The New York Times editorial page has gone to pot

    The New York Times

    (Mark Lennihan/AP photo)

    The decision by The New York Times to say yes to legal marijuana – and to buttress its institutional endorsement in an unusual fashion, with six editorials in nine days – is certainly a milestone for the pot issue. But this is also a branding milestone for The Times.

    In a way, the paper is merely leading from behind, because, as the latest Pew poll points out, a record-high 54 percent of Americans support legal weed – including 69 percent of millennials. Today’s Times editorial, which details the wasted law enforcement dollars and the ongoing racial disparity in arrests, echoes what others have already written. (Last January, one guy wrote that “law enforcement’s perpetual marijuana war has wasted untold billions and disproportionately targeted people of color.” That was me.)

    Some websites, especially those that cater to millennials, are underwhelmed. Gawker, with its usual snark, put it this way: “The Times’ endorsement of legal weed is remarkable not because we look to The Times for new or thought-provoking opinions, but because The Times is such a self-conscious, careerist, and cautious institution that if they want to legalize drugs, you know that s–t is really mainstream now.”

    But this is still a big deal. Yeah, a few newspaper editorial boards have called for an end to the war on marijuana – the Las Vegas Review Journal, the Star-Ledger up in North Jersey – but this is the Gray Lady we’re talking about, with its venerable lineage all the way back to Adolph Ochs.

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    And The Times is tackling the pot issue at top volume, on various social media platforms, including a Q & A yesterday on Facebook. That’s where editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal reiterated the paper’s demand that Congress stop classifying weed as an illegal narcotic – on a par with heroin, ever since 1970. Rosenthal told Facebookers: “We put a lot of effort and thought and time into this series. (This is) hardly the ONLY issue facing Americans, but an important one, largely because of the social costs in terms of jailing and policing. I hope we can spur a conversation.”

    I hope we can spur a conversation….Bingo.

    On the Times editorial board, there has been a lot of discussion lately about the need to create more buzz. The digital marketplace is crowded and noisy (moreso with each passing day), and even though The Times still has arguably the biggest megaphone in journalism, it has to fight for eyeballs just like everyone else (moreso with each passing day). In an era when anybody with a keyboard can spout an opinion, the editorial board has been exploring ways to cut through the clutter, to attract more younger readers, to lighten up and become more conversational, to do more “deep dives” into issues that touch people’s lives.

    And perhaps not a moment too soon. According to a dishy article posted last winter by the New York Observer, people in the Times newsroom think the editorials are a yawn. One anonymous newsroom staffer called them “utterly predictable, usually poorly written and totally ineffectual. I mean, just try and remember the last time that anybody was talking about one of those editorials…mostly nobody pays attention.” (For what it’s worth, and speaking from experience: Newsroom staffers rarely praise the editorials in their own paper.)

    But we were talking about the Times‘ fight for eyeballs. That’s precisely what the legal weed series – a mix of unsigned and signed editorials – is designed to do. The substance of the pot issue speaks for itself, but for the editorial board, it’s also a potential marketing opportunity. As Rosenthal said this weekend in a statement: “(W)ith this series of editorials, we wanted to deepen (our) engagement with a more personal approach….We will continue to experiment in the future on different ways to use the power of the unsigned editorial, along with new and different ways to signal the author of other editorial articles.”

    It’s a stretch, of course, to suggest that the Times editorials will actually nudge the needle much on legal weed, at least not in the current political climate. Only Congress can remove pot from the federal list of illegal narcotics, but this Congress is virtually incapable of doing anything more daring than passing a Boy Scout resolution. And if you saw Meet the Press on Sunday, you witnessed fatuousness in action, as the usual Washington establishment types reacted to the Times‘ editorial with the usual smug yuks.

    David Brooks: “I don’t know what they’ve been smoking up there (laughter), the haze.”

    Ruth Marcus: “They didn’t inhale…Maybe they did.”

    Judy Woodruff: “But I mean, to me, when I think of grass, I think of something to walk on. I think a pot is something you put a pot in…I wonder what’s the rush. I mean, why not see what (laughter) – pardon the pun.”

    Not a single word, naturally, about the huge racial disparity in arrests – something that apparently doesn’t resonate with white talking heads. At least The Times is taking the issue seriously. And if the paper also manages to boost its brand, call that a bonus.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.




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