- Opinionizers' journal arrives
- KC Star beefs up its opinion pages
- How to save the dying newspaper editorial
- Thanking letter writers
- Editing cartoons?
- Wishful headlines get a new look-see
- Help the sun shine locally this year
- Letters to editors zoom – in number and testiness
Opinionizers’ journal arrives
The Masthead is now publishing on ASNE.org.
Since 1947, The Masthead has served to to provide information and insight for professional creators and managers of opinion journalism for members of its parent organization, the National Conference of Editorial Writers (1947-2011), which became the Association of Opinion Journalists (2012-2016) before merging into ASNE. It dealt initially in print, then broadcast, and now is available online. It is overseen by the ASNE Opinion Journalism Committee. To browse the archives, click here.
Many of the articles are rooted in some of the more livelier threads on the EditWrite discussion list on Google Groups. It provides collegial info, advice, discussion, and debate that is sometimes vigorous but always civil. New membership is by application, based on ASNE membership first. For more information or to apply, click here for full instructions.
It has been a joy to edit Masthead for five years. I anticipate continuing, though less intensely, for an audience of people who take their responsibilities, but not themselves, seriously, and for a wider new group of journalism professionals – entirely by volunteers’ efforts.
Appearing on a new platform is a good time to notify or remind readers that the opinions here are those of the authors, not policy of the organization.
A tumultuous new time in socio-political-journalistic life warrants some navel-gazing and much more focused thought and action, so we lead off the 2017 issues with some views on that.
retired, Roosevelt University
KC Star beefs up its opinion pages
By Colleen McCain Nelson
The job offer to lead the opinion pages at The Kansas City Star came with an audacious directive: Build an all-star editorial board that would launch a community conversation and stimulate public debate.
At a time when civil discourse seemed to be lacking, Star publisher Tony Berg decided to invest in the editorial page, betting on the belief that readers were seeking constructive commentary from a trusted local news source. I joined The Star as editorial page editor in mid-December, and Berg told me to get to work making hires.
Buyouts, departures and other decisions had depleted the board. Staff-written editorials had largely disappeared from The Star’s opinion pages in recent months. Berg was the only remaining member of the editorial board.
Starting fresh was both a tantalizing possibility and a daunting prospect.
Fortunately, several top-tier, accomplished journalists soon joined the board, bringing a new perspective to the opinion pages. Dave Helling and Steve Kraske, The Star’s senior political reporters, and Mary Sanchez, a syndicated columnist and Star metro columnist, signed on as writers for the editorial board.
Derek Donovan, The Star’s public editor, moved to the opinion pages to be our community engagement editor. And we hired Melinda Henneberger, a USA Today columnist and an alumna of The New York Times and The Washington Post who made the move from DC to KC to write columns and editorials.
I’m still considering applications for one more opinion writer to join this team of heavy hitters. But we’ve already made our public debut (Jan. 22), introducing new board members to Kansas City and laying out our plans for making The Star’s opinion pages an engaging public forum where readers can find a range of viewpoints -- and join the conversation.
Staff-written editorials and columns have returned to our pages, generating a deluge of reader response, including calls and emails from some who said they had canceled their subscriptions but now planned to re-up and give the new editorial board a chance.
One week in, we’ve tackled topics ranging from concealed-carry on Kansas college campuses to the shocking death of a Royals pitcher, from a local bond proposal to child deaths shrouded in secrecy. And, of course, we’ve weighed in on President Donald Trump.
I came to Kansas City after spending five years as a political reporter and White House correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and more than a decade as a political reporter and then as an editorial writer and columnist at The Dallas Morning News. Covering the White House was a coveted job in many respects, but I missed writing about a community and connecting with readers who care deeply about their hometown newspaper.
The passionate feedback I’ve received so far in Kansas City -- much of it positive and some of it skeptical -- is exactly what I was seeking.
