Vibrant editorial pages – a community’s conscience
The Inlander/September 2007
Quiz any group of editors and you’ll find little disagreement. Local news is the franchise of community newspapers. School board actions are more important than congressional deliberations. Prep sports deserve top billing over professional teams. A local fund-raiser merits more prominence than even a dramatic story from across the state.
Yet, many newsrooms fall short in one of their most important responsibilities – advancing debate on significant issues through local editorials.
It’s pretty easy for editors to weigh in on the war in Iraq. The response from readers – even those diametrically opposed to the newspaper stance– will likely be less animated than if an editorial tackles a local issue. Consider the newspaper that challenges its local human rights commission, or questions out-of-state spring training for the high school baseball team, or endorses candidates for local elective office.
Newspapers routinely encourage letters to the editor yet remain silent in offering insight on issues which they have special perspective as a prime collector of local information.
First things first, however. Writing regular editorials on local subjects can be daunting for rookie and veteran editors alike, but not necessarily for the anticipated reasons. Crafting the actual words is almost the easiest task. Coming up with the ideas, researching the topics and framing the arguments pose the greatest challenges.
Newspapers have several avenues to increase the number of voices on an editorial page. As the ideas multiply, editors soon will have a wellspring of topics to address.
Here are some steps to get the ideas flowing:
Develop kitchen cabinet of advisers. – Regularly touch base with individuals who are well connected with the community. Think beyond government and elected officials. Discussing issues with a cross-section of individuals will help frame opinions and build self-confidence in addressing local subjects.
Create editorial/readers board. – Formalize a group to discuss and reach consensus on editorial stances. Go beyond the newsroom and include representatives of the advertising, circulation and production staffs. Go beyond the newspaper and have a rotating citizen slot. Some newspapers go a step further and organize a board comprised solely of readers. The individuals meet with the editor on a monthly basis and offer everything from editorial ideas to a critique of newspaper content.
Solicit contributions. – Don’t be afraid to issue a “call” for letters on subjects on a community’s radar. Solicit point/counterpoint commentaries as well.
Develop citizen columnists. – What better way to inject local voices – and encourage others to weigh in with letters – than to enlist a rotation of citizen columnists. State the ground rules, however. Be sure the columns offer an opinion and have a local connection.
Keep letters substantive. – Letters are the lifeblood of a vibrant page – if they have something to say. For example, avoid publishing letters that are a substitute for news stories or thank-yous for fund-raisers.
Scrutinize column submissions. – Elected individuals and government agencies receive plenty of attention through regular news coverage. Be selective in their publication.
Identify contributions from readers not regularly represented. – Certain constituencies – a minority population, for example – might warrant a regular presence on the editorial page. Make sure these contributions have a purpose. Don’t let the editorial page become a free-for-all a special interest that seeks additional exposure.
Supplement news coverage. – Items such as points/counterpoints can be an excellent opportunity to supplement news coverage when staff resources are limited. These commentaries should not, however, substitute for staff coverage.
Present array of ideas. – Pay special attention to opinions contrary to the newspaper’s standard editorial positions.
Utilize the Web. – Blogs, those written by staff as well as readers, are a vital element as exchange is timely and immediate. The editorial page might regularly display the “best of the blogs” by publishing examples of especially poignant comments or a sampling of blog comments on specific subjects under local discussion.
Explain newspaper policies/decisions. – Editors and/or publishers should have a regular column to address issues raised by readers and explain newspaper policies.
Many newspapers regard the editorial page as the center of their efforts in community leadership. Yet the section often receives the least attention. Editorials, and editorial page content overall, should be routinely addressed when scrutinizing and planning the total news package.