A former space hog sees the light.
As press secretary to Colorado governor Dick Lamm, I spent hours trying to figure out how to place yet another oped piece flacking the governor's positions. Later, as a member of the University of Colorado journalism faculty, I discovered opinion pages were a wonderful place to publish so I wouldn't perish.
The combined experiences, I'll admit, left me with a dicey mix of sympathy and skepticism. Sure, I feel for the poor souls whose livelihood depends on catching my interest. But I also wonder who really wrote this submission or whether the lofty thesis is the 86th extrapolation from a moldering dissertation, triggered more by a looming tenure review than by a stunning discovery.
I've also come to value some things highly. I love real people speaking in their own voices. I love writing that takes city-dwellers into Colorado's untouched canyons or Anglo suburbanites into apartments where the next knock on the door may be the INS. I love it when folks who live with policies explain them to their neighbors.
Most of all, I love Colorado and, fortunately, so does the Post's owner. So in picking material from the stacks of submissions we receive, we have two primary criteria. The first is "local ueber alles." We pay syndicated writers to keep an eye on the rest of the world for us. The second guideline is that a writer with a title--be it academic, governmental, or political--is a writer with a handicap when competing for letters or guest space. (Folks with titles get plenty of room to play in on our Sunday "Perspective" section fronts and in frequent issue pro/cons.)
Granted, if you have pages that are gleefully open to the contributions of ordinary folks, you invite a ton of submissions. Susan Clotfelter, who edits our guest commentary and letters columns, has the most unenviable and enviable job in the shop. We try to help her with a few rules, which we also are diligent (well, pretty diligent) in keeping and in reminding readers about.
* Our letter writers are told we welcome letters of fewer than 200 words, but that they won't be published more than once every two months. (Those limits are off, though, if someone is responding to direct criticism.)
* We tell folks with grievances that letters, not guest columns, are the place to respond to news stories, columns, and editorials. We can turn letters faster and can package them so other readers can chime in on the discussion as well.
* We devote two columns a week to 750-word guest commentaries that stand on their own and don't depend on readers having seen a specific column or editorial.
* And we devote three columns a week to our two panels of rotating guest columnists. These "Compass" columnists serve by invitation and reflect the views of groups often underrepresented on our pages. We've had blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, gays, and a paraplegic. Three of this year's four "Compass" columnists are immigrants. Our "Colorado Voices" columnists are chosen each March in an open competition that draws from 400 to 800 submissions each year. It makes for a wild spring, but we have remarkably few folks trying to jump the gun and elbow their way into the rotation once the panels are in place.
(Note: We also tried, for about a year, a rotating Saturday column for Colorado's congressfolk. We asked for material specific to their constituencies, even killed a couple that were obviously mass-produced national party pap and one that was pure self-congratulation. But the quality continued to be uneven. We've done better to let the delegation know that congressional copy is welcome--up to twice a year, anyway--but it needs to be Colorado-specific, newsworthy, and substantive. That lets us be more selective.)
For this to work, the system has to be as transparent as we can make it; readers have to know our guidelines and see us keeping to them. I write at least two columns a year accounting for our stewardship of letters and community columns. Yes, that enables readers to bust us when we break our own rules. But it also keeps us honest.
And it also enables those poor beleaguered flacks to explain to their bosses that the same rules apply to them that apply to everyone else: "No, Congressman, I'm not going to be able to sell another column this year. You've maxed your quota."
Sue O'Brien is editorial page editor of The Denver Post. E-mail email@example.com
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|Title Annotation:||standards for op-ed pages|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2003|
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