Inside the Bee’s Ivory Tower
Pulling back the curtain on the capital city’s daily ink-and-newsprint opinion makers. Are they really mouthpieces for the Democrats? And is anybody paying attention to what they write?
I’m not sure exactly whom I thought I’d find when I breached the walls of the not-so-ivory and hardly-towering Ivory Tower on the third floor of The Sacramento Bee’s offices on 21st and Q streets.
They call it that in the Bee’s newsroom—the Ivory Tower. The separation between the two departments being what it is, hardly any of the newspaper’s reporters and editors has ever been here, in the editorial board’s complex of offices. It’s easy to perceive the higher-paid and tucked-away editorial writers on this floor—each of whom has an office to his or her self, most of which benefit from afternoon natural light—as being detached from the trials and truths of the real world downstairs. And, well, that’s the thing to do when talking about something unknown: pooh-pooh it.
That’s what the letter writers do. Each week, the letters section of the Bee is peppered with accusations of bias and bigotry. “Anything to bash President Bush works for the Bee!” “…the Bee and its left-wing cohorts…” “I know the Bee has its reputation of political bias to uphold.”
See, the editorial page is where a paper runs presidential endorsements, advocates for or against legislation and criticizes governmental agencies on both an international and local level. The text on the page is opinionated—not unbiased and objective the way most articles in the rest of the newspaper are expected to be. It’s the page that lights readers’ fire—the page that arms readers with the broad labeling brushes they use to color the rest of the newspaper—and, by extension, the entirety of the mainstream media—as liberal or conservative, pro-war or anti-war, moral or immoral.
“It’s the nature of the game,” said Kay Semion, president of the National Conference of Editorial Writers (NCEW) and associate editor of the editorial page at The Daytona Beach News-Journal. “The paper’s always the thing to hate.”
There’s got to be narcissism or self-righteousness or a hidden agenda that drives people to want to tell you and me—the second we wake up in the morning, walk down the end of the driveway and unfold the broadsheet—how they view the world and what should be on our minds for at least the next 24 hours. These are people who think they are right and want the Bee’s 300,000 daily readers to listen.
The editorials are unsigned because they are, ostensibly, the voice of 148 years of Sacramento Bee newspaper history. The voice of the institution.
But they are produced by mere mortals. Nine people (somewhat) like you and me.
So, then, the questions emerge. Who are these people? What purpose is an editorial page supposed to serve, anyway? And is anybody paying attention; are newspaper editorial boards and their opinions relevant anymore?
Oh, and that thing about an “institutional” voice: It’s a myth.
Are we obsolete yet?
Let me make sure we’re on the same page here. The one labeled “Opinion.” What we’re talking about is a single page in the daily newspaper. In the Bee, as in most large American daily newspapers, the page is relegated to the rear of the local news section. From Monday through Saturday, it’s in the Metro section, on the third-to-last page. We’re not even talking about the entire page but primarily the text that appears along the left-hand side. On Sunday, the editorial board produces the Forum section of the newspaper, and the editorials appear on the back page.
Some journalists, media pundits and bloggers say it’s an unnecessary section of the newspaper.
A 2003 Wichita State University survey showed that only two-thirds of daily newspapers in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma run local editorials. Many papers had killed off the page entirely, which the survey attributed to chain ownership and a dedication to the financial bottom line.
In 2003, trade magazine Columbia Journalism Review interviewed dozens of journalists under age 30 about how they’d change American newspapers. Several suggested deleting the editorial page. “Newspapers are owned by large companies now, and large companies don’t have souls or opinions,” the magazine quoted one young person as saying.
Aaron Park, the local author of an online diary called Roseville Conservative, said blogs are better suited to offer opinions.
“We’re rendering them obsolete,” said Park, 34, who said he canceled his subscription to the Bee two years ago because of the blatant bias he perceived in its pages. “The print media have done it to themselves. They’ve made themselves irrelevant by allowing themselves to become an organ for the Democratic Party.”
Timothy Noah, writing in June for online magazine Slate, called for the abolition of editorial pages. A small group of academics hired to opine, his thinking went, could not possibly represent an entire newspaper staff or its community.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a Hearst Corp.-owned paper, is taking a more democratic approach in revamping its editorial page, allowing the online public to weigh in on editorial topics and help shape the next day’s opinions.
When Michael Kinsley, founder of Slate and former editor at The New Republic and Harper’s magazines, was hired last year to head up the Los Angeles Times’ editorial page, he shook up the enterprise with experiments that were just plain wacky, such as his attempt to create “wikitorials”—online editorials that anyone could edit and add to.