On the opinion pages, we’re still finding our footing, brainstorming ideas for larger projects we want to take on and planning editorial campaigns we aim to launch. We’re an editorial board in a hurry, but we recognize we can’t accomplish all our objectives in Week One.
Our immediate priorities include improving transparency and making better use of the digital tools at our disposal. I want to pull back the curtain for readers, giving them a sense of how individual board members think about issues and showing them that the editorial-page staff is not a monolith with everyone perpetually in unanimous agreement.
During the coming days, we’ll be launching an editorial board blog. There, board members will have a forum to weigh in on issues and news of the day in real time, and readers will gain added insights into each writer’s views. We’ll reverse publish the best of the blog in print and also use our online conversation to generate ideas for full-fledged editorials and columns.
Readers can find and respond to all of our content on our new Kansas City Star Opinion Facebook page. And Twitter provides unique opportunities for generating immediate feedback and driving traffic to our work online.
We also plan to use videos and Facebook Live to engage readers, giving them a window into our board meetings with newsmakers, answering questions about our editorials and columns and taking full advantage of another platform to explain our views and weigh in on public-policy questions.
Lee Judge, The Star’s editorial cartoonist, and Glenn McCoy, the cartoonist at a sister paper, the Belleville News-Democrat, recently kicked off a video series showing how they generate and execute their ideas for the cartoons that appear on our pages.
The best news for our team is that we have the chance to be as ambitious as our ideas allow. Berg, The Star’s publisher, has encouraged us to think big and to advocate for change that bolsters Kansas City.
Stay tuned. We’re just getting started.
Colleen McCain Nelson spent part of a weekend resting up from the first full-tilt publishing week of her new team and part of it writing this for Masthead. She modestly omitted from her bio sharing a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing while at the Dallas Morning News.
- (Her column Jan. 21 …pages should stimulate public debate)
- (Introducing the board)
How to save the dying newspaper editorial
(Originally published Dec. 28, 2016, on Philly.com, republished with permission)
By Will Bunch, Daily News Columnist
Recently, I've been thinking a lot about something that most people aren't thinking about much at all these days: Newspaper editorials.
They've pretty much been around since Gutenberg invented the printing press, and -- especially in smaller cities and towns where up through the end of the 20th Century a newspaper was a near-monopoly source of news -- they've been known to actually wield influence.
At their occasional worst, newspaper editorials can be tools of a bullying millionaire (or billionaire) publisher, but at their best these screeds can force public officials to deal with society's problems or to look at hard facts they might wish to ignore.
Well, that was once true, anyway.
The reality is that artful newspaper editorials are supposed to take a step back and bring two things to the complex issues of the day: Knowledge and reason, which are the lingua franca of an educated elite. In other words, exactly the kind of thing that America's angry and feeling-betrayed middle class wants nothing to do with these days.
It all came to a head in the fall election.
One survey found that only two of America's 100 largest newspapers endorsed Donald Trump; twice as many (4) endorsed Libertarian Gary Johnson (remember him?) and 57 endorsed Hillary Clinton, including some newspapers that hadn't endorsed a Democrat for president in decades. That's both shocking and not at all shocking.
After all, Trump is a human being who seems created in a lab to offend every value of the typical newspaper editorial writer, even one with a mildly conservative bent. Trump lied, repeatedly. He was accused by a dozen or more women of groping or other sexual misconduct. He proposed actions -- from his Muslim-arrival ban to restoring torture -- that violated the U.S. Constitution, and he promised to change libel laws and otherwise conduct a war on a free press. Come to think of it, how'd he even get those two endorsements?
And yet the dude with the two endorsements got 304 electoral votes. In some pro-Trump communities, newspapers and their damned "logic" have since been greeted with everything short of torches and pitchforks.
A writer in Enid, Oklahoma, recounted to the New York Times recently how he was almost punched out in the Western Sizzlin restaurant -- after Sunday church, no less -- because his small-town paper had endorsed Clinton over Trump.
