Why Editing an Opinion Section is Not a Quirky Stunt

I was the editor of the Sunday "Opinion" section of The Los Angeles Times for 10 years.

It was a thrill because the section had already become a premier intellectual forum in American journalism. The last full year I ran it, 1999, we won top honors, "Best Overall Section," from the Association of Opinion Page Editors.

Assembling a Sunday analysis section is like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle each week. Editors have to fit complex, jagged subjects into a neat, cohesive whole.

It's always more complicated than it looks, because when everything works the entire product looks inevitable. The final printed pages seem obvious. Of course that topic is covered; of course that person is writing. But the deputy editor and I, along with the art director, worked long and hard to get that mix right. Week in, week out.

This is why I was sad to hear that The Los Angeles Times had decided to allow a "guest editor" from outside journalism to control its ideas section, which is now called "Current." I understand it is just the sort of quirky stunt that some would think could revitalize readership. But there is more at play here.

Editing is not a hobby, any more than teaching elementary school, producing a television show or running a political campaign is. The way I see it, the public debate, continual and intense, is like a huge mural that readers are looking at and trying to get a handle on. My job, any editor's job, is to give them easy access. It is as if I were holding up an empty frame to a specific part of the canvas, focusing in on one aspect of the wide-ranging discussion. This frame could be provided by an historian or an economist, a political analyst or cultural commentator, a constitutional scholar or a former diplomat; an intelligence expert or a humor writer.

There is a rhythm to the public debate, it has a flow and a syncopation. A big news story evolves as the weeks go by. For example, to help readers understand the varied elements of the story of Elian Gonzalez, a young Cuban boy claimed by relatives in Miami, first we had a political analyst write about the role of Florida in national politics; then an expert in Latin American affairs write about Cuban-U.S. relations; then an expert in the Cuban exile community in Florida; then a Mexican-American novelist who knew about magical realism (dolphins played a role in Elian's rescue); then a constitutional scholar on the power of a mayor versus the federal government. Each week of that story, there was a different element to focus on.

The trick is to ask the right question, and then get the right person to answer it.. That Platonic combination of the best person on the ideal topic creates the strongest piece.

And once you have the best possible piece, it has to fit into the best possible mix. Is there too much national news? Are there too many conceptual pieces? Have we missed a big urban design issue? Do we need to look at why a big movie resonates with the public? An editor plays this version of musical chairs regularly.

No matter how clever and talented the invited guest is, the decision to go outside journalism suggests indifference to editing as a critical profession. It goes without saying that you wouldn't turn your Sunset Strip restaurant over to your mom for the night no matter how good a cook she is, or take the Jet Propulsion Lab away from CalTech and give it to Cal Arts to run, just to shake things up. But the newspaper was suggesting that any one of a number of smart amateurs could pull together a Sunday analysis section, given a little guidance. Professional experience and journalistic skill were deemed of secondary value.

I realize this is a tricky argument to be making on a website, which is about knocking down gatekeepers and increasing the range of voices in public debate. But sites like this function in large part because there are gatekeepers in other places. The dynamics between them is still fresh and disorienting, but the give and take is creating today's discourse. These are serious times that demand serious public discussion. The issues have never been so important, certainly in my adult life - the war in Iraq, the matter of executive privilege, the power of the federal government. If public discourse is vital to the nation, a newspaper can't abdicate its assigned role in civic life.

A newspaper, or a website, proves its mettle at times like these. When I pushed a frivolous piece into the mix on a particular Sunday, to offer readers a bit of distraction, I always knew I was engaged in serious business. Stunt journalism can be fun, even exciting, but newspaper editors should not be handing off their public forum.