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The end of the Herald-Times opinion page
At a time when local newspaper readership is falling, maybe insulting your readers is not a good marketing strategy.
May 31 was "the last day The Herald-Times will print an opinion page on a weekday," according to an editorial by the newspaper's editor. The opinion page - and the community forum it creates - had been significantly downgraded over the last year. The opinion page had already been discontinued on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Now it will be limited to Sundays only.
This would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. The letters to the editor provided a valuable community forum, with many perspectives you would never see from Herald-Times staff or from nationally syndicated columnists. From 2007 to 2013, that was supplemented by an active comment section. It is unfortunate that this will be going away, and the local newspaper will be much less interesting to read.
Unfortunately, some of the justifications for this change are not very good. After saying that the opinion content is the least popular section of the paper (both online and in the print edition) the editor said this:
Some research even indicates opinion content damages our credibility, partly because people’s media literacy is limited and they can’t discern the difference between opinion and news.
I simply do not believe this. The opinion page is clearly marked as "opinion," and the website clearly marks opinion articles (including letters to the editor) as opinion pieces. Furthermore, millions of people download or stream opinion podcasts daily, on both the Right and Left. Social Media is filled with opinions about news and politics. The popularity of opinion content online makes it highly unlikely that the local newspaper's opinion content is less popular now.
But the "media literacy" comment is most telling. The Herald-Times would have us believe that despite articles being clearly marked, people are too stupid to know the difference between opinion content and straight news reporting. This actually says a lot more about the Herald-Times than the readers. At a time when local newspaper readership is falling, maybe insulting your readers is not a good marketing strategy.
People have allegedly canceled subscriptions over opinions published. I am not surprised. But this is a weak spot in corporate America generally: Kowtowing to the complainers instead of the majority of the audience. People who read the opinion page and enjoy it do not complain. The snowflakes will try to intimidate the newspaper into censorship, but they represent a minority of readers. It is sad that the Fourth Estate, which was once a beacon for free speech and discussion of ideas, is bowing to Cancel Culture and the demand for censorship.
There are still plenty of people who are interested in writing letters, as seen in the number of people who sent letters for their favored candidates for local office in the primary. As the editor admits, "Some markets have little in the way of local commentary, but that is not the case for us." So if there is a market for local opinion content, why the change? The answer almost certainly lies here: The elimination of opinion pages is happening "in hundreds of papers across the USA Today Network."
The Herald-Times print edition has gotten smaller and smaller, and local news (especially high school sports scores) often don't appear in the paper for a couple days because the Herald-Times is now printed elsewhere. Eliminating the opinion page, and the lively forum it creates for the local community, will hasten the demise of the local paper. It does, however, present an opportunity for an alternative forum if it is well-moderated and focused on the local community. Those have existed before, and the market is there. It will be interesting to see how, and if, something like that develops.