Editorials: Not always follow the leader but views do count
Virtually every newspaper has a leader column. But what's the point of them? Who writes a leader? How influential is it? Why is it placed on a certain page? Is it, indeed, a dying art in these digital days?
The leader, also known variously in the English-speaking world as an editorial, or leading article, is supposed to reflect exactly the publication's opinion.
This is not necessarily the editor's personal opinion, rather what the newspaper thinks and how it feels it should reflect its philosophy to its readers.
The actual editor may disagree with something – let's take as an example same-sex marriages – but the paper itself may fully support them. Very often, however, I find that the newspaper's position on the big issue of the day are generally very close, or indeed mirror, that of the actual editor.
Proprietors often remark that the personality of an editor can be seen in his, or her, newspaper, so they, perhaps subconsciously, often choose an editor whose philosophy is similar to that of the newspaper.
The Belfast Telegraph's leader is typical of the genre, placed on a dedicated page known as the leader page.
Often, and it was previously the case with the Tele, readers' letters go on this page; as these reflect the opinions of readers it is safe to assume they will reflect the spirit, if not the letter, of the paper.
The Telegraph leader is generally composed of two parts – a longer leader and a shorter one often deliberately more lighthearted than the main leader.
Why have a more whimsical one? Well, I guess it's to show the paper isn't too po-faced and that it has a personality and is not some sort of political obsessive.
When the Belfast Telegraph wants to signal that something is of pressing concern, it will often dispense with the smaller leader – and do a "full drop". In common with many other UK and US papers, if a subject is of even more importance, a 'viewpoint' is sometimes placed alongside the news article, for example a two-page news spread might have a small leader column dropped into it.
If the paper wants to signal that it views something as particularly grave, or troubling, then a front page leader might be in order. This device is rarely deployed in the English-speaking world, but is more common in some European countries.
The Anglo-Saxon view is that front page leaders lose impact if they are over-used.
So, who writes leaders? In very large newspapers, dealing with major issues, dedicated leader writers pen the editorial and, if the issue is a major one, it may have been evaluated first by the paper's editorial board.
The Belfast Telegraph's leaders are written by one of two seasoned journalists after a leader conference with the editor.
How influential are they? Well, up to a point. Editors are aware that not all readers plough through them (although make a mistake in one and you'll soon find out who reads them, including the lawyers!).
What tends to make more of an obvious statement of the newspaper's position on day-to-day topics is what's chosen to go on the front page and the way issues are handled in the opening news pages, particularly if they are given a double-page spread.
But leaders remain an integral part of a newspaper, not least because they reassure readers of their chosen paper's particular set of values.