Jewish World Review Sept. 16, 2005 / 12 Elul, 5765

Paul Greenberg

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A clatter of editorial writers

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | PORTLAND, Ore. — I know it's a pride of lions, a murder of crows and a cluster of eggs, but what do you call a gathering of editorial writers?

Maybe a clatter, as in the sound made by those old Royals and Underwoods in the noisy, crowded, smoke-filled newsrooms of yesterday.

There was something romantic, promising, alive about that sound. There still is, which may be why there's a market even now for manual typewriters among the sentimental, or just wistful.

We're not yet a full-fledged clatter as the early arrivals trickle into the stately old Benson Hotel for this year's National Conference of Editorial Writers.

One by one we set down our luggage and the obligatory laptops that have replaced the Royals and Underwoods, and start looking around for old friends or, even better, old enemies. Some of us have feuded for so long we've started to like each other. It's a same-time-next-year relationship, and this is the same time.

Just as you would imagine, given journalists' talent for organization, the National Conference of Editorial Writers is a kind of anarchists' convention, a combination class reunion and debating society.

Even before this year's convention, an early skirmish broke out in our little bit of cyberspace — the listserv where we exchange congratulations, condolences and tips of the trade.

It started when once again somebody suggested that the traditional editorial page is dead. This kind of postmortem has become a tradition itself. It used to be radio, and then television, that was going to make editorials superfluous. Now it's the Internet, and specifically the rise of our successors, the blogs.

The only way to save the editorial page, we're now told, is to turn it into a super-blog where the readers themselves can edit our editorials via the wonders of the worldwide Net.

As that great philosopher Jimmy Durante used to say, "Everybody wants ta get into da act!"

Ah, but what could be more democratic, or a surer way to involve readers and get them to subscribe, at least to our online edition? Our circulation problems would be solved while we just leaned back and relaxed. And every editorial would be a model of consensus! Bee-you-ti-ful!

The Los Angeles Times, whose editorial page recently changed management, tried something like that not long ago — for two days. Then the system crashed under a tsunami of profane, pornographic and generally puerile messages. End of experiment.

And it wasn't even fun while it lasted. It was like putting a thousand monkeys at typewriters in the sure, mathematical faith that, by the laws of probability, the text of "Macbeth" would materialize.

The end result in this case was supposed to be a Wikitorial — named after the online encyclopedia (Wikipedia) that allows contributors to continually update its entries.

This was going to be the next big thing in the opinionating business. To quote the L.A. Times' then-editorial honcho, Michael Kinsley:

"Wikitorials may be one of those things that within six months will be standard. It's the ultimate in reader participation."

Indeed it was, the way anarchy is the ultimate in democracy. Once all ideas are declared equal, silence can come as a blessed relief, which it did 48 hours later.

The moral of the story: Just because something can be done doesn't mean it should be.

But variations of the scheme are still being talked up here. There is just something about everybody's having a PC, or access to one, that makes the notion irresistible. At least to Americans. For once a new technology exists, the important thing is that it be used. Never mind the results — good, bad or incomprehensible.

I wonder what my old friend, Ann Lloyd Merriman, first of the Richmond News Leader and later Times-Dispatch, would make of all this. She was president of this outfit for a term and stayed on as its institutional memory. Ann died just a couple of weeks ago at age 70, and leaves a hole the size of a continent in this year's gathering. If I drink any more toasts to her memory, they'll have to carry me to the next event.

How describe Ann? Put it this way: It is one thing to have a Virginia gentility, and another to have a Virginia hardiness, but to find them both, like Lee and Jackson together in one invincible creature . . . that was Ann. Courteous and Formidable.

She did not suffer fools, yet she did not find it necessary to upbraid them, either. A slightly raised eyebrow, if it was Ann Lloyd Merriman's, was more than sufficient. Many's the time I've seen her on the edge of a garrulous knot of editorial writers, just watching and forming her own judgments. Like a lioness in wait.

I have an idea that somewhere, thinking on the L.A. Times' short-lived experiment with consensual gibberish in place of editorials, a hint of a smile would play around her lips. She wouldn't say a thing, or have to.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. All the quotations in this column were culled from Tuesday's edition of the Democrat-Gazette. Send your comments by clicking here.

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