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Editorial pages are key for future.

AS OUR EDITORIAL BOARD at the San Antonio Express-News gathers each day to discuss the day's news and determine our editorial positions, I have a sense of being a part of something much larger than ourselves. I know that throughout the nation, my colleagues are gathering their cups of coffee, perusing newspapers, and joining together for similar meetings in diverse settings.

Robert Kittle, editorial page editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune, and his staff are meeting in an impressive conference room where the walls are lined with signed photos of the dignitaries who have visited the board during the last few decades.

Don Wycliff, editorial page editor, and his colleagues at the Chicago Tribune gather in a wood-paneled room overlooking Michigan Avenue with a picture of Lincoln on the mantle. (Symbolic of this modem age, the picture pulls aside to reveal a television with VCR tucked behind.)

John Nichols, who writes editorials at The Capital Times in Madison, sits in the office of Phil Haslanger, managing editor and cohort who previously was in charge of the editorial page. A framed picture of William T. Evjue, the newspaper's founder, gazes down on them from the wall, and Nichols swears that Evjue often participates in the discussion.

However grand or modest the accommodations, and whether the group is two or 20, the objective is the same: to make sense of the world for readers and to influence opinion about issues that matter in a positive and informed way.

My glimpse into the operations of editorial boards across the nation last fall came as I interviewed media leaders for a project on the future of newspapers and the role of the editorial page. (The visits came at a particularly fascinating time because everyone was trying to figure out what to say about President Clinton in the wake of his finally acknowledged affair with Monica Lewinsky I observed much soul-searching and little smugness.)

My purpose was to consider how editorial pages fit into the overall strategy for a newspaper's success. By understanding that fit, leaders of editorial pages can make the case more effectively for adequate respect and resources with newspaper leaders whose attention focuses heavily on the bottom line. As more publishers come from the business side of the operation, we cannot take for granted that they adequately appreciate the role of the editorial page for the newspaper.

With challenges to newspapers presented by rapid change, new media such as the Internet, 24-hour news competitors, stagnant circulation, and changing demographics in readership, newspaper leaders should pay close attention to what the strategic advantages of newspapers are and how to exploit them.

When those strategic advantages are analyzed, editorial pages have a central role to play in pressing those advantages, if they are given the resources.

Consider these strategic advantages:

* Newspapers are an unmatched source of information that offer credibility and context.

* They are unique in their ability to provide local information.

* They place events and complex issues in perspective, offering analysis and opinion.

* They provide a unique ability to influence issues in their community, helping create and reflect values, and helping set the community's agenda.

By far, the most undervalued role of the newspaper and its editorial page is what may be its most important: reflecting and helping set values within the community, and holding leaders accountable based on those values. No other secular institution holds this potential. Most newspapers are not conscious that they perform such a role and, thus, they do not focus on it.

But all these strategic advantages involve roles for the editorial page -- if the newspaper chooses to step into its appropriate leadership role. Of course, that means taking a risk, taking seriously the watchdog role. It involves making some readers mad, offending some local powers, and choosing leadership over popularity. Some publishers don't have the stomach for it, but the good ones, the ones who understand the newspaper's role, will take Rolaids and support their editors.

Editorial pages also have more direct contact with readers than any other section through letters to the editor and op-ed pieces. They should find ways to broaden and deepen those connections. The opinion pages can draw in and seek input from the new groups of readers and from understand groups of readers. They should make particular efforts to seek contributions from young readers, women, and members of minority groups.

Editorial pages can provide increased value not only by providing powerful and provocative opinions, but also by seeking new ways to connect with readers. Many newspaper editorial leaders have sought during the past decade to find creative ways to do so. Whether through setting agendas, providing community forums and reflecting results in their pages, recognizing outstanding letter writers, or setting up community advisory boards, editors are finding ways to add value for their readers.

I would argue that by invoking every means within their power to provide these vital connections with readers, editorial pages will assume an importance far beyond their numbers -- of pages and employees -- and will remain vital to the newspaper's future in this rapidly changing media world.

NCEW member Lynnell Burkett is editorial page editor of the San Antonio Express-News. Her e-mail address is Iburkett@expressnews.net.
COPYRIGHT 1999 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:BURKETT, LYNNELL
Publication:The Masthead
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 1999
Words:868
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