a YouTube video of a baby in a washing machine might.
The measured words of a newspaper editorial are easily set aside and forgotten, while a blogger's rant is retweeted around the world.
Is the Opinion page of a newspaper falling by the wayside on the digital highway?
While the governor was talking with our group yesterday, at least five people in the room were tweeting quotes. The coverage was retweeted by online editors back in our newsrooms, collected with hashtags and gathered into a Storify stream. The audience for those tweets easily reached into the hundreds of thousands.
Video cameras captured the action for at least five websites with a total potential audience of nearly 15 million people a month.
You're right, Mr. Corbett, fewer people are reading the editorials. More, however, are getting our message.
That's why I wrote this blog.

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