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Markowitz: Editorial Journalism

When I first ran for Secretary of State in 1997, I was new to politics and many people offered me advice.

One suggestion was to meet with David Moats – the Editor of the Rutland Herald - partly because his editorials could sway voters, but mostly because he was a thoughtful observer of Vermont’s political scene, with his finger firmly on the pulse of Vermont.

When we finally met, I was surprised to find an unassuming man, practically buried beneath piles of papers stacked on his desk and on every flat surface of his small office. In his quiet way, he asked me all of the important questions – why I was running for office, what I thought I could do that the person before me had not done, what I thought about the health of Vermont democracy, and so on.

I went on to win my campaign, and David continued to offer Herald readers his thoughtful observations about government, politics and Vermont.

It’s not a small thing when a local paper decides to eliminate the role of the editorial page editor. Some would say it’s just a sign of changing times - and one more indication of the waning influence of the print media.

Perhaps we’re going full circle – and not in a good way. The first newspapers in this country were published precisely to promote the views of the publisher. It wasn’t until the 1840s that Horace Greely established the New York Tribune, and for the first time, established a separate Opinion Page. He thought readers deserved to know what was unbiased reporting and what was editorializing – an important distinction.

The free press plays an essential role in our democracy. When reporters are doing their jobs well, they give us information we need to understand the world and hold the government accountable – while editorial journalists help put that information into context.
As it was in the early days of newspapers, in many of the places people get their news today, the line between opinion and fact has been completely blurred. This is dangerous. And in this era of the 24-hour news cycle and fake news, we need opinion journalism more than ever.

I can understand the need for newspapers today to cut costs; I just wish it didn’t come at the expense of providing thoughtful editorials about the things that matter most to our state.

Deb Markowitz is the Director of Policy Outreach at UVM’s Gund Institute of Environment, and she formerly served as Vermont’s Secretary of State and as the Secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources.
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