They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Since November 8, I've noticed that the tortured insanity of the newspaper editorial has reached new heights, particularly in a bellwether left-leaning newspaper editorial page like the New York Times. Day after day, its lead editorial calls out some preposterous thing "Mr. Trump" has said or done, uses facts and reason ("There you go again!") to explain why it's preposterous, and then expresses the hope against all hope that miraculously "Mr. Trump" will change his ways.
"Sell the Business, Not the Presidency, Mr. Trump," the Times editorial page declared on Tuesday [Dec. 27], even though Mr. Trump has already insisted that conflict-of-interest laws don't apply to him. Any similarity to the Dec. 9 editorial, "One Job Is Enough. Sell the Hotel," is...well, not a coincidence, and, oh, he hasn't sold the hotel, either.
The Dec. 23 editorial that "Republicans Are In Denial Over Health Care" has yet to move a single Republican out of the denial column so far. On that very same day, the Paper of Record tackled Trump's muddled views on nukes and wrote: "Instead of engaging in macho competition, Mr. Trump should seek a new dialogue with Russia on reducing nuclear dangers."
But here's the thing, New York Times:
Mr. Trump. Is. Not. Listening.
Every day, when I get to final paragraph and the inevitable pleadings with Mr. Trump to come to his senses, I instead find myself asking the same question.
Why bother? If 2016 has taught us anything definitive about journalism, it's the impotency of the modern newspaper editorial, at least in the arena of national politics.
It's not 1968 anymore. A president won't be so moved -- as some claim that LBJ was influenced by an editorial commentary on CBS -- to declare that "if I've lost Walter Cronkite, I've lost Middle America" and then change his Vietnam policies and withdraw from the presidential race.
News orgs don't wield that kind of monopoly power, and Trump has shown the world that a president-elect no longer has to give a flying you-know-what about what the major news orgs think.
Increasingly, this apathy over editorial opinion is working its way down to the state or local level.
The newspaper editorial is dying -- and yet I believe it can be saved with a fairly simple operation. In fact, much of it is already in good health.
The core functions of calling out public officials who don't call the truth, and offering readers the basic facts -- how the Affordable Care Act actually works and who is actually covered, for example -- will be more essential in 2017 than ever before.
The failing organ here is the demand for action. It's time for elite editorial writers to stop pretending they're in a conversation with elite politicians who aren't giving them the time of day.
Instead of hectoring politicians, it's time for newspaper editorial writers to think long and hard about how to empower the people, the only real force for positive social change that we have left. Consider climate change, for example. Trump has made it clear with his rogues gallery of Big Oil execs and climate-change deniers that he won't do a damn thing, but citizens and local communities can do quite a lot, from installing solar panels to better recycling to driving fuel efficient cars.
And on the big-ticket items like the Affordable Care Act, no Republican senator is going to listen to a newspaper, but they might listen to thousands of empowered constituents, and the media can play a role in making those connections happen. Or getting busloads of folks to the Jan. 21 Women's March on Washington, which has a much better chance of defending reproductive rights than the best-crafted 700-word opinion piece ever will.
That might require some folks in journalism to think outside their normal comfort zone -- but the normal comfort zone has already been blown up. If the 2016 election showed anything, it's that everyday citizens want somebody to fight for them.
It could be an authoritarian strongman.
Or it could be your hometown newspaper.
I'd vote for the latter.
Original (c) 2016 republished with permission. Masthead version (c) 2017 ASNE. Further publication requires author’s consent.
Will Bunch is senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News. His blog "Attytood” was named best blog in the state by AP Managing Editors and often deals with media and politics. He has done three books. He was in a Newsday team that won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting.
Thanking letter writers
How do editors of letters columns track and thank the writers? Annually, and in print, for many.
Every few years, the topic crops up on the EditWrite discussion list. This year, the chatter began with a relatively new editor’s query. As usual, several veterans posted info, sometimes in great detail, about their processes.
We thought it timely, and may return to the topic as the end-of-year planning season peaks soon after Thanksgiving.
