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    Thursday, August 18, 2022

    Is the age of newspaper opinions nearing an end?

    I enjoy reading and hearing conflicting opinions.

    That should come as no surprise. After serving as a news reporter for 28 years, interspersed with work in editing and serving as a bureau chief, I became editorial page editor at The Day in 2007.

    We are better informed citizens when we open ourselves to various viewpoints. Considering a different opinion can prevent us from getting smug, from thinking we have all the answers. It can make for better policy.

    But opinion, as found in daily newspapers and their digital versions, is endangered.

    For two decades, except for such national publications as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, newspaper staffs have seen deep cuts. The staff reductions hit opinion sections particularly hard. The newspaper industry had to slash costs because its business model eroded. The internet diminished the advertising revenue that allowed newspapers to be sold and delivered at a low cost, while redirecting the interests of a new generation of readers who have grown used to getting information they do not have to pay for.

    Now the Gannett newspaper chain, which owns about 250 publications, including The Bulletin in Norwich, has directed its regional newspapers to eliminate the daily editorial page that offers an editorial, various commentaries and letters to the editor. This had already happened at many Gannett newspapers, if not officially then effectively.

    The company contends that it is only responding to what readers want and that the time for a traditional opinion page has passed. Polling and reader forums, Gannett contends, show that readers do not want to be fed opinions and that they have difficulty distinguishing between opinion and straight news, particularly online. If folks want opinions on a topic, there are plenty they can find on the internet, the company points out.

    I might buy this if Gannett was beefing up its news reporting staffs, but the reality is that at many of its newspapers the staffs are so small they cannot effectively cover the communities they are supposed to serve. And the cuts continue. Further gutting opinion is basically another cost-cutting move.

    It would be comforting to dismiss Gannett as an outlier, but instead this is more likely part of a trend that will continue.

    As an independent newspaper — a rare breed these days — The Day does not take any corporate orders. But it is not insulated from the major challenges continuing to confront the industry, or from the tough decisions that result.

    When I first applied to work on the opinion pages for The Day in the early 2000s, the newspaper had three opinion editors/writers and a clerk assisting them. This was exceptional staffing for a newspaper our size. By the time The Day appointed me editorial page editor in 2007 there were only two editors/writers. Long before I retired in September 2021, it was down to one person, me.

    While The Day has yet to settle on my replacement (Executive Editor Tim Cotter tells me the newspaper has not found a qualified candidate it is satisfied with), management is committed to continuing to offer opinion seven days a week. I still write an occasional editorial as does retired newsroom editor Lisa McGinley, who sits on the editorial board, as well as other contributors.

    Over the years, the Day’s editorial voice, backed by strong reporting, has played an important public policy role. Day editorials demanded, and attracted, federal action when safety protocols were ignored at the Millstone Nuclear Power Station in the 1990s. It led the charge in returning elected-mayor governance, and the resulting accountability, to New London. It has never stopped holding public officials accountable when they ignore the dictates of the Freedom of Information Act. More recently it harangued Gov. Ned Lamont into ending his opposition to properly funding the Contracting Standards Board, a vital government watchdog.

    The nation will be worse off for the loss of such editorial voices across the country.

    Yet, in the interest of considering other opinions, I acknowledge Gannett makes some valid points. It claims that what opinion remains in its newspapers will focus more on local voices, rather than replicating in syndicated columns the national debates already aired on cable networks and in other forums. I sought out local and state opinions from guest writers, with considerable success. More of that would be a good thing.

    Des Moines Register Opinion Editor Lucas Grundmeier said that his Gannett newspaper in Iowa will publish an opinion section only on Thursdays and Sundays, but promised strong editorials those days and more emphasis on local content. If you have to do with less, such an approach makes sense.

    But eliminating opinion in our local newspapers would be a terrible mistake. It would only enable more of us to retreat to our ideological islands, unchallenged by those who have a different opinion or who can expose the flaws in our arguments.

    If you think you have it all figured out, then you certainly do not.

    Paul Choiniere is the former editorial page editor of The Day, now retired. You can reach him at p.choiniere@yahoo.com.

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