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Editorials a turnoff for students or, the wounding of Fred Fiske.

The program said the panel's topic was "The Role of the Editorial Page in an Election Year," but the audience was more interested in the politics of an editorial board than in the presidential race between George W. Bush and John Kerry.

Nearly thirty journalism students from eight Pacific Northwest colleges and universities gathered in Spokane on a sunny Saturday in April for a day-long workshop. Their discomfort with editorials as collective expressions of a paper's opinion surfaced almost immediately in the question-and-answer period.

Three of the four panelists are current or former editorial page editors. The fourth--the editor of an innovative opinion page at The Seattle Times--found eager listeners as she described her strategy for getting young writers' opinions into the paper.

The students came from Gonzaga University, Whitworth College, Eastern Washington University, the University of Idaho, North Idaho College, the University of Montana, and two community colleges in Spokane. They brought armloads of their own newspapers to be critiqued and took home copies of NCEW's book Beyond Argument.

As moderator of the morning panel, I wanted students to hear the experts--Doug Floyd of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane; Fred Fiske of The Post-Standard in Syracuse; Mindy Cameron, retired editorial page editor of The Seattle Times; and Colleen Pohlig, NEXT editor at The Seattle Times--describe ways to engage readers in this presidential election year. Instead, students wanted to know more about the fundamentals of opinion pages:

* Who decides the paper's position on a candidate or an issue?

* Why aren't editorials signed? Shouldn't they be?

* Is it a conflict of interest for a member of the student newspaper staff to be active in student government?

* How do you convince readers that your editorial views aren't influencing news coverage?

* Why run editorials at all? Wouldn't a page composed entirely of columns and letters be more interesting--and more effective?

Contacted later, students who had attended the work shop expressed varying reasons for the predominance of columns over editorials in their papers.

Students, seeking recognition for their work, want bylines, said Kristina Crawley, incoming editor-in-chief of the Gonzaga Bulletin. Chris Collins, a student at Whitworth College, agreed, though he said he personally likes editorials. "I imagine many prefer columns since they get a name to go with the column instead of some unrecognizable 'staff editorial' byline on the editorial," Collins said.

Crawley mentioned another reason: the misperception that columns require less work. "In reality, this should not be the case," she added. "A column should be just as well-researched as an editorial or a news story."

Troy Kirby, managing editor of The Easterner at Eastern Washington University, offered another perspective: that columns show more accountability because the writer's identity is quickly apparent. Students "feel they [editorial writers] are attacking people blindly by not putting their name on the opinion piece."

Fiske, Floyd, and Cameron gave the traditional rationale for staff editorials--the group process produced stronger arguments, and the results had more clout. They also explained the "firewall" separating news and opinion. But many of the student questioners seemed unconvinced that editorials were useful, relevant, or influential.

"I was struck, and a little wounded, by the students' cavalier attitude toward editorials," Fiske reflected after the workshop. "Student editors spoke about how difficult it was to arrive at editorial topics, to reach consensus, to craft the editorial--that it was much more manageable just to let columnists go their individual ways."

That theme--that multiple voices create a lively and interesting opinion page--was reinforced by Pohlig, who edits NEXT, a page written by and for Generation Y. The page appears on the back of The Seattle Times' Sunday opinion section. (See The Masthead, Autumn 2003.)

Pohlig recruits, coaches, and schedules a stable of two dozen young professionals, high school students, and college students, including Whitworth's Collins. Pohlig says young readers like the diversity of views expressed both in print and through NEXT's online extension, seattletimes.com/NEXT/ (The lively website now includes a blog, NEXTopia, which gets about twelve hundred visitors a month.) But she's not ready to abandon the conventional editorial page, either, saying that many of her page's writers read and respond to Times editorials.

Over lunch, Pohlig made a pitch for writers from east of the Cascade Range that divides eastern and western Washington to submit essays for her page. She advised students to research their positions thoroughly to be taken seriously by readers, a point that Collins agrees with. He describes Pohlig as a tough editor who made his recent pieces stronger without changing their message.

The columns vs. editorials debate remained unresolved as the workshop drew to a close, though Floyd and Fiske continued to make the case for better editorials as they critiqued the students' opinion pages. "It shouldn't be a question of either/or," Fiske observed. "Why not both/and?"

Students said they found the workshop worthwhile. Eastern Washington's Kirby called it one of the best conferences he'd attended in the past year. Gonzaga's Crawley liked being able to network with student journalists.

Susan English, assistant professor at Gonzaga and one of the workshop's organizers, praised the speakers for opening students' eyes to the possibility of a career as an editorial writer, columnist, or opinion editor. "More than reporting and writing the news of the day, some students are passionate about making sense of that news," she said afterward. "This workshop gave those students the sense that there will be a place for them in journalism to pursue that passion."

Kenton Bird is interim director of the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho. E-mail kbird@uidaho.edu
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Author:Bird, Kenton
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2004
Words:931
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