To complete a discussion that began in my previous column, I begin with a fact that often surprises readers: The unsigned editorials printed on this page do not always represent the opinions of The Michigan Daily’s editorial board or editorial page editor(s).
Every paper has unsigned editorials, which are discussed and drafted by its editorial board and printed and backed by the editorial page editor(s) and perhaps the paper’s publisher. They are understood to be the opinion of the paper as an institution, and they define the public perception of the paper more than anything else.
For example, while The Wall Street Journal has some of the most comprehensive, visionary and creative news reporting and coverage of any newspaper in the world, it’s regarded in liberal circles as a useless puppet of the Republican Party. That’s because it has the most notoriously conservative institutional voice of any major newspaper in America, as reflected in its editorials.
A similar quandary afflicts The New York Times. Ignoring its intrepid reporting the world over and its unmatched literary and arts commentary, conservatives routinely pan the Times as a liberal rag because of its editorials. It’s not fair that any newspaper as a whole should be vilified (or, for that matter, beloved) simply based on what its editorials say, but that is the reality for the Journal and the Times.
And it’s the reality for papers in all corners of the country. Cities such as Chicago (with the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times), Washington D.C. (with The Washington Post and The Washington Times) and Detroit (with the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News) all have their “liberal paper” and their “conservative paper.” Regardless of the quality of those newspapers’ sports, news and arts coverage and commentary, many readers choose to read only the paper whose institutional voice reflects their own opinions.
One of the best examples of that reality may have come from right here in Ann Arbor. This liberal bubble had one daily newspaper — The Ann Arbor News — and, judging by its editorials, it was a “conservative paper.” The Ann Arbor News actually endorsed George W. Bush in 2004. Five years later, the newspaper folded. (With its departure after 174 years, Ann Arbor became the first significant American city to lose its only daily newspaper.)
And that brings us back to the Daily — which, incidentally, is the closest thing Ann Arbor has to a daily newspaper these days. While the foregoing discussion has shown that institutional voice matters, it’s a special challenge at the Daily. Its editorials officially reflect all that this paper has seen, done and said in its more than 122 years of existence. But that official ideal is mostly a fantasy.
Unlike all those other papers, a college paper like the Daily loses a significant chunk of its staff every year, and brings in brand new replacements, who have everything yet to learn. This reality has drastic consequences for the paper’s institutional voice. The Daily has no editor or publisher who remains in the newsroom for more than a few years. Everyone who learns what this paper is and should be about leaves shortly after gaining that special understanding.
And so this paper has a policy of looking to its past opinions and drawing on “Daily precedent” for current editorials. It’s an imperfect process, not only because those engaging in the exercise are inexperienced, but also because Daily precedent is itself somewhat nebulous and imprecise. Most of what the editors regard today as the Daily’s institutional voice was created during the student revolutionary days of the 1960s and during a somewhat turbulent time for this paper in the late 1980s. All that came before and after is de-emphasized in the “Daily precedent” equation.
None of this should be taken to mean that Daily precedent is unimportant. Institutional voice is obviously a great asset and the closest thing to a legacy that a newspaper can have. The challenge for Daily editorial board members and the editors is to ensure they cultivate, refine and strengthen that institutional voice. To those few Daily staffers charged with the responsibility of maintaining this paper’s institutional voice, I stress the seriousness of this task and the importance of putting in all the time and effort it takes to ensure a sharp, informed and meaningful advocacy of the issues that matter to this institution.
Regardless of its massive annual staff turnover, this paper has built up a reputation as a champion of students and an unflinching believer in the greatness of the University, this state and in sensible liberal causes everywhere. That is “Daily precedent” in a nutshell: It’s what being an idealistic college student at a state university is all about.
The public editor is an independent critic of the Daily, and neither the editorial board nor the editor in chief exercise control over the contents of his columns. The opinions expressed do not necessarily constitute the opinion of the Daily. Imran Syed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.