Underscoring the minor opinion revolution is the fact that American newspapers are bleeding circulation. Many of them are chasing the elusive 18-34 demographic—an age group of people who simply don’t read a daily newspaper, choosing instead to get news on TV, online or not at all. And if readers are decreasingly turning to daily rags for news, they certainly don’t want more ink-and-newsprint opinions to add to the noise of the burgeoning blogosphere of blather on the Internet.
I fall smack in the middle of that 18-34 age demographic. And here’s the part that’s somehow taboo to admit aloud around other local journalists: I rarely if ever read the Bee’s editorial page.
Serious brain- food people
It’s after lunch when Stuart Leavenworth meets me in the lobby of 2100 Q Street. He’s tall, and he’s wearing jeans and wearing his sideburns long.
Leavenworth, who writes about state government for the Bee’s editorial page, wakes early most mornings and bicycles to work from his Midtown home. His morning routine includes scanning several news Web sites, checking his e-mail and trying to put together an idea for the daily editorial-board meeting. That happens at 10:30 a.m. Each writer is expected to come to the meeting with one idea, outlined briefly or already formed into an editorial.
Since the often-broken escalator inside McClatchy headquarters is, again, broken, I follow Leavenworth up the stairs, past the elevators and into the Ivory Beehive.
He introduces me to the receptionist and then points straight ahead, to the office belonging to Kentucky transplant David Holwerk. We’ll get to him later.
Next, we pass Maria Henson, deputy editor of the page, a North Carolinian who worked with Holwerk at the Lexington Herald-Leader a decade ago and has been at the Bee just a year. That’s in contrast to Robert Mott, nicknamed “The Ambassador” maybe because of his age (70), or his tenure at the Bee (nearly 24 years), or his time working for the United Nations in Geneva.
On the right-hand side of the hallway, past Mott’s office, sits Ginger Rutland, another of the page’s long-timers. When a former editor hired her in 1988, she added diversity to an all-white-male editorial board. “He needed a minority, and he needed a female,” she says.
Past Rutland’s cluttered space sits Tom Philp, 44, who earlier this year won a Pulitzer Prize for the Bee, for a series of editorials suggesting the state reclaim its flooded Hetch Hetchy Valley.
Farther down the hall sit Pia Lopez, a former college professor who was hired by Holwerk at a paper in Duluth, Minn., and then lured out here last year, and columnist Daniel Weintraub. Though Weintraub does not write unsigned editorials, he is a member of the board and takes part in board meetings. He writes a column about state policy three times a week. And back outside the offices, down the hall and around a corner, is cartoonist Rex Babin’s office.
We stop across from Philp, at Leavenworth’s office, which is decorated with photographs he took on a recent trip to Cambodia and souvenirs from there. This whole editorial-writer gig is still new to Leavenworth, who until November was the Bee’s environmental reporter.
Leavenworth, a Fresno native, tells me how he wants to liven up the Bee’s editorial page. “Editorials—especially political editorials—can be deadly dull, way too serious.”
Lopez, one door down the hall, in an office with cluttered horizontal surfaces but nothing—absolutely nothing—on the walls, agrees: “We’re so deadly serious most of the time,” she says, critically.
Lopez is an interesting case. She was a professor in the school of government at St. John’s University in central Minnesota. When younger, she taught math in Swaziland for the Peace Corps and then hitchhiked across South Africa. She worked as a customs agent.
She spent three months on the editorial board of a paper in St. Cloud, Minn., through a program at that paper that allowed citizens to take part in the editorial process.
“Once I got into it, I recognized that was my niche,” she says.
Lopez grew up in Washington, D.C., a child to two congressional staffers (one Republican and one Democrat), and holds a master’s degree in diplomacy. Her husband is still a professor at St. John’s. Lopez lives downtown and rides light rail to work.
“People would describe me as a liberal,” she says. “I guess I’m an FDR, Abraham Lincoln liberal.”
Few of the editorial writers so readily answered my question of political leaning, preferring to shun partisan labels.
Mott explains the nonsense of such labels. “I get that all the time—'You’re all a bunch of liberals’—but they don’t know that I’m a registered Republican. I vote for more Democrats than Republicans, but I’m a registered Republican,” Mott says.
