MAILANDER ON … MEDIA - If you thought that the turn-of-the-twenty-first-century institution known as The Blog was dead, or dying--or, even worse, a trend--be it understood that there have been two events even since the arrival of the new year that belie your suppositions.
The first is that noted pundit Andrew Sullivan left a grandiose, print-tethered group site, The Daily Beast, to form a blog of his own--and raised $100,000 for the endeavor ... in six hours' time ... even as his old blog's sister site was obliged to ditch its dead-trees edition, formerly known as Newsweek.
The second is that the LA Weekly, which has devoted itself in the past three years to growing its online audience, came out with a vastly diminished 72 page issue on January 3. That would be the smallest print issue in thirty years, and by a wide margin too.
Now, such successes countered by such failures are only going to come to light more and more though 2013. There was, in fact, a day from this September past when the blog Gawker billed its advertisers two million dollars. Yes, for a single day. It was close to a day when our own local flshwrap was remaining hopeful to emerge from bankruptcy.
These things are not happening because print is dead. Hey, when television came along, did radio go bankrupt?
No, these things are happening because people who work newsprint are not paying attention to what makes a good opinion piece--a good op-ed--anymore.
I was taught that opinion writers were the princes and princesses of the newspaper. As an opinion writer myself, I felt fairly flattered. But if you look around the US, you’ll see it's true. News organizations are known by their opinion writers. The New York Times is the chief case in point.
In Los Angeles, where the newsprint publications have been surrendered to the editorial direction of the least imaginative--the news schlubs--opinion writers are mostly despised. News schlubs are resentful of anyone other than news schlubs attracting attention.
The local news aggregators, in fact, often go out of their way to pretend the opinion writers don't matter, or don't even exist. And they feel good about it, because this is the kind of arrangement that a politician can game best of all.
Used to be, a news organization would keep a stable of good opinion writers in pocket. Keep sending them honoraria from time to time. Publish them twice a year at any cost.
But not today's crew, who cut their teeth in news, resentful of princes and princesses. Without whom they really cannot get along, much as they try.
The writers of opinion do indeed know who rules the roost--which is why so many of the news schlubs are obliged to maintain day jobs doing what they do, while opinion sites like Sully's, HuffPo, and Gawker, plow on.
And the news schlubs, baffled by what they should be including rather than hard-hitting opinion, too typically devote their opinion inches to entertain, to browbeat, and especially to pander to various political constituencies that they hope will be temporarily gladdened by the occasional mention.
This is a recipe for failure, as it only assures that everyone will be progressively disappointed, as real estate devoted to op-eds continues to diminish. I mean, who in town doesn't know that Jill Stewart is browbeating on behalf of some stripe of lite-Republican? Who doesn't know by now that Jim Newton is in the tank for the Mayor and Dwight D. Eisenhower?
Yet these keep trying to assure us otherwise, week after week, even year after year.
Let me share with you what I've shared with some close others about what a good op-ed is. Because I was schooled by the best--Fred Friendly and Max Frankel--and if nothing else can be said for me, at least I took attentive notes all those years ago.
A good op-ed doesn’t archive the past. It crystallizes the present moment in a way that hasn’t been previously seen.
A good op-ed doesn’t mock. (It’s too easy to mock, which is why when we think of mockery, we think of children). A good op-ed uses fair rhetorical tools to engage an antagonist as a worthy opponent.
A good op-ed doesn’t especially entertain. There are already whole sections of the newspaper devoted to entertainment--and there is yet a comic page too in some of the fishwraps, that aspires not merely to report on entertainment, but to provide it. While an op-ed may be entertaining, typically such a piece is more appropriate for another part of the paper.
A good op-ed isn’t purely a news story, or news analysis, or investigatory journalism. It draws from all three of these to present a conclusion that appears inescapable.
A good op-ed doesn’t chiefly rely on cherry-picking old quotes culled from the news pages. It relies on real interviews with real newsmakers to bring ongoing stories even further forward. It isn’t afraid even to break news in parts.
A good op-ed doesn’t pander to a political or social elite while angering ordinary citizens. Precisely the opposite: a good op-ed typically angers elites and champions citizens.
A good op-ed writer doesn’t use their column as an opportunity to please or stroke anyone. An old adage about opinion writing used to be, “If you write opinions and more than two people show up to your funeral, you’ve failed.” We poor souls who feel obliged to arrive at this point are not willing to stroke anyone for the sake of cheaply garnered garlands.
A good op-ed writer isn’t afraid of dealing with politicians directly. Nor would she ever celebrate the fact of how disconnected she might be, or how limited her access is. A good op-ed writer is always connected, in fact; if they aren't, then there are other better voices out there who are.
A good op-ed writer doesn’t rattle off incredulous statistics you've never heard to prove points. If she employs numbers or statistics at all, she uses them to speak to situations that everyone can readily see, employing rhetoric everyone can understand. (This is why good op-eds rarely come from think-tanks, which use op-eds to validate their research, which often starts off from a conclusion and works its way towards supporting their agenda via statistical manipulation.)
A good op-ed doesn’t only service a particular party or community’s narrow interest. It speaks to the interest of everyone it touches, including the antagonized. Even the figure or institution under attack may find its arguments and information useful.
A good op-ed doesn’t have a shelf-life of a day or even a matter of hours. It’s a living document that may be referenced for months or even years. (The Daily News's absurd practice of taking op-eds off-line after a week renders their shelf-life to a finite time and diminishes their weight commensurately.)
A good op-ed does not aspire to browbeat. It aspires to transform.
Despite all this, I don’t believe that newspapers are “dying” because of the Internet or blogs. No, I believe that the importance of newspapers is diminishing because they have forgotten what the best practices--once rote to every student of journalism--are. They have no institutional memory of what good opinion writing is.
Which enables Andrew Sullivan in 2013, and Gawker, and HuffPo and, in not so much of a stretch, some people here too.
(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of New World Triptych and The Plasma of Terror. Mailander blogs at www.josephmailander.com.)
Vol 11 Issue 2
Pub: Dec 4, 2013