Where Have All The Editorials Gone?

Once a fairly common feature at TV stations, on-air editorial opinions are now very much an endangered species. However, there are still a number of local news operations that recognize the value — and power — of them to be a positive force in their communities.

Every Tuesday and Thursday, WDRB Louisville, Ky., GM Bill Lamb takes to the airwaves, giving his opinions on everything from a local lawyer who refused to pay his parking tickets to the political situation in Turkey.

The 90-second editorials tend to lean right, he says, mostly because they reflect Louisville’s “quite conservative community” and “balance out the newspaper that is flaming liberal.” For Lamb, the slant matters far less than spurring discussion, so much so that he says he’d just as readily “be doing liberal editorials” if he worked in a city like San Francisco.

“I don’t care if people agree or disagree with me … and I think people understand that I’m not trying to change the world,” Lamb says. “All I’m trying to do is get people to discuss what’s happening instead of them being apathetic.”

Lamb is one of the dwindling number of local broadcasters across the country who still believe in on-air editorials.

Once a fairly widespread practice, airing station editorials remained commonplace into the late 1990s, backed by individuals and station groups that believed “in the power of editorials to drive community good,” says RTDNA Executive Director Mike Cavender. “I saw on the ground the impact that editorials and taking community positions can have. I truly believe that they can make a real difference.”

Cavender says he is unsure why editorials have fallen out of fashion, but suspects it has something to do with station consolidation.


“I have to wonder, as there have been more and more combining of groups into very large broadcast entities, if the individual concern at the local level in any given market is not as strong as it used to be,” he says.

But, due to a range of factors, many broadcasters started killing off the practice over time, industry watchers say.

Tom Bier, GM of Morgan Murphy’s WISC, the CBS affiliate in Madison, Wis. (DMA 85) and a former RTDNA chairman, says during his tenure on the RTDNA board during the 1980s and early ’90s he saw a number of would-be commentators “certainly discouraged from getting involved,” especially as the Fairness Doctrine was being debated.

“That was always held as a big stick over broadcasters, in that you have to watch what you do,” he says.

The most likely explanation for the dearth of editorials is broadcasters’ reluctance to tick off people. It’s just not good for business.

But, at least in his experience, Lamb says that such fears are unfounded.

“We’ve never been sued, and I don’t believe that we’ve ever lost an advertiser or a viewer,” he says. In some cases, editorials rally viewers to participate, he says. About once a month the station airs a rebuttal.

Another believer in editorials is Fox Television Stations. Over the past three years, the O&Os in New York (WNYW), Los Angeles (KTTV), Chicago (WFLD), Washington (WTTG), Atlanta (WAGA) and Detroit (WJBK) have gotten into the act, with guidance from corporate.

Sharri Berg, SVP of the Fox-owned stations’ news operations, says the group encourages commentary “to fill the void” left when print media started scaling back.

But the strategy doesn’t work across the board, Berg says. The six Fox stations currently producing editorials have been chosen to do so because they are located in particularly meaty news markets and are headed by GMs who have the drive (and on-air presence) required for them to be successful, she says.

It’s up to the individual GMs to decide which topics to cover and how frequently to air the editorials, she adds.

Scripps leaves the decision of whether to air editorials up to each station. Right now, only two of the company’s 19 stations have chosen to do so.

WXYZ, Scripps’ ABC affiliate in Detroit (DMA 11) has a long history of airing editorials on and off since the 1960s, says Editorial Director Chuck Stokes. After a year-long hiatus, the station is resuming the practice this summer. WPTV, the NBC affiliate in West Palm Beach-Fort Pierce, Fla. (DMA 38), is the other.

Brian Lawlor, Scripps’s VP of television, says he advises stations to get involved in editorials only if they really have something to say. “What we don’t want to do is waste people’s time. So if there’s nothing to say, seeing the GM pontificate doesn’t create great value.”

Raycom Media is well known for its on-air editorial policy. It requires all of its GMs to air two different editorials each week, a community outreach effort that’s been in place for more than a decade, according to Bill Cathcart, GM of WTOC Savannah, Ga.

Raycom group executives could not be reached for comment on this story.

