Innovate, schminovate! The answer isn't innovation; it's using your current tools better.
It's not that I'm against innovation. If you want to run all your editorials in purple or run the type sideways, or give voice to all your opinions in iambic hexameter, knock yourself out. It's just that I've seen too many cases of editorial page people misidentifying the problem and deciding that radical innovation is the only solution.
The most common problem for all editorial pages, of course, is attracting more readers. In my experience, the key to that usually isn't innovation. It's doing better with the tools you're now using.
Consider editorials. I've read a lot of them in the past 20 years. Lots (okay, most) of them have been in sore need of improvement.
You know the sort of editorials I mean. They were too long, or boring. Or they had sentences that you couldn't read aloud without stopping for oxygen before you got to a period. Or they appeared to have been translated from some now-dead language by a committee of computer science grad students. As bad as they were, though, few of these editorials could have been helped by innovation. If they could have been helped at all, it was by a healthy dose of the basics: clear thought, concise argument, vigorous and compelling writing, incisive editing.
Given my viewpoint, you may be wondering why Kay Semion asked me to contribute to a symposium on innovation. The answer is that she had heard about some Sacramento Bee editorials that got a little national press. This was a series of pieces advocating lower and more convenient bus fares for students from poor families. (If you live in a state that pays transportation costs for students, count yourself lucky.) At the core, there was nothing innovative about these editorials. The closest thing to innovation about the undertaking was the way we used one of the most basic tools of the newspaper: repetition.
Most journalists shy away from repetition (which is odd, when you consider the intensity with which newspaper ad sales people preach the value of it to advertisers). How many times have you heard a colleague (or a boss) say, "Oh, we already wrote about that."
Maybe so, but so what? If you like an editorial page that gets things done (and I do), then you have to use the tools that work. Repetition can be one of them. It was in this case. Bee associate editor Ginger Rutland wrote more than 20 editorials on the bus fares topic over the space of about eight weeks. Each of them carried a series sig with it (another basic tool) as well as a photo (yet another one) of three kids from one family who were being affected by the high bus fares. Each of these series sigs included a running tally of what the kids had paid in bus fare since the beginning of school. We ran the sig, with an updated total of fares paid, on days when we had no editorial on the subject.
The editorials went beyond pure advocacy to report on previously uncovered aspects of the Regional Transit Authority's policies on transporting school kids. Ginger reported that the authority's own studies showed that lower fares would actually result in increased rider-ship and increased revenues, with no increase in costs. She showed how its ad campaigns aimed at attracting young riders were ineffective and wasteful. She paid attention to what the elected officials on the transit board said and held them accountable for their misstatements. She showed how the authority gave price breaks to almost every imaginable group except public school students -- including college students.
Again, I don't think there was very much innovative about this. The editorials were well written and well reported, just as all editorials should be. The running tally was a nice touch, but hardly an astonishing innovation.
No, what set these editorials apart was their simple determination to use basic tools in the relentless pursuit of what we believed was a public service. Not all readers agreed with us, of course. ("I'm so sick of seeing pictures of those juvenile delinquents," one thoughtful and sympathetic reader fumed into my voicemail about 20 days into the project.)
But in the end, the transit authority lowered fares. And when I attended a meeting of a church group that had first raised the issue of bus fares in the community, the people there gave the Bee's editorial page a standing O. That was the first time I'd ever had an experience like that. It's an innovation I'd love to see replicated.
RELATED ARTICLE: New ideas
Most of us struggled with the volume of letters in the days following September 11. In San Antonio, editorial page editor Lynnell Burkett had a great idea. She ran an entire section of letters. She included drawings and poems -- things she doesn't normally print -- because the emotions of the moment justified it.
NCEW member David Holwerk is editorial page editor of The Sacramento Bee. E-mail him at email@example.com