Position editorial page at forefront of coverage
The Inlander/February 2012
A newspaper praises the selection of the new city council president as the best person to lead the community through the year’s challenges. An editorial looks skeptical upon the school district’s choice to close and reconfigure school buildings as detrimental to student and family interests. An editor’s commentary applauds the compromise reached by all stakeholders on the proposal to develop valuable riverfront property in the downtown.
The editorials, at a glance, deserve a “thumbs up.” The newspapers are taking serious their role – I’d underscore their responsibility – to weigh in on issues at the heart of a community’s fabric.
Closer examination reveals the editorials appeared after the fact – in some instances following weeks or months of the newspaper detailing community debate.
Newspapers as a clearinghouse for information have an opportunity to be at the forefront of – to lead the conversation on – important community decision-making. In short, editorials should not be an afterthought. The role of editorials – in fact, the dynamics of the entire editorial page – should be an integral part of newsroom planning.
News content is strongest when editors and reporters routinely identify those stories and events that will warrant their attention. In larger organizations, newsrooms may regularly meet to brainstorm coverage. In small organizations, setting an editorial calendar is a fluid and informal process. However the decisions are made, an editorial calendar serves two purposes. First, it provides an opportunity to consider fresh angles for coverage of events that occur year after year. Second, newsrooms are better prepared to handle the unexpected issues and events that surface.
Absent from planning in many newsrooms, however, is the role of the editorial page. As a result, many newspapers fall short on writing editorials on local issues. The pushback from many editors is to be expected and understandable: “I don’t have the time,” or “I can’t think of anything to write about.”
That’s why this discussion is broader than just about writing editorials on local topics. The conversation and planning should encompass the entire editorial page including reader participation from letters to guest commentaries.
Developing editorial ideas is often the greatest challenge. Then it’s a matter of researching the issue. Once you know where you’re going, the words may come rather easily.
Editors and reporters responsible for weighing in on issues develop a certain mindset. It’s a matter of observing your community and absorbing a variety of news reports with an editorial mindset. A city council debates a tax abatement for a big-box retail development on the outskirts of town; what will it mean for the city’s overall economy as well as downtown merchants? A county board considers a moratorium on feedlot operations; what are the consequences of a pro or con vote? A school board, in a money-saving move, is poised to downsize its infrastructure by closing neighborhood schools; are there impacts beyond cost savings?
These examples, and many more, provide opportunities for tandem coverage. Poll the members of respective elective bodies on how they intend to vote or what they identify as the key issues that will frame their votes. Then write an editorial from the perspective of the newspaper – as an institution in the community – on what it believes is the best course of action. Keep in mind, editorials should not be presented as the “correct” opinion on an issue, but simply a recommended course of action based on a newspaper’s information at hand and what it believes will best serve community interests.
Incorporating an editorial page into everyday news coverage is also a chance to issue a “call to action” to readers. For example, consider the school district that is proposing to close neighborhood schools. Here are some possible calls to action:
Encourage letters to the editor: The issue will likely prompt strong emotions from those both for and against the school realignment. Ask readers to be specific in their arguments and in their recommendations to guide the district through its financial challenges.
Solicit point/counterpoint: It’s not unusual for citizens to formally organize on issues of community consequence. Invite a commentary from each side. It’s a chance to supplement your news coverage and spur additional reader exchange.
Elevate prominence of reader comments. Compile relevant and appropriate comments from online readers and present them in a broader context – basically turning reader comments into a story. This supplements the regular news coverage and provides a nod to readers who don’t often receive enough recognition for their willingness to provide their opinions.
Engaging the editorial page in everyday coverage is a natural extension for those newspapers that aggressively pursue the news. In the end, editorials can provide additional interpretation and be the springboard for a lively exchange of ideas among readers.