Jeff Jarvis, the high priest of what he now calls “networked journalism”, believes the leader column is as “outmoded as the medium”. Being a believer in collaboration, The death of the editorialist, at BuzzMachine is a sort of draft encyclical in which he shares his thoughts before writing his definitive opinion.
If he questioned the need for editorials on the grounds that few people read them I would have said that he had a case. But he misses the point. He complains that leader writers “rarely report”, “work anonymously” and “issue opinions as if from the mountaintop”. Jarvis has misunderstood the role of the leader.
The leader is a statement of the evolving position of the newspaper. It is not a piece of reporting and if the writer was named it would become simply another opinion article.
In the leaders we create a position for the newspaper as a corporate body providing the context within which a range of opinions can be expressed. The editorial page, although it may be little read, provides the cement which holds the rest together. It is the attitude of the the paper: its definition.
This differentiates newspapers from broadcasters and news agencies. I see no reason why the leader should not continue on the web. Newspapers will probably survive in print for longer than many believe and they can take their varied attitudes onto the web.
But Jarvis seems to be on a revolutionary rampage, to destroy the old before the new can be created. This is part of what he says:
News organizations should no longer define themselves by the ink on their paper. And publishers may no longer assume the prerogative of telling us what to think just because they buy that ink by the barrel. Now we all have our barrels of bits.
There I think Jarvis has it. If we remove the common opinion from a newspaper. whether it be on paper of online, all we will be left with is a barrel of bits.