This post, by Sarah Garrect Gassen, is one good example:
This, from retiree Glenn Marston:
We run a list of letter writers to the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, usually on the closest Sunday to Jan. 1. We use a digital form to accept letter submissions, so we're able to sort which submissions were published and then download that into an Excel spreadsheet we can then sort alphabetically.
Before the database, we had to do it manually and that was a giant pain.
We run an intro saying, essentially, thank you to readers who joined the community conversation this year … People seem to appreciate it -- and it’s a good visual representation of the roughly 1,500 people who had letters published in a year.
Scott Milfred, e.p.e. of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, sent the day’s pages, all 3 of them, and wrote: “We run the names of every letter writer – all 1,165 this past year -- and people really seem to appreciate seeing their names in print.”
When I was [at] The Ledger in Lakeland, Fla., (1997-2014), we kept a daily log of letter writers as a text file, with dates of publication.
Each Dec. 31, we would publish a thank you note to letter writers. We would list their names on the editorial page, jumping to the op-ed page. Headline: “Voice of the People 20xx.”
Example from Google News Archive: https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=HqMsAAAAIBAJ&sjid=M_4DAAAAIBAJ&pg=2364%2C7790230.
[As] the staff went from three to four, to three, two and one … just me, I stopped letter and editorial logging, and discontinued the Dec. 31 Voice of the People page. It had become too much.
Each Jan. 1, we published an “Agenda for Progress 20xx” editorial … The agenda editorial included a coupon for readers to write in their agenda priorities. The “People’s Agenda 20xx” would be published on a Sunday about three weeks later. I kept this up through 2014.
One editor, whose consent to be quoted verbatim was not yet received, said his large daily newspaper re-runs some of the year’s best letters with short profiles of the authors. He called it “a labor of love” for the letters editor.
Editing cartoons? A Masthead quick shot
What if an editorial cartoon is almost exactly on target, but a few of the words offend unduly or raise another problem?
The question arose on the EditWrite discussion list in mid-January, and the response from editors was quick, concise, vigorous, and nearly unanimous.
Summarized briefly: No. Use it as-is or not at all. With a staff artist, discuss the problem…. With a syndicate, you must know what the contract allows. And you have to be able to execute well, and to explain to readers who see another version.
One former editor* said: “Removing words, or part of the cartoon, seems like it could dilute or change the message much more than trimming a few paragraphs from a column.”
The discussion soon diverged into how to handle op-ed writers who demand no change without consultation, but that’s another day, another issue….
* Because of the collegial, occasionally hair-let-down, nature of the discussion list, Masthead refrains from quoting discussion-list posts verbatim by name without consent. We had a big debate about this a few years ago, as anyone who knows journalists could expect.
Wishful-headlines get a new look-see
A staple of the year-end editing activities in some media is a form of agenda-setting, or wishful thinking, seriously or just-for-fun: Headlines we would like to see this year.
Interestingly enough, the Edit-Write discussion this time originated with an editor who chose not to do it this year because of the risk of it being perceived as a form of fake news.
Others chimed in with, in effect, good of you to be so conscientious, but we think if it is clearly presented as pipe dreaming, there’s no real risk (some readers can misinterpret anything!). Others credited a former National Conference of Editorial Writers president with starting the practice. Some said they “stole” someone else’s idea and have used it for four or five years with no troubles.
Several sent samples.
No surprise: A lot of the samples deal with divisions in the land and in DC; some make sense only to local folks.
Former network commentator Margie Arons-Baron blogs big in Boston. Here’s the link she sent to her “Still, a gal can dream” piece.
There’s plenty of red meat to go after in the nation’s capital, but the obvious target is not always the best target.
This Sunshine Week, consider focusing on local and state governments.
Sunshine Week is about the public’s right to know what governments at all levels do. The Freedom of Information Act and the state public records and open meetings laws it spawned do not exist to serve journalists. They exist to empower the people to hold their government accountable. Journalists play an essential role in informing the public, but the tools of transparency are for everyone. For example, they are widely used economic tools as myriad industries rely on public records to plan, check up on rivals, prepare for public-private contracts.
