Saturday, February 5, 2011


As an editorial page junkie, at breakfast I read the editorial pages of the Gazette-Times, The Oregonian, and the Wall Street Journal, in that order. Later, I scrutinize the editorials, op-eds, and letters-to-the-editor in the on-line New York Times and the Daily Telegram from Adrian, Michigan, where our family lived for 36 years.

Editorial pages are not just something I read. About 35 years ago I started writing op-ed pieces that have appeared from time to time in a number of states including California, Montana, Ohio, and Arkansas as well as Oregon and Michigan. My letters-to-the-editor have appeared in Oregon and Michigan and recently two were published in the Wall Street Journal. For a few months about 35 years ago my wife Doris and I jointly wrote all of the editorials for the Adrian newspaper when they had an emergency.

After all this reading and writing, I can’t help having ideas about what makes for a good editorial page and how existing pages could be improved.

Editorials (especially, I think, in the bigger newspapers) often pontificate about matters which the writers have not thought long and deeply about and about which they may not be well-informed. Of course we need to recognize that no one person can know everything about everything, and editorial writers are merely human. And our evaluation of an editorial should not just be based on whether we agree with it or not. But the fact that editorials are usually unsigned and tend to speak with a royal “we” (“we think that . . .”) gives them a level of sanctity which is often undeserved. Then most papers place strict word limits on letters or op-ed columns seeking to express disagreement with such editorials. (The Gazette-Times is unusually generous in its word limits.)

It seems to me that most editorials should therefore be written in the form of questions rather than of assertions. Although editors cannot be experts on everything, they should be able to identify important issues and write thought-provoking editorials pointing out some of the dimensions of those issues and noting some of the questions that must be answered in determining what to do about them.

A city like Corvallis, for example, has experts on every conceivable subject at O.S.U., Hewlitt-Packard, Good Samaritan Hospital and many other places. An editor here could play the role of a seminar leader, writing editorials ending in question marks and positively encouraging community members whose experience and perspective could contribute to our thinking to write letters and op-ed columns in response. The responses and dialog would contribute to the continuing education of all of us, including the editor.

The subject matter of these editorials and resulting letters and columns, while not neglecting local issues, should also include national and world issues. These always have local ramifications. Medical insurance policy, for example, is a national issue with a major impact on everyone here in Corvallis.

If I were an editor, therefore, I would write mostly question-mark editorials and minimize publication of in-house or nationally syndicated op-ed columnists (who have to say something several times a week whether or not they have anything to say). This would maximize the space for thoughtful letters and locally-written op-ed columns by the largest variety of knowledgeable people possible.

And I would run occasional free seminars to help these people write better letters and op-ed columns.

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