Mott writes about international affairs, immigration and trade, primarily. He’s the only writer with a television in his office. It’s tuned to CNN while we talk. “Just in case something happens,” he says. His desk, compared with those of his colleagues, is immaculate and organized. Newspaper clippings are bundled together by topic with paperclips.
When I say compared with his colleagues, I’m talking about Rutland, whose desk space is littered with old newspapers, stacks of papers, postcards and pictures of her mother and daughter tacked to the walls. Framed black-and-white photographs tell the story of a younger Rutland, who was a television reporter, first for KCRA and then for 10 years as the capital-bureau reporter for San Francisco’s KRON.
Rutland, 56, a lifelong Sacramentan, writes about transportation, gambling, state pensions and crime. When first approached about joining the editorial board, she declined. But then KRON closed its Sacramento office, and she was out of a job. So, she took the offer.
“There’s something about television,” Rutland says. “It just disappears into the air. The first time I wrote something for The Sacramento Bee—it was a signed piece about something the Franchise Tax Board was doing—I saw that it had been Xeroxed and passed out to all of the members of the board.”
She tells me this as evidence that the editorial page of a daily newspaper is relevant, that people do listen.
Rutland, perhaps because of her tenure, is one of the Bee’s most oft-criticized editorial writers. Steve Maviglio, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and a spokesman for former Governor Gray Davis, for example, criticizes Rutland for an editorial she once wrote attacking him for a salary he earned as a gubernatorial appointee and for more recent editorials about state employee unions.
“This is the hometown paper,” Maviglio said. “It should be more supportive of … public service.”
But Rutland—the picture of President Bush and the “Join Arnold” sign in her office are jokes, she says, while the portrait of Che Guevara is not—dislikes labels.
“Most of the issues I deal with don’t have anything to do with liberal or conservative,” she says. “When I write about long-haul truckers—whether they should be allowed to drive for 11 hours or 16 hours—does that make me liberal?”
Philp, a former medical reporter for the Bee who in 1997 began writing editorials about natural resources, local governments and several suburbs, agrees.
“Most of the local issues are just not partisan. They’re just not,” says Philp. He says he votes for both parties, used to be a registered Democrat but changed to “independent” when hired as an editorial writer. “I wanted to detach myself in a partisan way.”
Philp, a self-described “suburban parent” from Carmichael (his office walls are decorated with artwork from his two children, including a timeline his daughter drew of her life, which begins with her birth and ends with Philp winning a Pulitzer Prize) explains his writing philosophy like this: “A good editorial is like brain food: a good set of facts and an opinion on those facts.”
Facts are where Henson comes in. The deputy editor of the page, who was lured here by Holwerk in March of last year, quickly developed a reputation for rigorous fact-checking and editing sessions. The writers call it the “Maria treatment.”
When Henson was interviewed in 2001 for a University of Arkansas oral-history project, she explained what drew her to her first editorial-writing job working for Holwerk at the Lexington Herald-Leader: “It was an unusual editorial page because it was totally irreverent, completely liberal, completely nuts, in a good way.”
She elaborates for me.
“People paid attention to what they wrote,” she tells me. “They were getting to the decision-makers. They were willing to try all sorts of ways to get their message across.”
Within six months of joining that paper, Henson began a project on battered women that went on to win the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.
Now, she applies a reportorial style to the editorials she oversees for the Bee, which included Philp’s Hetch Hetchy series.
Then there are Babin and Weintraub, members of the board who have their own venues on the page to express their ideas.
“Just about every day, there’s something on that page that I don’t agree with,” says Weintraub.
Take Leavenworth’s editorial several weeks back suggesting that Governor Schwarzenegger cancel the November 8 special election. Weintraub disagreed and responded with a column outlining an opposing viewpoint.
Weintraub, whose column many say balances out the partisan politics of the page, often is criticized for appearing to be in the governor’s back pocket and for being too conservative. But he calls himself a centrist. “I don’t have a partisan bone in my body,” he says.
C.K. McClatchy’s ghost
There’s a saying relating to newspaper owners, something like “You can’t win arguments with people who buy ink by the barrel.”
That’s the way things used to be, in the days when newspaper owners used their pages as megaphones, crusading for ideas they believed in and blasting others.
But that saying doesn’t really hold true anymore. At most sizable American newspapers, the owner is far removed from the printed page. Most papers are owned by large, publicly traded media companies. New York Times Co. Gannett. Knight Ridder.