Often, the impetus to do editorials comes from the stations up rather that the group down.

One local proponent is Joe Heston, the GM of Hearst Television’s NBC affiliate KSBW in Monterey-Salinas, Calif. (DMA 125). He recalls being a kid in the late 1950’s, calling out to his dad that “the old guy is on TV” when WBAL Baltimore broke for commentaries.

“This is not some grand concept,” says Heston, who each week appears in just one editorial but runs it seven times from Friday night to Monday morning. “I really believe it is part of the engagement of a leading news organization.”

Heston maintains viewers are listening. It is not unusual to get scores of calls following an editorial, some of which are aired, he says.

“We’ve been called right, left and crazy. We have been called communists. We have been called fascists,” Heston says. “It certainly makes you think we must be doing something right.”

WISC Madison, Wis., has created one of the most prolific, and possibly influential, editorial operations around. Backed by a nine-member editorial board, WISC Editorial Director Neil Heinen writes and presents five different commentaries a week, each of which airs three times a day Sunday through Thursday.

GM Bier says WISC “is on equal standing with the editorial board of the paper in town [the Wisconsin State Journal],” which shows in the increased interactions between the station and community leaders, from all of Wisconsin’s recent governors to the area’s congressional delegation. Just last month, local state legislators requested a meeting with WISC to explain their opposition to the state budget.

“The whole idea is about getting people into the building and talking about issues,” Bier says. “You really develop a better relationship with people in your community.”

Bier says WISC takes its editorials seriously (“they are not wishy-washy”) and says other local broadcasters need to do the same to have credibility.

“If you’re going to make that leap, you want to make sure you have something to say,” he says. “It’s easy to give an opinion when you’re out at dinner with someone, but it’s different when you go on-air and have thousands watching.”

Cavender says he wishes “there would be a resurgence,” particularly as digital media have made it possible for all sorts of people to weigh in as experts.

“It’s unfortunate that, at least in the electronic arena, there has been a significant decline in this arena,” Cavender says, especially since “everyone [on the Internet] is seemingly commenting on this story or that issue.

“It seems to me that the well-crafted, local position on issues of community importance certainly still could, and should, have a place on TV.”

Read other Air Check columns here. You can send suggestions for future Air Checks to Diana Marszalek at [email protected].

Comments (16)

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Tim Pardis says:

July 16, 2013 at 11:58 am

Editorials disappeared about the same time that the the public interest requirement went in the trunk (that is, it was pushed further back than the proverbial “back seat.” Dust off those old notes from that college course you took in Communication Arts where you learned that the FCC licenses entities with a STRONG requirement that they operate in the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” This was done to “invigorate the political life and democratic culture of our nation.” As the article points out, many stations stopped producing (or allowing) editorials because it was bad for business…not to mention that it consumes valuable time that could be used to air commercial announcements. [It is also remarkable that, many of the large broadcast companies also own newspapers that vigorously produce daily editorials and engage opinion editorial writers!]

I believe that because most broadcast stations do not engage in democracy building activities like editorials has contributed to the dumbing down of the electorate and is partially responsible for the disconnect between the average American and the important issues that confront our democracy. I applaud those stations that still engage in the practice.

Steve Graziano says:

July 16, 2013 at 12:03 pm

Good riddance to editorials! Wish newspapers would follow suit. As a 35-year journalist, more than two-thirds of that spent as a TV-news producer/manager, and now the co-owner of a micro-news organization, I strongly believe it’s pompous of any news organization to think it needs to waste community members’ time with its opinions. More information is what’s needed, not more opinions. Leave those to the community – their opinions are what matters, not those of the organization whose job is to help them get information. (P.S. I believe this should be the case not only for traditional “editorials” but also for “reviews.” )

    Angie McClimon says:

    July 16, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    They still exist, just as the happy-chat dreck anchors spew after the stories and before breaks. They put their unneeded opinion on the story.

