Jim Pumarlo, Community Newspaper Training

Editorials can serve variety of purposes

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Minnesota Newspaper Association Bulletin/September 2007 A newspaper has a responsibility, say, to identify all stores fined for selling cigarettes to underage youths, especially if the fines are assessed at a city council meeting. Nevertheless, the story will likely draw wrath from the businesses and from their employees. In contrast, a newspaper can be selective in topics it addresses on its editorial page. The positions are not welcomed by all, such as the decision to endorse or oppose a housing development or a school closure. Courageous publishers and editors those who view the editorial page as the heart of a newspaper - take those stances, regardless of potential repercussions. That does not mean advancing positions with reckless abandon. Editorials should be thoroughly researched, reasoned and crafted. It's a greater challenge in the community press as you are writing about issues that involve individuals you associate with on a regular basis. Editors often feel the burden that editorials must attempt to solve the problems of their worlds their communities every day. In truth, editorials serve a variety of roles. They educate. What are the current rental codes and how would they be strengthened under a proposed ordinance? What's the process, and the pros/cons, for annexing land to a city? They enlighten. Newspapers feel obligated to promote participation in the annual city festival. Take the opportunity to speak to the impact of tourism on the local economy. They entertain. An editorial might spin an April Fool's yarn or a Valentine's Day poem or even offer comment on a light-hearted moment at a school board meeting. Editorials challenge personal beliefs. Or they might reinforce readers' positions, prompting an exclamation, "Now that editorial makes sense." They can elicit a range of emotions - frustration, anger, laughter or tears. Common to all effective editorials, however, is that they leave an impression. In contrast, nondescript editorials are easily forgotten. Following are some principles of strong editorials: No ivory tower. Editorials should not be positioned as the "correct" opinion or the last word. Editorials, at their best, should present a reasoned, researched and well-thought out position. Welcome rebuttals. Newspapers should readily publish contrary opinions. Point/counterpoint is at the heart of vibrant editorial pages. Every editor can point to letters stronger than the original editorial. And, by all means, newspapers should not have the final say via an "editor's note" unless a letter contains some egregious error. Consistent stances. Editorials should be unwavering in promoting common themes. Newspapers often are labeled even criticized - for promoting a conservative or liberal agenda. But newspapers that regularly flip-flop on issues will lose their credibility. That requires carefully thinking through positions, especially when an issue surfaces for the first time. At the same time, newspapers should be open to revisiting an issue and changing an editorial perspective if circumstances change. Offer kudos, too. Don't hesitate to write complimentary editorials. Newspapers should not shy away from their role as a government watchdog. However, you'll lose credibility and quite possibly hinder your communication and relationships with key individuals if governing boards are always on the receiving end of an editorial rant and rave. Keep it local. Editorials can be localized the same as news stories. For example, do rural districts fare better than urban and suburban districts under proposed state legislation? Are local legislators representing the best interests of their constituencies? Call to action. Editorials are best when they can offer direction. For example, a city council is considering tax incentives for a proposed business expansion. Write an editorial on what you believe is best for the overall community good. A sidebar editorial might educate readers on how tax incentives have been beneficial or detrimental to other communities. Be aware of balancing act. Editors and publishers often fill a vacuum in community leadership and find themselves at the forefront of civic initiatives. Coverage of editors "in the news" should be held to the same standards as any other newsmaker. Clear-cut conflicts of interests also should be stated in editorials. At same time, the strongest editorials are due to an involved newspaper staff. It's impossible and impractical to carry a footnote for every conflict of interest, real or perceived. Editorials are the best example of leadership by community press, and that includes tackling the tough and sensitive issues. It's easy to be a community booster and join the bandwagon in applauding a high school sports championship. It's more challenging and fulfilling to propose stiffer academic standards for student athletes. In the end, you're fulfilling your responsibility of a newspaper and you're doing your community a service. It's also the best way to really feel good about being an editor.

Pumarlo.com • Jim Pumarlo • Community Newsroom Success Strategies • 1327 W. Sixth St. • Red Wing, MN • 55066 • (651) 380-4295