Why 'The Spokesman-Review' Signs Editorials

By Webster, John | The Masthead, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Why 'The Spokesman-Review' Signs Editorials


Webster, John, The Masthead


Readers of my newspaper, The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, would be amazed to learn that journalists argue about whether to sign editorials.

Our readers appreciate the signatures and take them for granted. They know whom to call with complaints, compliments, questions, or helpful tips. As far as they're concerned, signed editorials are a good business practice, a fairer way for the newspaper to deliver criticism or praise.

No offense, but we sign our editorials to please the readers of The Spokesman-Review, not to please (or annoy) journalists in other cities and not even to start some journalistic trend, although it's intriguing that a few other Washington state newspapers (The Columbian in Vancouver and The Sun in Bremerton) have begun signing editorials as well.

Signatures first appeared below The Spokesman-Review's editorials on February 6, 1994. That first editorial said we wanted to introduce ourselves. It invited the readers to join us in an ongoing community dialogue. At the end of the editorial it said this: "John Webster/For the editorial board."

That signature amounts to nothing more than telling the truth about our Wizard-of-Oz craft. The truth is as follows: Every editorial is written by a human being, speaking for a board. Here is the human's name, and here (they're listed at the bottom of the page) are the names of the board members.

For 11 years, I had written anonymous editorials and had listened to readers complain about them. Finally (I'm a conservative; I change slowly), I decided that the customers had a point.

Here is what the readers said, to convince me:

Don't we have the courage to match our convictions? Are publishers and editorial boards really so muddled and authoritarian that editorial writers cannot bear, nor be permitted, to accept personal responsibility for their work? Authors of letters to the editor must sign their work, for credibility's sake and to deter them from making irresponsible claims. Authors of Supreme Court decisions - the product of a reasoning process considerably more rigorous and consequential than any editorial board's - also must sign their work. So what's our problem?

Readers aren't dummies

Readers aren't dummies. They examine our bold assertions, and they know perfectly well that the reasoning, the research, the rhetoric, the style of writing, and, yes, the conclusions, are mostly the product of a single human mind. It simply has to be so. Journalists work in a rush, with daily deadlines, making occasional mistakes of which our readers also are very much aware. We couldn't, and don't, have time for extended committee meetings to argue over the innards of every editorial. Indeed, if readers knew how hurried the work is and how cursory the debate that goes into the average editorial at the average daily newspaper, editorials might have even less credibility than their customary anonymity implies.

I repeat: Anonymity communicates fear of accountability and lack of credibility.

Ours is a profession that needs every ounce of credibility it can find.

It is not convincing, and it certainly is not impressive except to journalists, to make the grand assertion that editorials are an "institutional voice" that would be diminished by association with its human source. Institutions don't have voices. They do have bureaucracies. They do have employees. Newspapers have a great many employees for whom editorials do not speak, from the reporters to the advertising sales representatives, from the truck drivers to the data processing administrators. Editorials speak only for a select group of our employees. Not one member of this select group has been elected.

We live in a culture weary of bureaucracy and hungry for the human touch. After 30 years of anti-establishment revolt, Americans are less likely than ever to snap to attention and obey when some powerful media institution tells them what to think. …

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