Today, The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Penn., published a front-page editorial arguing that, on account of the sexual abuse scandal that has recently come to light, Penn State president Graham Spanier must “step aside.” Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, the editorial said, should be allowed to finish this season, but his contract should not be renewed. (Paterno may be out of a job sooner than that.)
Running an editorial on the front page is a rare practice in the United States. (It is more common in some other countries, including Italy and France.) “At most large papers, the top news editor and the editorial page editor are peers, each reporting only to the publisher,” says Robert Turner, a professor of journalism at Northeastern and one-time deputy editor of the Boston Globe’s editorial page. (Turner is also the father of Julia Turner, Slate’s deputy editor.) So the decision to run an editorial on the front page will come from the publisher, “possibly over the objections of the news editor.”
What’s more, Turner says, American newspapers are generally wary of “confusing the reader by mixing fact and opinion.” By placing editorial opinion right next to its most prominent news coverage, a newspaper risks raising questions about its objectivity.
Are American newspapers doing this more than they used to?
Quite possibly. Bruce Dold, editorial page editor of The Chicago Tribune, says they are “running more editorials on the front page” than they once did. When the editors “think an issue or a position demands maximum impact,” Dold says, “we’ll put the editorial out front.” “Usually,” Dold added, “the editorials run on the top of [page one] and they’re clearly labeled as editorials so readers will not confuse them with news coverage.”
Dold’s comments are in line with what Michele Weldon, an assistant professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, found when she studied the front pages of 20 major American newspapers in the first few years of the last decade for her book Everyman News: The Changing American Front Page (2007). Weldon discovered that the number of front-page pieces that openly included opinion or analysis increased sharply between 2001 and 2004. Reached on the phone, she said that newspapers feel the need to include “a deeper analysis” on their front pages because it’s now possible to “get the news in real time in so many other ways.”
Weldon noted that today’s editorial in The Patriot-News was especially unusual because it consumed the entire front page, which she found “a little astounding.” Still, she said, The Patriot-News may have felt they “had no choice,” because the scandal is such massive local news. In general, local newspapers are more likely to run front-page editorials than national newspapers, and usually on matters of local concern.
Last week, for instance, The New York Post ran a front-page editorial demanding Mayor Michael Bloomberg evict Occupy Wall Street from Zucotti Park. Earlier this year, The Salt Lake Tribune ran its first front-page editorials in eight years, both concerning Utah state legislation that would deny citizens access to public records. The Manchester Union-Leader sometimes endorses candidates for New Hampshire’s “first in the nation” primary on the front page. (Although, as Robert Turner points out, this has become less common under current Union-Leader publisher Joseph W. McQuaid than it was under Bill Loeb, a famously outspoken publisher.)
Weldon notes that newspapers seem more likely to run editorials on the front page when editors are confident their opinions will be shared by most readers. In the case of the Penn State sex abuse scandal, the Harrisburg Patriot-News certainly didn’t need to worry that its outrage would fall on deaf ears.