Members of the McClatchy family still are nominally active with the Bee’s parent company, which owns newspapers in Minnesota, Alaska and Washington state, in addition to its other California dailies in Fresno, Modesto and Merced. Jim McClatchy from time to time sits in on Sacramento Bee editorial-board meetings. But no McClatchy family member is involved to the degree that C.K. McClatchy was.
“He was the boss. There was no doubt about that,” remembers Mott.
C.K. chaired the editorial-board meetings every day and etched lasting impressions of a number of his values into the board, such as an aggressive support for public utilities. He also believed the page should print as many letters to the editor as possible, something the page continues to do today.
But C.K. was still just one vote, Mott says, remembering a time when an editorial he proposed to write died on a 4-4 vote of the editorial board.
“The owner of the newspaper and the general manager were on my side, but that’s how much of a democracy we are,” Mott says.
In 1988, McClatchy went public, and the whole structure of the company changed. In 1989, C.K. McClatchy died. The Sacramento Bee hired a publisher, Janis Besler Heaphy. And the people who write with the voice of the institution behind them are a farther distance from that institution.
Mark Trahant thinks that, soon, the “institutional voice” will be just one of many voices that come together to produce a newspaper’s editorials. Trahant, head of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s editorial page, calls it the democratization of the editorial page. And he’s begun conducting an experiment in which he lets the newspaper’s online readers help shape the next day’s opinions. When he and his editorial staff emerge from a 9 a.m. meeting with a list of topics they plan to editorialize on in coming days, they post the topics and ask readers to give their take in online forums. Interesting points of view could help shape the editorials or appear alongside them as letters to the editor.
“We’re in an era where the institutional voices don’t have a lot of meaning,” Trahant said.
Park, the Roseville Conservative blogger, agrees and thinks that being able to connect a real person with an opinion gives it more weight.
“I choose not to blog anonymously because I’m proud of my opinions and I’m proud of my blog,” he said. “I think that’s what gives my blog impact. … It gives it validity.”
Trahant and Park both believe that published opinions should do one thing, chiefly: encourage discourse. “I don’t know if I care so much about the answers as I do the questions,” Trahant said.
Heaphy says dramatic losses in circulation have encouraged daily newspapers to re-examine the way they produce each section, not just the editorial page.
In recent years at the Bee, according to editorial writers there and some observers of the paper, the page has developed more attitude.
“I think The Sacramento Bee’s pages have gotten more lively,” said Dave Waddell, a journalism professor at California State University, Chico, who from 1984 to 1993 was editorial-page editor at the Redding Record Searchlight.
But Park sees the opposite.
“Their stuff does not inspire emotion,” he said.
And Maviglio, who estimates that he has sat in on about 100 editorial-board meetings at newspapers across the state in his capacity as a spokesman for elected officials, said the Bee has gotten more erratic in its opinions and fails to ever give praise in its pages.
“It seems like they woke up on the wrong side of the bed every morning,” he said.
Repetition and the four G’s
Keep in mind that my entire conversation with David Holwerk took place with an inflatable deer head, antlers and all, affixed to the wall above our heads. His name is Drexel.
But there’s this: Several of Holwerk’s writers described his cutting sense of humor and said he is lighthearted and fun to work with. But while I was in his office, he remained serious and appeared guarded. Yes, toward the end of our conversation, he did point out the can of “fish assholes” among the few items decorating his desk. And, at some point, he threw the phrase “fresh frozen rat’s ass” into the conversation (it’s written in my notes, legibly and with quotation marks surrounding it, though with no context). But other than that, very serious.
Holwerk, 58, came to the Bee four years ago, on September 9, 2001. Publisher Heaphy had conducted a nationwide search to replace Howard Weaver, who now works for McClatchy corporate, and she found Holwerk, a Kentucky native. Holwerk had led the Lexington Herald-Leader to a Pulitzer and had risen to managing editor there. Heaphy found him at a paper in Duluth.
“He came highly recommended,” Heaphy said. “I wanted him to come here and build.”
That’s what he did, filling vacancies with people he’d worked with at other papers during his career. There was little science to this. He originally hired Henson largely because of a section in a news story she’d written about military chemical weapons, for which Henson quoted women in a beauty parlor—a place called something like “Betty Bell’s Beauty Box,” Holwerk said. He liked that.
He had previously hired Lopez away from the St. Cloud paper after he’d read her stuff while judging a journalism contest. He gave her first prize and then arranged to be at the awards banquet so that he could meet the author and offer her a job.
Holwerk also hired Leavenworth away from the newsroom. “I just looked at his clips and thought, ‘Yeah, that’ll work,’” he said.
