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'Outlooks' feature outlives its usefulness.

* Recognize when an originally good idea has served its purpose.

Imagine this problem:

Your boss has enlivened the opinion page by signing up 30 writing volunteers. Their work appears not just as a "guest column," but with a logo declaring it an "Outlooks" piece.

The writers generally meet deadlines (four columns a year) and treat writing as a craft. The only expense, apart from heavy editing and tally-keeping, is an Amana ham the publisher sends each writer annually.

This is a problem?

As caretakers of similar columns already know, complications can arise.

Members of The Cedar Rapids Gazette Outlooks symposium, many of them educators, eventually were seen as the Brahmans in a caste system of contributors. Guest columnists, appearing when space allowed, didn't like it. Neither did letter-writers, chafing under the 300-word limit.

What's more, the text below the Outlooks logo perhaps invites misperception. These authors, it said, are "thoughtful Eastern Iowans."

Participants in NCEW critique sessions were quick to catch the unintentionally snobbish implication: "These people are thoughtful. . . . You are not."

Patrick Lackey of Iowa City, one of the first "thoughtful Eastern Iowans," poked fun from the start. "All right," he wrote me after a one-column down-payment, "Where's my ham? I demand that you send my ham!" (Years later, he would surface as an editorialist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk and NCEW member.)

Meeting Pat's ham request proved no more complicated than sending him a photograph of Henny Youngman.

Still, The Cedar Rapids Gazette's op-ed Outlooks, born in the '70s, did not mature gracefully. And by the end of the '80s, two years after the retirement of my predecessor (and NCEW member) Art Heusinkveld, the project was a load.

Rotation of writers had grown difficult. Older hands wanted to stay on, and they resented being cut from the squad. Some of the newer ones were unabashedly writing to qualify for the ham. Their ham-handedness reflected their haste. (Pat, you wrote better than you knew. But at least The Gazette beat David Letterman to the ham hand-out routine.)

More important, Outlooks had served its purpose. Letters traffic on the page was up, as was the guest column count. 1990 totals: guest columns 130, Outlooks 110.

Solving the problem, by eliminating Outlooks in 1991, required no great inspiration. I tell the story merely to show that one decade's opinion page invention is not necessarily an asset two decades later.

Today, Gazette guest columns total between 250 and 280 a year. That's more than the old Outlooks and guest columns combined. Some of the Outlooks crew still provide guest columns, and some contributors still label their essays "Outlooks."

Outlooks has counterparts on many other opinion pages: "Viewpoints," "Local views," "The readers write" . . . . Maybe they, too, have grown a bit ripe.

NCEW member Gerald L. Elsea is editorial page editor of The Cedar Rapids Gazette in Iowa.
COPYRIGHT 1997 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:op-ed section dropped by The Cedar Rapids Gazette
Author:Elsea, Gerald L.
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Jun 22, 1997
Words:474
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