Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Understanding Editorial Boards

There's some confusion about what Editorial Boards at newspapers do, and the New York Times recently produced a section to discuss its role at the paper.

This blog will provide an overview about Editorial Boards to capture some of the information presented by James Bennet, editorial page editor of the Times who oversees the editorial board as well as the Letters and the Op-Ed sections. 

Together the editorial board, op-ed and letters section is part of Times Opinion, whose purpose, Bennet says, 
"Is to supply the wide-ranging debate about big ideas that a diverse democracy needs. Amid that debate, the role of the editorial board is to provide Times readers with a long-range view formed not by one person’s expertise and experience but ballasted by certain institutional values that have evolved across more than 150 years. That’s why the editorials, unlike other articles in The Times, appear without a byline."
The Times editorial board operates as the voice of the paper and the publisher, writing editorials independent from the newsroom. That means the editorial board does not speak for the newsroom or that newsroom staff feel the same way about a particular issue. In fact, there have been stories about newsroom staffs at various papers, including the Times and the Wall St. Journal, being upset about positions takes by their respective editorial boards.

For decades, editorial boards have been influential, offering endorsements for political office and highlighting issues important to the communities they serve. The influence of editorial boards has declined over the last several decades but are still important, in part because they take "a long-range view formed not by one person’s expertise and experience but ballasted by certain institutional values." But as CNN recently noted, "The power of newspaper endorsement -- ANY newspaper -- is increasingly limited in terms of its ability to sway voters. That's especially true of national newspapers like the Times." 

How the Times' Editorial Board works
  1. "The New York Times editorial board is made up of opinion journalists who rely on research, debate and individual expertise to reach a shared view of important issues," according to the Times' description. 
  2. The board is comprised of 15 veteran journalists who bring "years of research, subject-matter expertise and personal experience," including foreign correspondents and beat reporters. They include:
    1.  James Bennet, who has recused himself from involvement in the 2020 election because his brother, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, is running for president.
    2.  Kathleen Kingsbury, deputy editorial page editor.
    3. Binyamin Appelbaum: economics & business.
    4. Michelle Cottle: U.S. politics.
    5. Mara Gay: N.Y. state and local affairs.
    6. Jennen Interlandi: health & science.
    7. Laureen Kelley: women & reproductive rights.
    8. Alex Kingsbury: tehcnology & national affairs.
    9. Serge Schmemann: international affairs.
    10. Bremt Staples: education, criminal justice & economics.
    11. Jesse Wegman: Supreme Court & legal affairs.
    12. John Broder: associate editor.
    13. Nick Fox: editor.
    14. Carol Giacomo: foreign affairs.
    15. Charlie Warzel: technology. Warzel is not a permanent member of the editorial board but has been writing a series of opinion articles about privacy for the editorial board. He writes about the intersection of technology, media, and politics as well as online extremism.
    16. James Dao: op-ed editor. He is part of the Times Opinion section and is participating in the Times' process to endorse presidential candidates but is not a permanent member of the board.
  3. The board meets at least twice each week.
  4. The board discusses significant questions in the news, informed by the members who are subject-matter experts in the topic as well as by an understanding of the positions the board has taken over the years. That's not to say the Times' editorial board doesn't break with presidence: "We try to keep in mind the big questions we’ve gotten wrong in the past — such as opposing women’s suffrage — to cultivate some humility and caution," Bennet notes.
  5. "In general," Bennet writes, the board "reaches its conclusions by consensus, though in matters where there is deep disagreement we sometimes have to call a vote."
  6. The board interviews all major presidential candidates to get their perspective before the board makes an endorsement.
Why You Should Care about the Editorial Board

The editorial board does more than endorse a candidate. The board will meet with outside experts who can provide insight on a topic relevant and significant to the Times community. Requesting a meeting can be a way to get your organization's perspective in front of the editorial board, with the hope -- there's no guarantee, of course -- that the next time the board writes about that issue, it may provide perspective it got from that meeting.

Please note: getting a meeting can be a real challenge. Each editorial board has a different process of handling meeting requests. Please note: You're not likely going to be able to meet with the entire board. You should focus on contacting the subject-matter board member covering your issue. 

One of the challenges is that it can be difficult to get to the right person at the paper to schedule a meeting. The above list of subject-matter journalists at the New York Times, is valid as of Jan. 2020 but the actual URL indicates the list is from 2018. It may not be accurate even by the end of 2020. Most papers do not list the editorial board members or may not have updated their membership page in a long time; for example, the Wall St. Journal lists "Who We Are" of the editorial board but that was last updated Jan. 1, 2000 -- 20 years ago, and while a number of people remain, many have moved on. Some editorial board members list their affiliation when they publish columns away from the editorial board, which does happen at the Wall St. Journal. By the way, the Journal does provide a more updated list of its editorial board but it does not necessarily list their subject matter expertise. 

Even if you have scheduled an editorial board meeting with the right person -- as we have done in the past -- you are not guaranteed that they will respond or include your organization's perspective the next time they opine on the topic. 

We have fond that the process of developing a compelling reason to meet with the editorial board can help when writing an op-ed article on the topic. Even if you can't meet with the board or with the appropriate board member, the exercise of framing your perspective can have a longer-term benefit by refining your thoughts and key messages.

Let us know if you have any questions about working with editorial boards.

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