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COLUMN

The Tech's Editorials

By John A. Hawkinson

Today’s column is devoted to addressing issues surrounding the editorials that The Tech prints: how they are produced, do they need improvement, etc. As always, if you feel The Tech isn’t pulling its weight journalistically speaking, please feel free to write to me at ombudsman@the-tech.mit.edu and I will do my best to sort it out. I especially welcome your comments on editorials.

In newspaper parlance, an editorial is an unsigned opinion piece, generally representing the views of the paper’s publisher, and given special placement to distinguish it from opinion pieces. In many ways, the idea of a newspaper having an opinion is a peculiar idea, given journalism’s charge to present balanced and unbiased information to the readership.

Modern major newspapers try to avoid this problem by having entirely separate staff work on editorials, with no overlap with the news staff. Editorials are not just off-the-cuff thought pieces; they represent research and diligent fact-finding, sometimes as much as a news story might (at least in my view). Of course, campus newspapers often don’t have the luxury of separate staff for editorials; at The Tech, editorials are written by the editorial board, which consists of the editor in chief, the chairman, the managing editor, and the executive editor (aka the “executive board”); the opinion editors (who preside); and also whoever the managing board of The Tech sees fit to appoint (at present, arts editor Jeremy Baskin and photo editor Jonathan Wang).

The Tech has wrestled with the composition of the editorial board, and in fact it changed in March of this year. Prior to March, all news editors, as well as the news and features director (the news ubereditor), were members of the editorial board.

Keith Winstein, the current news and features director, led the departure of news editors from the editorial board; Winstein contends that editorial board membership too often led to conflicts of interest, where news staff involved in legwork for editorials found they needed to recuse themselves from news work on the same topic, leading to a lack of available staff to cover the news reporting for that topic.

This may not sound so bad, but the May 13 “From The Editors” piece wasn’t joking when it said, “we’re desperate for reporters and features writers.” In my capacity as Ombudsman, I’ve attended weekly news meetings, and it’s depressing to see five or six stories that should be written, but only two or three news writers present at the meeting, with not all of them willing to write a story in a given week. This results in more reporting done by news editors.

As Ombudsman, The Tech’s bylaws designate me an observer of the editorial board. I’m new at this job, so my perspective is limited. Recently, it seems the editorial board has devoted most of their time to debating the rules by which they can decide positions, given absent summer members, and very little time on actual editorial issues. Beyond that, it seems rare that editorials are more than last-minute assignments. There is little ongoing consciousness of continuing issues.

Perhaps worse is the question of research. With the removal of news editors from the editorial board, the remaining members of the editorial board need to do their own research and legwork for their editorials. But too often it seems that the editorial board asks a member of the news staff to come to and brief them on what the potential topics to write about are. While it is reasonable for the editorial board to ask news staff to come to the editorial board and share their expertise on a particular topic they may have researched, the editorial board should not fail to stay abreast of current events and fall back on the news staff as a crutch.

I used to think the frequency of editorials was important. The New York Times publishes around three editorials each day, every day. The Tech has published 10 editorials in the 27 issues--one in three. But upon reflection I’m don’t think frequency is so important; it is far better for editorials to do a good job of speaking and convincing. A frequent but useless voice is far less effective than a strong voice.

It’s Winstein’s contention that editorials should be “persuasive, well-researched,” and reflect “battle-tested opinions.” It does seem that Tech editorials have a problem making their point convincingly; last-paragraph conclusions unsupported by earlier argument are troublesome in this way.

Anecdotally, it’s been suggested to me that those editorials that publish a dissent alongside are some of the more convincing ones (these are cases where the editorial board failed to agree). Talking to editorial board member Nathan Collins (The Tech’s editor in chief), he is tough to pin down on the issue of argument cohesion. Collins doesn’t think the editorial board regularly spends time making their arguments focussed, but also isn’t sure that it is even feasible to make a successful strong argument in the space allotted.

I can’t say I agree with that. It seems to me that there is plenty of space for a coherent and persuasive argument, and that is a goal worth striving for. Nonetheless, it’s reasonable to contend that an editorial’s mission is less to actually make a point and more to stir up discussion; to encourage the campus to think on an issue and form their own opinions; to spark debate.

By most of these measures, though, I find the editorial board’s output lacking. I think they need to find their compass and carefully chart their course; to plan their meetings and topics in advance, maintaining a running list of potential topics; to discuss and play devil’s advocate with each other; to push hard to convince others of their positions; to do the research and work necessary to understand an issue inside and out before writing on it.

The Ombudsman welcomes your feedback, to o@the-tech.mit.edu. His opinions are his own.