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Don't waste the privilege.

Don't you just hate it when you're in a rush, stop to ask for directions, and the guy rattles on about road construction in a county where you won't even be driving?

That's the scenario facing editorial pages today. As hurried readers thumb through the newspaper, we need to make the information we give them during their brief stop on our page relevant.

So why in smaller-circulation markets would we waste time editorializing about international issues? The usual answer is a self-righteous, "Because they need to know." I won't argue against the value of knowledge; I, too, wish more Americans were a bit worldlier, for lack of a better word. But a small-circulation newspaper's editorial isn't the best place to write about international affairs.

If the role of an editorial is to provide insight, most of us do a disservice to readers by writing about international issues. Most of us aren't able to perform any original reporting. We're not going to visit Israel or China to make firsthand observations. We're not going to directly speak with the top experts and political players. Our editorial largely will rely on talking points we've heard secondhand.

If the role of an editorial is to effect change for the better, writing about international issues largely wastes the privilege we hold. No warlord in Darfur will tell his lieutenant, "I just read the editorial in the Four Corners, Nebraska, Journal, and they've convinced me--our slave trade is wrong" Nor, frankly, is the United Nations or whoever sits in the White House going to take notice. And in this day when special interests' campaign contributions and winning re-election matters more than ever, most of our congress people won't care much either.

If the role of an editorial in part is that of a watchdog, writing about international issues only distracts us from this purpose. When pontificating on protests in Kathmandu or the latest Italian election, we could have researched and written about the roads our readers drive upon, the way local councils spend our readers' tax dollars, or the police protection that our readers' neighborhoods receive. If as editorial writers we can't come up with enough local and state issues to report about once a day, we probably need to re-examine how we're performing our watchdog role.

This is not say every newspaper below a certain circulation size absolutely should never write about international issues. I've penned edits at fifteen-thousand-circulation papers about the events of September 11, 2001, the invasion of Iraq, and Pope John Paul II's passing. All of these issues resonated emotionally with our readers and superseded the usual talk around water coolers about American Idol contestants.

There are better conduits on our opinion pages than the editorial for discussing international issues. Many excellent syndicated columnists do original reporting on international issues; my readers will gain far more insight from Tom Friedman's op-ed than my editorial on Hamas or from Andres Oppenheimer's op-ed than my editorial on Peru's economic boom. Newspapers with college campuses can draw upon international students and political science professors to pen op-eds that draw upon personal experience and years of study, which will provide a far better local discussion of international issues than my editorial written in the vacuum of a newspaper office.

A small-circulation newspaper's editorial is most relevant and effective when we dig into issues right in our readers' community. Often the local newspaper is the only forum that can or will examine those issues. Anyone can google dozens of metro papers from across the globe that discuss nuclear arms in Iran. But how many results will they get on the Cactus Flats, New Mexico, city council underfunding its parks and recreation? If the Cactus Flats paper doesn't care, no one else will either.

Indeed, our strength in giving directions is that when a reader asks us about how to get from point A to B, we cannot note the great river overview along the way. But we're wasting their time and failing in our responsibilities when we instead rattle on about how to get from C to D in the next county over.

Rob Bignell is opinion page editor at The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, California. E-mail rob.bignell@
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Title Annotation:SYMPOSIUM: Editorializing on international issues
Author:Bignell, Rob
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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