I gave a talk last week to the Knight Ridder editorial page editors, who assemble periodically to have a "whither the editorial pages" confab. My role was provocateur. First, I gave them my standard schtick on how journalism is shifting from the lecture mode to something between a conversation and a seminar. Then I got to the recommendations, which went roughly this way:Newspapers, with few exceptions, are strangely oblivious to the huge opportunity in citizen journalism. More than almost any other entities, they could be taking advantage of their innate advantages. Yet they are not.
Yes, newspapers have been losing circulation and power, but they retain a surprisingly deep reservoir of credibility and authority in their communities. The reservoir must be replenished, and it is the citizens who -- given the opportunity -- will be able, and perhaps glad, to help.
The key is in having the conversation with the community and, even more, helping community members have a conversation among themselves. Newspapers, given their positions, can be at the center of this conversation -- not the object of it in most cases, but the enabler and, to some extent, agenda-setter. (The Greensboro (North Carolina) News & Record is a leader in this arena already, and has plans to move much farther.)
What is the one place in most newspapers where the conversation has already begun? The editorial page, of course. Think about it. What are letters to the editor if not a stab at a conversation? They're not very effective, because a) they are rarely as timely as they might be even in an age of faxes and e-mail; b) the conversation isn't threaded so people can refer instantly to what inspired the letter; and c) most newspapers get more letters than they can possibly print, especially on topics that generate the most passion.
Editorial pages should take that thumbnail of a conversation and blow it up into the real thing. The way they can do it is, over time, to invert the basic function of the editorial pages.
In other words, turn the printed page into a guide to and "greatest hits" from the community conversation.
The bulk of the debates and discussions will take place online and, crucially, also in public forums where newspaper people serve as moderators but not lecturers. Help frame the debate, not force it. Then use the print pages to reflect and amplify the conversation.
There are plenty of specific ways to approach something like this. Some require more resources than others. I'd suggest, for starters:
Many editorial pages at smaller newspapers couldn't afford this, in staff time or financially. But no editorial page is too resource-hungry to be unable to start a blog (some are already doing it). Small beginnings can lead to great things.
Small or large, newspapers can ask for help from the community. This should be a collaborative endeavor. There are people in the community who will be happy -- honored -- to serve as moderators, to help police the site and keep it a place where people respect each other's views and ideas.
If editorial pages do something like this, they'll restore some of the luster they've lost over the past few decades (edit pages aren't exactly the most exciting places in most papers). And they'll show the rest of the newspaper how it can be done. The conversation should include the entire paper, not just the edit page, after all.
I truly believe that this is a golden opportunity for newspapers. Whether they'll seize it is another issue.