This past week the readership of The Cincinnati Enquirer learned via social media sites like Twitter and Facebook of an imminent staff reduction taking place on Wednesday and Thursday before the newspaper even reported the carnage. The impact of the Enquirer’s decision to eliminate more than 100 positions will be felt far beyond the households of the affected staffers who got their pink slips. Journalistically, the cutbacks signal yet another publisher’s (in this case, Gannett’s) retreat from the traditional practice of reporting and writing the news. The paper’s space available for articles was already in steep decline; now, with fewer reporters and editors, there will be even less news content available. And with its “watchdog” role weakened, there will be one less critical eye reporting on and evaluating the decisions of local government.
The most stunning part of the paper’s announcement was the makeover of the Enquirer editorial pages with the elimination of long-time editorial page editor David Wells’ position and columnist Peter Bronson. According to a statement by Executive Editor Tom Callinan, the editorial pages will now be devoted to encouraging more “community dialogue,” which apparently means that the paper’s editorial function will be turned over to the general public — or whichever part of the general public desires to use the Enquirer to promote a cause or vent a frustration. I don’t know about you, but when I read the “readers comments” under news stories I cringe at the self-serving meanness of narcissistic posters. Better to eliminate the Op-Ed pages altogether than allow them to sink to the depths of unfiltered effluvia already evident in the comment section of the on-line edition.
Whatever else you can say about them, Wells and Bronson are experienced professionals who used their positions and contacts within the community to help readers assess the daily interactions of life in the Queen City. This role — the informed observer — is the essence of the editorial page function. To offer up that function to the general public is, in my opinion, a colossal mistake because it is not the general public who will take advantage of the free ink. It will be the public relations specialist, the well paid lobbyist and the disenfranchised voter who will fill the void of “informed observer” — only this time with a concealed mission or private (versus a community) purpose. No, it would be infinitely better to eliminate the opinion process entirely if it can’t be done well or professionally and focus on reporting the news without spin or commentary.