Editorial pages look to adapt as their communities converse online

A generation ago, the local newspaper editorial page provided the highest-profile forum for discussions about community issues. Editorial writers would research opinion pieces, staff and guest columnists offered their thoughts and local residents would add their voices in the letters to the editor section.

Then the Internet arrived, and the civic discourse shifted, as readers turned to local discussion boards, political blogs and community e-mail lists to talk about the issues affecting them. The newspaper-sanctioned forum grew up, moved out, and became a true community conversation. Now, some newspaper editorial board leaders are responding, seeking Web-friendly ways to restore their opinion sections’ relevance.

Editorial writers from papers big and small, from Wausau, Wisc. to Washington, D.C., locked minds in downtown L.A. last weekend to kick off the Knight Digital Media Center‘s “Best Practices: Editorial and Commentary in Cyberspace” conference.

The overarching questions Sunday: What does it mean to be a catalyst for an engaged society? And just what is the ideal balance between editorial autonomy and community conversation?

“Am I making too large a leap of faith here in drawing this conclusion that community involvement is indeed part and parcel of what we should be about?” asked moderator Michael Williams, Associate Professor of Interactive Media at Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial writer Kevin Horrigan wasn’t quite sure:

“The definition of the role of a newspaper is to print the news and raise hell. The assumption here, within this group, seems to be that you’re leading a community conversation. That in itself is a change from the traditional role of the newspaper. I think it’s a good idea, but I’m not sure the newspaper industry as a whole is totally grasping that.”

Begetting this retort from The Portland Oregonian‘s George Rede:

“I guess I would say, without giving up the traditional role of ‘reporting the news and raising hell,’ this is another layer. If you aren’t doing it already, you have to do it. Given the changes in technology, there’s no excuse for not going down some of these paths. We might be stumbling along the way. We may not see exactly where we’re going to wind up. But the means to engage our readership have changed, and I think changed for the better.”

From monitored blogs to cartoon caption contests to reader/columnist programs, folks in the room did offer promise. That said, when Williams polled the room to gauge whose sites have employed some form of video, only half the hands went up. And of those, none could own up to running anything that was actually shot and edited by an editorial writer, a process one writer described as a “very labor-intensive” endeavor. Not surprising, per se, but perhaps a telling anecdote about the generational status of most editorial board members.

Show And Tell

The most compelling, and telling, answers in the opening session sprang from a best-practices share session, where the 20-odd newsies unveiled their range of active editorial-page endeavors.

A sample:

  • In November, The Portland Oregonian asked readers to nominate themselves for the paper’s op-ed board. Rede said they selected 12 of 250 respondents, based on résumés and writing samples, and asked them to write one opinion piece a week, on the topic of their choice, for 12 weeks.

    “We have our own soap box seven days a week,” he said. “We would like them to be able to bring issues to conversation that matter to them.”

    Those who have shown their ability to write professionally and meet deadlines have earned the right to blog directly to the Oregonian, unsupervised and unedited. Want to get to know these “citizen journalists” a little better? No problem: They’ve posted video interviews with each of the “community writers.”

  • In Wausau, Wis., Peter Wasson at the Daily Herald is writing the Sunday editorial five days in advance, on Tuesday, and opening it up for pre-publication feedback.

    “At the end of the day Tuesday, I send it to a panel of 15 or 20 readers who have volunteered on our Readers React board,” explained Wausau Wasson. “And by the end of Thursday, they send responses to our editorial.”

    Wouldn’t that compromise timeliness, you ask? “I’ve got six other days a week to be timely,” he said.

  • Miriam Pepper said her Kansas City Star‘s Unfettered Letters section dishes out its print-published letters as individual blog posts, allowing readers a forum beneath each of them for replies; unedited, unmonitored and sans-length limit.
  • At The Charlotte Observer, “You Write The Caption” invites readers to whip up their own wit for cartoonist Kevin Siers’ Monday cartoons.

    Challenges remain

    A selection of notable quotes from participants:

    Editorial Page Editor Gina Acosta of the Washington Post: “Unless you’re a columnist, no one knows who is on the editorial board, what their expertise is, where they came from, what their experience is. There’s no interactivity between the editorial board and the community. And we get letters and calls from people all the time asking, ‘who’s on the editorial board? How can I set up an editorial board meeting?’ And it’s a very closed, hidden process.”

    Deron Snyder, Editorial Writer, Fort Myers News-Press: “There’s always been community conversation. The fact is that we’ve never been involved in it. Once we printed our paper, we would let the community talk about it and we were done; we were working on the next day. What I like about the way things are going now is that we remain a part of the conversation that we start. We start the conversation by our stories and editorials… We can help foster that conversation. It doesn’t mean we have to change our views, necessarily.”

    Tonya Jameson, Online Columnist, The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer: “I think we’ve always… had that opportunity for the readers to respond, because everybody has a Letters to the Editor page. So people still have that discourse within the newspaper, but now we are moving forward with blogs and having these ways for people to actually go back and open up a conversation. I do agree, though, that it’s an arrogant attitude that we put the news out there, we put our opinion out there, and readers are supposed to accept it and we go from there. I think that’s what turns off younger readers from newspapers.”

    Laurence Reisman, Editor, Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers: “It’s one thing to bring people to an editorial board meeting and have them talk about it with us. But I think it’s much more powerful to bring readers on sides of all issues together in a forum—whether it’s an online forum or a meeting room like this—where they can discuss the issues. And if it changes our opinions after listening to some of these things and doing more research, that’s great. But I think helping to bring the community together is an important thing.”

    Michael Landauer, Assistant Editorial Page Editor, The Dallas Morning News (on cross-pub linking): “News isn’t going to do it. Our front news site is not going to link to an investigative report at the [Fort Worth] Star Telegram, ever,” said Michael Landauer of The Dallas Morning News. “But we’ve done it several times where I’ve linked to an editorial out of the Star Telegram. And nobody blinks at that.”

    Kevin Horrigan, Editorial Writer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “That’s not the role of the newspaper. We’re supposed to say which one is right.”

  • About Jim Wayne

    After three some-odd years as an advertising ashtray on Madison Avenue, an impulsive career switch sent Jim in pursuit of a life in the (relatively) civilized world of online journalism. He arrived at USC Annenberg in 2007 and is still struggling to understand Los Angeles.