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'Conservative' means something different now

On Tuesday, I found myself being interviewed by a journalist. That's not something I'm accustomed to, as you might imagine. Except for job interviews, over the course of 30-plus years in this business, I've usually been the one asking the questions.

The occasion was a visit from a reporter for a national journalism magazine, doing a piece on community newspapers like the Mail Tribune. His questions were predictable for the most part, having to do with the community we serve, how the paper and the community have changed over the years, and what I thought of the future of the newspaper industry.

But I found one question particularly thought-provoking. He asked if feedback from readers had changed in the past nine months.

I had to say there had been a change. The readership of our opinion pages always has been divided, of course, between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. Everyone wants to read opinions that reinforce their own views, along with those with which they disagree.

But since the election of Donald Trump, it seems to me, the divide increasingly has been less between conservative and liberal than between pro-Trump and anti-Trump.

Readers began to complain that we didn't have enough conservative columnists. But the syndicated columnists we carry on our pages did not change when the administration did. We still featured George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Michael Gerson and Kathleen Parker, along with liberal writers Dana Milbank, Leonard Pitts, Froma Harrop and Gene Lyons.

Krauthammer, Will and Gerson are conservative by any standard definition. I would categorize Parker as more middle-of-the-road, although she's hardly a flaming liberal.

But what some readers really objected to about these columnists was that they were increasingly anti-Trump. Will actually left the Republican Party over its support first for the candidate, then for the president. Gerson consistently criticizes Trump for what he sees as his moral and ethical failings.

Trump may have run on the Republican ticket, but in many ways he is not consistently conservative as we have come to understand that term in American politics. He has endorsed some populist themes and has changed his position on a number of issues, sometimes more than once. He also rails against "elites," including Washington, D.C.-based pundits such as Will, Krauthammer and Gerson.

Even before the election, editorial page editors across the country began searching for columnists who could be counted on to reliably support Trump in order to provide more balance. Finding them wasn't easy.

We now feature Michael Barone on Fridays in place of Gerson, and Tribune News Service columnist Jay Ambrose on Saturday. They generally can be expected to defend the Trump administration and support its policy agenda. Occasionally we will run columns by Andrew Malcolm and Ed Rogers as well.

Some readers have noticed, and have expressed their appreciation. Some liberal readers don't like Ambrose or Barone, but they can't have everything they want, either.

Those readers who would like us to run only conservative or pro-Trump columnists, or to drop liberal columnists with whom they disagree, will be disappointed. We always have endeavored to present a wide range of viewpoints, and we will continue to do so.

Our own editorials still will focus primarily on local and state issues, leaving the national ones to columnists who have regular access to the movers and shakers in the nation's capital.

— Reach Editorial Page Editor Gary E. Nelson at gnelson@mailtribune.com.