Who We Are and What We Do

By Klement, David E. | The Masthead, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Who We Are and What We Do


Klement, David E., The Masthead


Survey of editorialists shows little evidence of left-wing bias or an inclination to fly by the seat of the pants.

In a new year's editorial informing readers that his paper no longer considered having a staff-produced editorial on its opinion page every day to be essential, St. Paul Pioneer Press editorial page editor Ronald D. Clark confessed that writing simply to fill space is "a dirty little secret of our craft. When there's a hole to fill and you're an hour from deadline, you suddenly find you have opinions on topics you knew little or cared little about."

That's a typical editorial writer's knee-jerk observation backed up by no credible research. The fact is, American editorial page editors do not just grab issues to fill space or turn out a quick editorial by throwing a couple of opinions onto a [TABULAR DATA FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED] news story - at least not very often. It says so right on page 78 of my graduate thesis.

I would have agreed with my brother editorialist before I began looking into this issue last summer. In fact, it was to prove my hypothesis that editorial page editors in general fly by the seat of their pants that I undertook a research project on the factors that influence editorial page policy to complete my master's degree at the University of South Florida. That, and to be able to respond to House Speaker Newt Gingrich's slander that we're all a bunch of "socialists" cramming our leftist views down people's throats.

My survey of 250 NCEW members with the title of editorial page editor, or deputy or associate editor, disproved Clark's - and my - theory about the "dirty little secret" of editorial writing. Of course, self-administered surveys aren't foolproof, since respondents can slant their replies to make themselves look better.

But the assurance of anonymity partly compensated for that face-saving tendency. And the questionnaire approached the issue in subtle ways. For example, on a scale of 1-to-5 from little/none to a great deal, respondents averaged 3.37 in ranking the importance of independent research in crafting their editorials, with 83% ranking it at 3.0 or higher. And 79% said they take time to polish their work, with a 3.17 average on the 1-to-5 scale.

If editorial page editors are captives of routines that force them to grab issues off the shelf to fill up space, I assumed that would be reflected in their attitudes about their effectiveness and their job satisfaction. But both came out with fairly high ratings.

Asked to rate on a 1-to-5 scale their effectiveness at influencing public opinion, they averaged 3.5, with 94% rating it 3.0 or higher. Similarly, asked their "effectiveness at staying on top of the issues," the 1-to-5 scale ranking was 3.61.

As to job satisfaction, 92% gave "satisfaction with the process by which you produce editorials" a 3.0 or higher on the 1-to-5 scale. The overall personal satisfaction with their opinion pages was a healthy 3.7.

The project updated the demographic profile of editorialists provided by G. Cleveland Wilhoit and Dan W. Drew in 1989; theirs covered all editorial page staffers, not just the top editors as this one did. (See Figure 1.) In general, it showed the average editorial page editor has these qualities:

* White male, age 49.

* Married with 1.7 children.

* Earns $55,000 a year.

* College graduate.

* Protestant.

* Works for chain-owned paper of just over 100,000 daily circulation.

* Has been writing editorials for 13 years.

Women hold 29% of the top editorial page jobs, but only 3% of the total represent ethnic minorities. Formal education averages 17.09 years, with 44% holding a master's degree.

Politically, the editorialists classify themselves far from the "socialist" label applied by Gingrich. On a 1-to-10 scale of conservative to liberal, the average response was 5.9, slightly to the left of center.

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