Shyloh Elder says:

July 16, 2013 at 12:21 pm

For the record, I’m with Tracy 100%. A couple years ago, before our weekly newspaper bit the dust, I announced (as EIC-Publisher) that we no longer would issue election endorsements. I won’t go into the various reasons I enumerated for that decision, but among them was that newspaper endorsements were useful at their origin, when newsprint virtually was the only channel available to the public as a source of information that affected their daily lives. A little guidance in elections made sense and was well-intentioned. However, even then, endorsements, as they remain today, were nothing more than the consensus opinion of a handful of journalists. Today, any voter so inclined can bury himself or herself in all manner of data and detritus about candidates. In that context, newspaper endorsements are quaint, superfluous and, per Tracy, presumptuous. BTW, why is it that electronic news media that issued editorial commentary did not follow suit with election endorsements?

Eric Koepele says:

July 16, 2013 at 1:47 pm

I value editorials highly. As highly as I do enterprise reporting and investigative reporting. Journalists who spend their lives researching their beats and writing “the first draft of history” are extremely well informed and to be valued for their deep knowledge and perspective on the issues. Particularly in our age of information overload, a well-wrought editorial connects the threads and offers one view of an issue. It is easy to find opposing views and those who seek out both sides, after reading the news for themselves, are the truly well informed.

    Shyloh Elder says:

    July 17, 2013 at 9:18 am

    Kathy, your first two words say it all: “I value… .” What about the audience, which doesn’t even merit a mention in your defense of editorials. I don’t hear any public hue and cry for stations to broadcast editorials. Since it’s so easy, as you say, to find opposing views to form a 360-degree view of things, why should a TV station — which is a commercial, not an altruistic, venture — lord its opinion over all others and risk drying up rivulets within its revenue stream?

Tim Pardis says:

July 16, 2013 at 1:50 pm

“Leave those to the community – their opinions are what matters, not those of the organization whose job is to help them get information.” My point exactly. Local broadcasters ARE part of their communities. Ones with very large megaphones. As such, part of their responsibility is to engage the larger community in issues of that community’s interest, convenience and necessity. This is the heart of localism…being a part of the conversation! [Maybe, in some cases, actually leading the conversation.] Sadly, most stations are just advertising vendors who produce newscasts that are designed (and dumbed down) to attract the maximum number of eyeballs to the commercials. Revenue is the king, public interest is the pawn.

kendra campbell says:

July 16, 2013 at 2:10 pm

Editorial writing takes work, intelligence, and commitment. 90% of general managers don’t go there.

Keith ONeal says:

July 16, 2013 at 9:54 pm

WKMG 6, the CBS affiliate here in Orlando usually air editorials on Wednesdays and Fridays at 6:28 PM, right before they go to the CBS Evening News.

loretta mahoney says:

July 16, 2013 at 10:45 pm

I’m surprised that no one has mentioned that ALL Raycom Media General Managers are required to write and record 2 editorials a week. No exceptions! This is a dictate from Dr. David Bronner who is the head of the Retirement Systems of Alabama who is the financial backer of Raycom Media. As jdshaw says above “editorial writing takes work, intelligence and commitment.” That’s just one more thing that Raycom GM’s HAVE to do in addition to all their other responsibilities. Some are able to escape by allowing “viewers” to record an editorial in rebuttal to one that the GM has done. All editorials air at the end of various newscasts.

loretta mahoney says:

July 16, 2013 at 10:47 pm

…sorry I didn’t see the Raycom Media reference in the story before I wrote my first comment.

Holly Smith says:

July 17, 2013 at 9:52 am

Having spent 20 years as editorial director of a major market station, I want to point out to those who bemoan the burden on the audience of television editorials that the opportunity to do on-air replies is much valued in the community and is an important part of the process.

Joe Jaime says:

July 17, 2013 at 11:16 pm

I promise you 100% of our viewers did not give a hoot what I had to say…just a waste of valuable air time…

Joe Jaime says:

July 17, 2013 at 11:21 pm

Forgot to mention…as soon as the elder statesman of the TV station puts his or her mug on camera and starts pontificating…. the audience grabs the remote and ….gone!!

    John Murray says:

    July 18, 2013 at 9:13 am

    GMRetiredTV, are you any relation to RetiredTVGM? : )

    loretta mahoney says:

    July 18, 2013 at 10:46 am

    No he/she’s not! But we think alike!

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