“Newspaper editorial boards, even the best ones, are no longer the cliché of the ivory tower institutions with older guys wearing tweed jackets, smoking pipes, making the big drop before they get around to writing maybe one or two pieces a week in their areas of expertise. It doesn’t work that way anymore,” according to Tim Nickens.
The High School Journalism Institute at Indiana University held a news conference on July 10, 2013 for the summer workshop participants with Nickens, who spoke about the importance of opinion pages.
Nickens serves as the editorials editor at the Tampa Bay Times, the biggest newspaper in Florida. As many of the students found, Nickens came from a similar background as them—he is also a HSJI and IU graduate.
Nickens attended HSJI in 1975 and 1976—the post-Watergate era, he said.
“The 1970s was a heavy time for journalism,” Nickens said. “Those were exciting times to be contemplating the career of journalism.”
In 2012, Nickens and his colleagues Joni James, John Hill and Robyn Blumner, were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, but didn’t win. It was disappointing, Nickens said, but so was the fact that none of the other finalists were considered worthy of the award. Nickens said he was also surprised on the reaction of his colleagues in the journalism world.
“I was getting calls from other journalists doing stories on whether editorials and editorial pages were dying,” Nickens said, “whether editorials were even relevant in the age of Facebook and Twitter and in an era where there’s no shortage of public opinions all over the internet.”
With the emergence of social media, it may seem like editorials and opinion pages are dying; however, according the Nickens, they have never been more essential.
“In an area of so many opinions and so many sources, newspaper editorials I think still stand out as credible commentary from established brands and established values,” Nickens said. “Good editorials are not all blogs written by a guy sitting in a basement wearing a bathrobe.”
Another important factor of editorials is that without them, when newspapers try to focus solely on objectivity, they end up misrepresenting the truth, Nickens said.
Editorials should also be more than just declaratory of an opinion, according to Nickens. They should be informative and help people take action on important issues.
Nickens’ own editorial writing won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013, shared with his colleague Daniel Ruth, for the direct impact it had on their local community. Nickens and Ruth won their award for their writing “Reverse the decay of common sense” which helped continue fluoridation of drinking water in Pinellas County, Florida.
“It took our reporting, our research, and our editorial to put the situation into context,” Nickens said.
According to Nickens, local issues such as public education and elections for office are some of the main things that should be discussed in editorials because they have the most impact on the community and people.
Opinion writing and editorials are more than just opinions of any individual author or bashing a public figure because they require reporting, research, and publication in a timely matter—similar to news stories, Nickens said.
“(Opinion writers are) not just in the clouds,” Nickens said, “(they) have to bring it down to a human level.”