We in the media sometimes forget all of that, and so do lawmakers.
I recently testified at a state legislative hearing on a bill that would set timelines for responding to public records requests. Journalists queued up to tell the senators why the bill was important, but the general public was notably lacking from the room. They weren’t excluded; they just didn’t show up.
When it was my turn to speak, I used the opportunity to remind everyone that the bill under consideration was for all residents, not just journalists.
Most people lack the time to visit a statehouse hearing in the middle of a workday, but their place in the sunshine almost always should supersede the self-importance of the press and the penchant for secrecy of the government.
When I was done speaking, one senator took issue with that view. “You said this wasn’t a bill just for journalists,” he stated. “I’d be more comfortable if it was because I do trust [journalists] to get the information and be responsible in the mainstream media.”
That senator, himself a former journalist, called out political opponents, candidates and bloggers. In his view, they use public records laws to cause problems, advance political agendas or try to get even. He suggested that maybe journalists deserve access but the public does not, or at least the members of the public who cause headaches for him and his fellows.
Down that slippery slope lies great peril.
Public records must not be the privilege of only the government-sanctioned few.
When the media don’t pay attention, secrecy entrenches itself. Local governments withhold details of investigations from parents or neighborhoods. State lawmakers, at the behest of special interests, pass creative exemptions to public records laws that move more information behind the wall of secrecy. Public officials high and low play fast and loose with their electronic communications, texting discussions to avoid scrutiny.
Those are the things the media and other watchdogs must focus on during Sunshine Week and every week.
Rest assured, there will be plenty of coverage of the Trump administration. The big media outlets – The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, etc. – the national blogs and other sources will cover and comment the hell out of the national open government news. If The (Portland) Oregonian, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, The Richmond Times-Dispatch and other papers weigh in, their commentary may be lost in the DC din. But when they editorialize about transparency in Oregon, Ohio or Virginia, they can lead the conversation that every community should have.
Watchdogs must not allow Washington red meat to distract them.
Tools for Sunshine Week
The Association of Opinion Journalists was an active participant in Sunshine Week for more than a decade. Every year our editorial writers and broadcasters produce important commentary that frames open government in ways a news story cannot.
This year, the first Sunshine Week since AOJ's merger with American Society of News Editors, we can continue to be leaders. Indeed, ASNE is one of the chief sponsors of Sunshine Week, so in that regard we are closer than ever to the action.
As always, the Sunshine Week sponsors are assembling a growing collection of resources to help editors and writers with limited time.
- The Sunshine Week Toolkit contains ideas, free columns, free editorial cartoons and more.
- Be sure to use the official Sunshine Week logos for national branding.
- Follow along on Twitter with #SunshineWeek.
- Check out the Facebook page for the latest updates.
- Compare sunshine laws in all 50 states.
- And be sure to share your Sunshine Week work with your editorial peers on our listserv at firstname.lastname@example.org as well as the Sunshine Week sponsors at email@example.com.
Letters to editors zoom – in number and testiness
For some, it is like the election season glut continued into the usually slow winter.
[This article is based in part on posts quoted with consent from a recent thread among editors on the independent, closed, EditWrite discussion list, which is available to ASNE members.]
By Sarah Garrecht Gassen
If letters to the editor can be used as a temperature gauge on public opinion, readers across the country are running a fever.
Editors at news outlets report upticks in both the number of letters they’re receiving and in the testiness of the sentiments. Writers are calling each other names, painting opponents with a broad brush, getting nasty about elected officials’ actions (or lack thereof) and demanding attention from their elected officials.
The influx “never let up after the election,” said Gary Crooks, opinion editor of the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. “Then it increased, and became less civil.”
