While USA Today recently felt the need to defend the value of editorials, one paper has scrapped endorsements and another may bail on the editorial concept altogether, the Pittsburgh-area Tribune-Review prominently employed the form with an A1 editorialurging readers to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
The editorial involved a matter "that would result in action by readers for the good of the community," according to Jennifer Bertetto, president and CEO of Tribune-Review owner Trib Total Media. The paper wouldn't have turned to a front-page editorial for "just an expression of opinion or a political standpoint," according to Bertetto.
Here’s part of a letter to readers from Bertetto that accompanied the editorial:
As journalists, we take great care to reserve opinion pieces for the opinion/editorial pages of this newspaper.
But these are extraordinary times when everything has changed, when COVID-19 has killed more than 300,000 Americans, shuttered businesses and deprived us of the chance to hug our family, share a meal out with friends or even celebrate holidays.
We are being offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reverse the course of this deadly virus, to save lives, to be brave and put aside politics and philosophical differences to do something simple but selfless to stem the spread of this virus. All that can be achieved by taking a vaccine.
Today, we are breaking our own rules to put opinion on the news pages of this publication and ask that you do your part to write an end to the most deadly story of our lives.
In mid-January, Bertetto answered a few questions from News & Tech about the decision to place the editorial on page 1 and other aspects of op-ed management.
News & Tech: What made you decide to run a front-page editorial on the COVID-19 vaccine in the Tribune-Review, a departure for the paper?
Bertetto: We have watched helplessly for the last several months as COVID-19 cases and deaths have risen in Western Pennsylvania. We have worked with businesses that were forced to endure a third or even fourth shutdown during the pandemic.
Over and over again, we heard the words “helpless.” Helpless to protect ourselves from the disease, helpless against its economic impact, and helpless as we waited for relief — whether it be medical or financial.
During the pandemic, we also noticed that vaccination had become highly political in our region.
We felt it was our responsibility as a trusted news organization and part of the community. We encourage as many people as possible to get vaccinated when it becomes available. In doing so, we tried to illustrate how getting the shot would change the world we are all living in right now.
As we debated the merits of a front-page editorial, our editorial board concluded that if our editorial convinced one person to get the vaccine, who might have otherwise been unsure, it would have been worth it.
News & Tech: Has the paper ever done anything like this before?
Bertetto: We have many long-tenured employees at Trib Total Media. Going back as far as 45 years, we could not find any other front-page editorials.
News & Tech: Did the editorial run in other Trib Total Media papers?
Bertetto: The editorial ran in our two daily editions, Tribune-Review and Tribune-Review Valley News Dispatch. We did not run it in our weeklies due to the deadlines being pretty far out. We were concerned it would be stale by the time it arrived in our readers’ mailboxes the following week.
News & Tech: Can you see any other issue outside of the COVID-19 vaccine that would prompt you to run a front-page editorial?
Bertetto: Front-page editorials are something we will be very judicious about — always. I am sure it is possible, but for a subject rising to the level of doing this again — it would need to be very significant.
This editorial was on a concrete matter that would result in action by readers for the good of the community. We would never run a front-page editorial that was just an expression of opinion or a political standpoint.
News & Tech: Have you had any feedback to the editorial?
Bertetto: We have, of course. As you can imagine, we heard both positive and negative feedback. Within the industry, many publishers reached out to me to tell me they thought it was brave. Some people who used to work in the industry but are now retired felt like more newspapers should be doing this during the pandemic (taking strong, forceful viewpoints on what we could be doing in our communities to stop the spread).
Some readers really loved that we wrote the editorial, and some really despised it. None of the reactions were surprising. We anticipated taking this step would be polarizing.
In all, no one cancelled their subscription over it, but we did field a fair amount of phone calls.
News & Tech: Do you think newspapers' role and reporting style are changing? If so, what are your views on the changes?
Bertetto: That reminds me of the expression: “The more things change, they more they stay the same.” Of course, we are adapting to the new ways that people consume media. But the fundamentals apply: We collect news and information and deliver it to people quickly and accurately. We build habits in readers by earning their trust with fair reporting and engaging them with a mix of hard and soft news, essential information, sports, comics, puzzles and more. The competition for readers’ attention is brutal — but so was it, back in the day, when there might have been five daily newspapers in a city like Pittsburgh. We are fiercely dedicated to keeping local news alive and well in our region, but we have to give people a reason for coming to us.
News & Tech: Anything more you would like to add?
Bertetto: Regarding our editorial position: The job title of the person who runs the editorial page is “Community Engagement Editor.” Our position is that we want to reflect our communities and bring out their better angels — but we are not about pontificating on the grand ideas of the day, or preaching or scolding. We want to cultivate the middle ground, and we believe it exists, even in these fractious times. We are also proud of our vibrant letters to the editor section, where all points of view are represented and the facts have been checked rigorously. On some Sundays, we hold op-eds and run nearly a full page of letters. It’s gratifying to see so many readers want to be in this public square.