by Pete Mazzaccaro
When I first returned to the Chestnut Hill Local in 2006 to take over as editor, one of the most frequent questions I was asked was about writing editorials.
“You’re going to write editorials, right?”
Sure I was. I knew it was part of the job description. And it was, apparently, one of the things readers of the Local expected. Who was I to argue?
The Local’s tradition of the editorial is different from that of almost any other paper. Because of concerns about the paper’s editorial space being used as a bully pulpit and because of the paper’s model of ownership – it’s published by the Chestnut Hill Community Association – great pains were taken to make sure that the opinions that have appeared in this space were signed by an individual. The reason is to make it clear that the opinions expressed here are only those of the individual author. They are not the opinions of the institution.
At its best, the Local editorial should be a neighborhood discussion starter – an invitation for other readers to weigh in with their own takes on the issues of the day with letters to the editor. That was common in years past. It is not so common anymore.
Why is that? Part of it might be the times. We’re living in a new era in which data journalism is replacing anecdotal or “quote journalism” and in which there are so many other opportunities for sharing opinions. In many ways, the opinion, for all its ubiquity these days, may be less important than ever.
Data journalism is a form of reporting that prefers statistics and data analysis to the old preference of the anecdote and the quote. That’s a bit of a simplification, but still the basic idea. The appeal of data journalism is that it is free from subjective filters. Whether you’re looking at a chart showing income disparities by state or the Phillies’ mathematical chances of winning a world series, the numbers are numbers, not opinions.
Data journalism became popular in 2008 with the rise of Nate Silver, a statistics wiz who cut his teeth analyzing baseball data. He used those methods to expertly analyze the presidential election of 2008. Today we have several significant media outlets that emulate Silver’s approach. There’s Vox.com, The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, The New York Times’ The Upshot blog and Silver’s own FiveThirtyEight. If data is what you’re looking for, there’s plenty of it available a click away.
Data journalism is great when it’s available, but it isn’t suited to all discussions we might have in a community, when many issues aren’t necessarily questions of data or logic, but ethics. For example, what would data tell us about whether the old Charles Bromley house on Moreland Avenue should or should not be torn down and replaced with new homes?
This doesn’t mean that the opinions of one guy (in this case, me) are really all that important. They aren’t. They’re just one guy’s view. What is important is the prevailing opinion of all the stakeholders – our readers, residents of Northwest Philadelphia or residents of Chestnut Hill. What, for example, does the neighborhood think about the new speed cushions in East Chestnut Hill?
We need to get more people to engage here, on this page and at chestnuthilllocal.com. We need not only letters for this page, but longer form opinions. We could even use voices to occupy this very space. If you’d like to be a part of the discussion here, let us know. My opinion really isn’t worth that much. I want to know what you have to say.