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Newspapers Without Opinions?

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The Washington Post reports this week that Gannett, owner of USA Today and 250 other papers, has decided to scale back its opinion and op-ed pages, and reduce the number of columnists, because “its opinion pages are alienating readers and becoming obsolete.” More:

The company has been pushing for the cutbacks for years, and they have become increasingly visible to readers since a committee of editors formally recommended them at a meeting in April. “Readers don’t want us to tell them what to think,” the editors, who come from Gannett newsrooms across the country, declared in an internal presentation. “They don’t believe we have the expertise to tell anyone what to think on most issues. They perceive us as having a biased agenda.”

As soon as I stop laughing, I’ll give you my simpler theory of the real reason for this step (beyond an easy cost-cutting move for a failing industry).

Okay, I’ve finished laughing, and run out of today’s ration of popcorn. There’s a clear hint later in story:

Opinion pages began to appear widely in U.S. newspapers in the 19th century, and most papers have since built a code of ethics around them, including firewalls to prevent opinion columnists and editorial writers from influencing news reporters and news editors who often work in the same building. While news-side journalists are generally discouraged from sharing their opinions on topics they cover, their opinion-side counterparts can supplement their reports with analysis, commentary, political endorsements and sometimes-regrettable hot takes on social media.

The Gannett committee, however, argued that the traditional model is confusing and repelling readers.

The last sentence gets to the heart of the matter: most readers can’t discern the difference between the “news” pages and the opinion pages of most newspapers. The Post story admits a much: “Younger readers, according to the company, often can’t tell the difference between news reporting and opinion. . . ‘Today’s contemporary audiences frequently are unable to distinguish between objective news reporting and Opinion content,’ the editorial committee wrote in an earlier iteration of its recommendations in 2018.”

And the “news” side of papers probably doesn’t like the competition, which is acknowledged in the part of the sentence above that reads “opinion-side counterparts can supplement their reports with analysis, commentary, political endorsements and sometimes-regrettable hot takes on social media.”

Actually lots of new-side reporters give “hot-takes” on social media. Like Felicia Sonmez, for example. Or Maggie Haberman at the NY Times.

Gannett lost $670 million in 2020, and $135 million last year. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal editorial page still helps that paper sell subscriptions. And that’s not fake news. You’d think there might be a lesson in this, but not to the morons trying to preserve the media equivalent of buggy whips.

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