Newspapers have always been part of the wider conversation, and the role of enabler and moderator is hardly a revolutionary new job to those writing or editing their editorial pages: it's just that in the age before Internet this conversation was narrower, slower and less immediate.
Jeff Jarvis is an insightful media commentator I find myself agreeing with more often than not, but I've been mulling over all this talk about how the blogosphere has made the editorialist redundant. "Fork the editorial page" and "join the conversation", Jarvis wrote a while back, making it sound like newspapers were ivory tower institutions existing outside the communities they serve. No doubt many newspapers are waking up to the reality that they have indeed become too far removed from their audiences and the issues that engage them, but to imply that newspapers up until now have not been part of society's conversations is an overstatement at best.
I started my media career as a columnist on the editorial page of a regional newspaper in 1995. Back in those days there was a very vibrant conversation both between the newspaper and its readers and on the papers' editorial pages. This conversation was mostly conducted via snail mail; readers posting letters to the editor and Op-Eds for consideration, or just letters praising or condemning the newspaper's leaders or columnists. Often a reader would call both the editor and one of his columnists to voice his or her opinions – and at times the discussions started in the paper was picked up by local radio and TV. The paper had about 15 columnists who reflected different segments of its audience – young and old, representing different backgrounds and interests
This was way before I trained as a journalist: I was very young, very opinionated, and my articles stimulated a lot of public debate - something I found very rewarding. To think that something I wrote would make someone reconsider their views, feel impelled to rebut my argument, or thank me for raising an issue they felt was vital but unaddressed, was always the ultimate compliment. It was that reader feedback, both the private conversations and the public debate, that made it all worthwhile. I mean, who would want to be a columnist or editorial writer if they had no impact, if there was no interaction with the audience?
My editor back then was both an enabler and moderator of the democratic discussion – it was just narrower and less immediate than what it is today. It was more mediated, more elitist I guess, though the newspaper printed readers' letters promoting the whole spectre of political persuasions, written by young and old, worker and director. In the three years I wrote for the paper this debate was moderated by the political editor. Today, partly reflecting the way society is changing, he has been replaced by a community editor- both of them, then as now, important, and much debated, figures in their community, especially for local politicians and older readers.
Now, new technology has levelled the playing field and allowed for a much wider conversation than ever before, radically altering the rules of engagement. Whereas before newspapers, along with other mainstream media, were sole moderators and could set the pace and the tone of all public discourse, today there are millions of other moderators constantly shifting that conversation, and newspapers need to adapt to this new reality if they are to stay relevant to the constituents of their communities.
However, it's worth remembering that to many of those who do not possess or understand this new technology, the newspaper, and especially the local or regional newspaper, is still the most important forum for 'democratic discussion'. Measured against the wide open space of the blogosphere, where each man can be his own publisher, this discussion, or conversation, may be imperfect and seem frightfully limited, but it is still a conversation.
As most other newspapers, my former regional paper is currently working to improve its online presence: widening that conversation by allowing comments on online articles, launching blogs and online forums, while at the same time debating the limits of openness - the pros and cons of moderating comments; what if someone gets offended by nasty feedback; isn't more respectful to delete certain offensive remarks etc. More often than not the transition between old and new is difficult, to some it seems to be moving too fast, to others too slow, but in the midst of a rapidly changing media landscape it's easy to loose sight of the continuous development that led up to today's 'revolution', which perhaps is better phrased as an evolution .