But more than assembling a team, Holwerk brought a new attitude to the Bee’s page.
The story most of the writers tell is the one about Regional Transit fares for students.
When Holwerk came here, Rutland wanted to write about RT’s plan to raise fares for students. Holwerk let Rutland climb aboard that issue. For him, that didn’t mean crafting a single strong opinion. It meant running editorial after editorial, day after day. It meant running pictures of young RT riders on the page. It meant digging into a topic and not letting go until somebody paid attention.
RT did. Fares were lowered for students.
Though he acknowledges other editorial-page editors use the device, the repetition—he once ran essentially the same editorial 43 days in a row when in Kentucky—became Holwerk’s hallmark.
“It’s a tool I learned from advertising,” Holwerk said. “You can’t tell ’em just once. It ain’t gonna do any good.”
Then I started to hear it. The Holwerk Language of Editorial Writing. He uses words like “campaign,” “tools” and “form.” He’s talking about doing something, not just singing into the wind.
Holwerk also has tried to focus his page on topics “closer to the ground”—more local and nearer to readers’ lives. One way he does that is to stray from what he calls “the four G’s.” On most topics, he said, readers come to the editorial page with an open mind, willing to listen to argument and logic and willing to engage in debate. But then there are the four G’s—the topics on which people have already chosen a side and cannot be swayed. God. Guns. Gays. Gynecology (he means abortion, “but three G’s and an A doesn’t have the same ring to it,” he said).
“Those are topics you can’t persuade anybody about,” he said, adding that he’s “pretty much party-line liberal” on three of the G’s—not quite on guns.
Another change that occurred when Holwerk took the helm is that Executive Editor Rick Rodriguez stopped attending editorial-board meetings. Rodriguez, who is in charge of the news operations of the paper—everything from page A1 to the weekend Ticket entertainment section—is, at least on paper, a member of the editorial board. He spent a 10-month stint as an editorial writer at the Bee in 1988. And until Holwerk showed up, Rodriguez would participate in editorial-board discussions daily.
“When David came, I drifted away,” Rodriguez said. “Hey, it’s hard enough trying to explain that [the two departments] are separate.”
Holwerk, said his writers, also prizes original reporting. He encourages writers to get out of the office and find stories on their own, rather than wait for the news pages to cover an issue.
The NCEW’s Semion said that is almost the norm on editorial pages today.
“I can’t imagine hiring someone without reporting experience these days,” she said.
Holwerk is clear that he wants to use the editorial page to cause change in the community.
Susanna Cooper, a former editorial writer for the Bee who left in 2003, says that’s almost a given. “I don’t think you’d find many editorial writers who would do it just for spouting off,” she said.
But no matter how Holwerk reworks the Bee’s page, I’m still not drawn to it. And as a member of that precious newspaper non-reading demographic, I ask: Why should I care what Holwerk, or any of his editorial writers, thinks? For that matter, even if a McClatchy still held the helm of the Bee’s editorial ship, why would I care what that person wanted me to think about?
The idealized reader
So, maybe it doesn’t matter if you or I read The Sacramento Bee’s editorial page.
Cooper says the powers that be are reading. And it’s often them, not the average readers, who matter.
“It’s not a lowest-common-denominator section of the paper,” Cooper said. “You’re not always writing to the broadest possible audience. Sometimes, you could just have an audience of one, when you know you are writing directly to someone like the mayor or the school-board president.”
Adding to the editorial page’s power, some key people have an inflated view of the page’s import, according to Waddell, the Chico professor.
“The people who matter are very concerned about what goes on on the opinion page—the elected officials and decision makers,” he said. “But editorials can be overrated. … I think endorsements and editorials don’t carry as much weight with the average person as the powers that be think they do.”
Even the Bee writers know their influence is limited.
“There’s enough opinions out in the world. Nobody needs us for an opinion,” Philp said. “They need us to help make a change in the community. … The more local the issue, the more sway the page … can have. We will not determine the outcome of a presidential election or end the war in Iraq, but we can maybe help shape how the region grows. … Maybe.”
Mott says he knows exactly who he is writing for: an idealized reader out there who is intelligent and interested to learn—about what’s happening in Iraq or inside the Beltway or on the local school board—but who does not have the background and knowledge of those things. Someone who knows that what’s going on in the world is worth tuning in to but who needs help translating the news.
But if the institutional voice is fiction, maybe that kind of reader is, too.