The divide between news and editorial

For readers, however, that divide, no matter how firm, is often viewed as a distinction without a difference. “We have readers who’ve been reading the paper their whole lives and who understand those distinctions very well,” says Goldberg of the LA Times. “But, of course, we have plenty of readers who don’t understand the distinctions we’ve spent years and years trying to make…”

I like newspapers. I was the weird guy in high school who had a recurring subscription to the newspaper, and would be found reading the paper in the form room the first thing in the morning. One year, when I was absolutely terrible about it, I kept an entire year’s stash of newspapers in my locker, and didn’t clear it out until the end of the year. (It was a lot of ink and paper.)

I accept, though, that the new Internet age of journalism has meant things are changing. And I think one of the changes lies in newspapers editorials, and the divide — or lack thereof—between the news pages and opinion pages of a newspaper.

Because that’s exactly the point. In a newspaper, you can rely on the position of a piece within the paper — towards the front for news, or the back for opinion — to give you clues about what you’re reading. That distinction does not exist on the web.

We talk about “content” on the web because that’s all the web cares about. The technologies that power the World Wide Web today — HTTP, HTML, WebKit — don’t care about news and editorial, only content. At the end of the day, the web delivers content from server A to consumer’s device B, and no part of the Internet’s infrastructure cares about what the content is.

Which is what?

In a modern day news site (like the Wall Street Journal), everything looks pretty much the same. Go on. Take a look. If you can tell which is the news article and which is the opinion piece just from glimpsing at the screenshots, then I’m guessing you work for the Wall Street Journal.

You can’t rely on a reader peering at the tiny text (“politics” and “opinion”) to determine the type of article they’re reading. And in an environment of sharable content, Facebook, Twitter, Google and the like also don’t help in abstracting away the tiny differences that remain to help readers identify the difference between news and editorial.

Go on. Which is which?

This lack of distinction is why some readers of newspapers don’t seem to get there’s a difference: because everything looks the same. And it’s what the Columbia Journalism Review was touching upon when it discussed today’s WSJ editorial:

The Inquirer’s Jackson, who has served on the editorial boards of three different newspapers, agrees. “Most readers do not [understand the distinction],” he says. “Most readers believe there is collusion between the editorial writers and the news writers and editors, that one reflects the other.”

It’s easy to blame the reader, but the fault lies with the newspaper’s publisher and editors, not the readers. The news publisher hasn’t made it clear that there’s a difference between the editorial webpages and the news webpages.

How do you do it? Use a different template. Different fonts. Different layout. Maybe put big photos of the columnists on the article itself, to make it clear it’s a personal opinion, and not the newsroom’s stance.

Or kill the distinction between news articles and editorial articles, and start delivering opinion pieces that are truly representative of the newsroom’s opinion. They’re all WSJ journalists. Why are news staff and editorial staff any different?