Energize editorial pages with point/counterpoint

by | Aug 1, 2009 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

Publishers’ Auxiliary/August 2009

Timid editorial pages unfortunately are becoming the norm in far too many community newspapers. Even more disconcerting are those newspapers where editorial pages are largely nonexistent.

Many editors and publishers are so preoccupied with directing their print and online operations that editorial pages take the back seat. A common complaint is that they don’t have time to develop, research and produce thoughtful opinions on important issues facing their communities.

Here’s an idea to jump-start that discussion. Develop a regular point/counterpoint series. These features will not overnight result in an ability to produce regular commentary, but they are a good sparkplug along that path. And it’s one strategy to elevate editorial pages to a must-read section of your newspaper.

To be certain, many newspapers carry a page labeled “Viewpoint” or “Opinion” or “Community Forum.” But look closely at the content.

A publisher muses about a weekend outing.  A letter to the editor extends a special invitation to a family reunion. A column reprints the latest Ole and Lena jokes and other light-hearted fare heard on the street. A minister delivers a Bible lesson.

These items may indeed deserve space in community newspapers, but they’re not the type of material that prompts discussion of important community issues. A page void of ideas is the biggest deterrent to a vibrant exchange of ideas.

Point/counterpoint features, if organized and focused, can be an asset in advancing substantive discussion on issues at top of mind.

They can localize the impact of national and state public policy. What does a national health care program really mean for local health-care providers and the citizenry? What is the impact of the proposed overhaul of a state’s property tax system?

They can educate. What are the dynamics behind a proposed cap-and-trade system on carbon emissions, and what are the ramifications of a federal vs. regional system? What is the history behind a community’s weak mayor/strong council governance and does the structure still serve the city’s best interests?

They can advocate. What are the pros and cons of a proposed highway bypass, land annexation or feedlot ordinance? Why should citizens support or oppose a proposed school referendum, a reorganization of a public safety department, a riverfront development or an expanded commercial district?

They can entertain. A community narrows its choices for a school name or an inaugural festival or a memorial bridge. Let the proponents of the finalists from which a name will be chosen put forth their best arguments.

These examples are a starting point. A brainstorming session can produce numerous opportunities worth exploring in a point/counterpoint. Broaden the discussion beyond the newsroom. Individuals from other departments and even the community at-large will enrich the conversation.

The biggest byproduct of these commentaries is that they can supplement news coverage. That’s especially important in newsrooms strapped with resources to cover all the angles and complexities of many issues. That underscores why editorial pages should be a routine consideration – a vital element – in planning news coverage of specific and ongoing events.

Remember, a point/counterpoint feature must be managed. Otherwise, despite the best intentions, these commentaries can become nondescript and provide little value to the newspaper or, more importantly, the community.

If the topics explored are the subject of a vote by a governing body, then make certain the commentaries are published well in advance of that decision to allow ample time for reader exchange. Display these features with prominence. Publish photos of the authors and short biographies. Round out the package with graphics or photos that illustrate the topic.

Then invite readers to comment in the print and online editions.

A stellar lineup of these commentaries on a regular basis – for example, every month for starters – can provide a solid foundation to generating reader involvement. If topics are chosen carefully, readers will respond. And soon individuals will advance their own topics to be explored in a point/counterpoint.

These exchanges have another benefit. Publishers and editors have the opportunity to evaluate the opposing arguments and the reader feedback, then weigh in with a local editorial. The result is win-win for the newspaper and the community.