Opinion pages are where readers and the newspaper publicly intersect. They are where the original purpose of newspapers in this country still lives: as a place for informed commentary and advocacy on the issues of the day. Because they are where readers get their say, great respect should be given to the handling of their opinions as well as in offering the newspaper’s own for their consideration.
Here are some ways to best approach meeting those goals:
Edit letters to the editor carefully and thoughtfully.
This task, more than writing editorials, should be your most important one. Working as an opinion page editor can make you yearn for previous editing jobs where you had only to make sense out of journalists’ copy. Now you must face the, shall we say, often challenging submissions of the general public in letters to the editor and guest columns. And you must edit these submissions down to a reasonable size and still retain the ideas within it. Still, by performing these functions well, you are fulfilling your paper’s mission to be a public forum and thus be relevant, even vital, to the life of the community it serves.
A word about word counts: An editorial page editor once told me that he didn’t set maximum word counts because it only engendered rival factions counting words in the other’s submissions and blaming the newspaper for inequities. Therefore, give each submission what space it deserves on its own merits.
Write editorials that serve to start arguments, not finish them
Gone are the days when the editorial column was seen by most readers as where they could go to have the newspaper do their thinking for them. Therefore, avoid chiseled-in-marble, handed-down-from-the-clouds pronouncements. Today, most people who go to opinion pages to seek commentary that helps fill in the gaps in their understanding, but still would rather come to their own conclusions, even, of course, if that means differing with the newspaper. That’s all right. You’ll have performed your duty by providing this stimulus to readers; if you’ve done it right, they’ll keep returning to you for that stimulation of thought.
Take a stand and pose a solution.
People are busy. They won’t have much patience with an editorial that meanders through an issue and ends up marinating in a heap of slush.
Choose a side and argue it with gusto and with evidence. And don’t merely whine about how bad things are. Offer a solution, either directly to decision-makers or for the public to advocate before them.
Get out of the ivory tower.
A good editorialist is a good journalist. This means that where and when you can, you should still relish being where news is happening. Go to those public meetings yourself. Talk to people. Talk to sources. Obviously you don’t want to be in a position to re-report something the news staff already has, but there is great value — that will provide you with great perspective — in getting away from your desk and being in the community where your readers live and work.
Talk to your reporters.
You’ll want to keep a clear line between their function and yours, but there are always observations that they have made that won’t get into their stories — or will get cut by their editors. Therefore there may be aspects to issues that they can flag you on that you may have a fresh opportunity to check out and write about.
Don’t be bullied.
Several areas of the community may approach you with an attitude that the newspaper owes them something.
Your allegiance is to your whole community first, even as you may agree or disagree with the opinions of some of its elements.
You’ve got the best job at the newspaper. You get to have a role in influencing opinion and public policy — and at the same time you get to gain the wisdom that comes from listening to different voices.
I like to say that the editorialist’s job is to get people “up from the couch” to somehow engage themselves in community life. What they do or how they do it is up to them, but you will have provided them the tools to choose their course of action. And an active, engaged and informed society is a free society.
Mark J. Scarp, editorial writer and columnist for the East Valley & Scottsdale (Ariz.) Tribune, chairs the SPJ Membership Committee, is current president of the Valley of the Sun (Phoenix) Pro Chapter and is a former Region 11 director.