[A high-profile item about this was part of the New York Times “Insider” piece When Readers Write Back, on p2A March 28: “Since the election, and since the inauguration, the numbers have gone up significantly,” said Thomas Feyer, the Times’ lead letters editor.]
Crooks reports that his newspaper has banned “open letters” and that, while most of the letters are about President Trump, letter writers are also targeting their local congressional representative, a Republican.
The volume has prompted some editorial pages to reconsider the best use of their limited print space, as Chuck Frederick, the editorial page editor of the Duluth (Minnesota) News Tribune explained:
“We're inundated with letters and other submissions, election-season inundated. As we do try to publish all submissions we receive that meet our rules, we've been foregoing a weekly pro-con feature and some of the national columnists we normally run,” he said.
“I've also made a conscious effort to write shorter, when possible, the News Tribune's editorials,” Frederick said. “We're recognizing the need to step back to allow our readers' voices to be heard.”
Trump’s actions, or his very presence in the Oval Office, drove much of the traffic, some editors say. Traffic has been heaviest in anti-Trump letters, according to responses from multiple editors. Readers have a lot to say.
Jackman Wilson, editorial page editor of the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon, said both the increase in volume and the Trump theme carry through in letters and also “in the number of column-length submissions.”
The more we can publish, the better, editors seem to agree.
Gary E. Nelson who oversees the editorial page at the (Medford) Mail Tribune and Ashland Daily Tidings, both in Oregon, said:
“The volume is similar to election season, which is unheard of at this time of year.
“The new Trump administration and more specifically concern about the future of the Affordable Care Act is driving much of it.
“Primarily anti-Trump letters -- liberals always tend to write more letters than conservatives for whatever reason, which causes conservatives to accuse us of running only letters we agree with. We run all letters that meet our guidelines for length, factual accuracy, lack of name-calling, etc.
“I just asked our page layout person for extra pages for letters whenever she can carve out some space,” Nelson said. “If that doesn't do it, we may have to start getting selective, which I dread. But we're not there yet.”
For outlets without the space to spare, the decision of which letters to publish is a balancing act, and one without equal resources. Readers often don’t understand, or care, that local news outlets don’t control what their regular national contributors say.
“We've also seen an uptick in letters complaining that all our syndicated columnists are bashing Trump (this started during the campaign), Nelson said. “That's hard to argue with when George Will, Michael Gerson and even Charles Krauthammer are critical, and Will leaves the Republican Party.”
[As is often the case when the former NCEW-AOJ discussion list deals with letters, some editors also discussed how they choose which ones to print, and which to post online only, and whether the same criteria should apply]
The Arizona Daily Star in Tucson has also seen an increase in the number of letters, but pro-Trump letters or pro-Republican letters remain sparse. Conservative letter writers have been published more often than the Star’s usual 30-day guideline so that their point of view is better represented on the pages. Readers who call or write to complain about not enough conservative voices on the page are encouraged to submit letters. After all, we can’t run letters we don’t receive.
The Trump-related increase isn’t universal, according to Jay Jochnowitz, the editorial page editor of the Times Union in Albany, New York.
“Our volume has been fairly steady since last year, which is somewhat unusual; we did not see the normal holiday drop after Thanksgiving, through Christmas and into the early new year,” he said. “Topics have been varied; it is not all, or even largely, about Trump.”
Keven Ann Willey, vice president and editorial eage editor of the Dallas Morning News, said the number of letters is up, specifically from those who support Trump.
“Tough to tell how much of the volume is spontaneous or whether some of it is the result of a concerted effort or group prompting the LTEs,” she said. Trump supporters were fairly quiet before the election, but “now supporters are coming out of the woodwork, it seems.”
When it comes down to it, being flush in usable letters to the editor is a good problem to have. People are invested in what’s happening and they’re paying attention. It’s an opportunity for editorial pages to be useful and shine.
Frederick said, “It's a lively wonderful time in community dialogue and reader engagement.”
Sarah Garrecht Gassen is Opinion writer/editor at the Arizona Daily Star