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Gartner delivers 'outrage, passion, and uncommon sense'.

Michael Gartner laid a heavy trip on editorial writers calling them "the savior of newspapers" at a time when the "daily newspaper truly is threatened."

As a former editor, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer, and newspaper owner, Gartner knows of what he speaks: He reminded editorial writers they "have the greatest job in newspaperdom"--one they can do better.

"Most editorials I read these days are coming up short," he said. "Today's editorials inform but do not inspire. Sometimes, they lack opinion. Often, they lack facts. Usually, they lack passion. And while many people complain about perceived bias in the news pages--they say news stories sound like editorials--I can make the opposite case: that increasingly editorials read like news stories."

The audience shifted in their seats, but Gartner wasn't through with them.

He resurrected famed writer H.L. Mencken's indictment of editorial pages in a speech at the National Conference of Editorial Writers fifty-seven years ago: Given how boring they are, Mencken asked, "Why have editorials at all?"

More than a half a century later, Gartner answered Mencken's question: Given that people can see the news, live: "What we need now are people to explain what is going on. We need perspective. We need context. We need authority. We need leadership."

The role of the editorial writer, Gartner said, is: "Not to be a common scold or a civic booster--but to explore and explain, expound and expose--and then put it all in perspective with well-reasoned opinion. That can't be done in the speedy sound bites of television, in the capricious blogging of the Internet, or in the hollow bellowing of radio ranters. It is one of just two areas--the other is investigative journalism--that still set daily newspapers apart and make them essential.

"But they can't be essential if they are boring."

Editorials, he said, "must be the heart and soul of your newspaper and the heart and soul of your town. To do that, you must report thoroughly, write gracefully, and argue persuasively. At times, you must write with outrage. More often, you must write with passion. Always, you must write with uncommon sense."

One of the problems might be that passion is not always easy to find in modern-day newsrooms, so Gartner reminded the audience where it comes from: "Passion comes from love--or hate. You have to love your community to write stirringly about its issues. You have to hate oppression to write movingly about freedom. To write passionately, you have to have a stake in your community, a stake in democracy.... You can't be politically correct if you're fighting for democracy--or against it."

And you have to have enlightened bosses. Too many editorial writers today, Gartner lamented, are constrained by absentee corporate bosses, who want their pages to be "inclusive" and "reader-friendly"

To play it safe is to be boring, dull--words Gartner repeated several times.

Gartner peppered his speech with outrageous editorials--which could never be called boring--from those he calls "the four greatest editorial writers in the history of this nation," whose careers span one hundred fifty years: William Allen White, editor of The Daily Gazette of Emporia, Kansas, from 1855 to 1944; Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune in 1841, and credited with inventing the editorial page in the 1850s; Henry Watterson, editor of The Courier Journal of Louisville from 1868 to 1918; and Vermont Royster, editor of the Wall Street Journal from 1958 to 1971.

Concluding, Gartner gave his "four simple rules" for editorial writing, gleaned from years of reading editorials:

* "Report. You can't have opinions if you don't have facts.

* "Think. Royster once said the secret to good editorial writing is this: 'Give the other side the space, give your side the thought.' In other words, get all the facts, present them fairly, and then demolish the other side.

* "Write. Write with passion and grace. Remember, 'The easiest thing for the reader to do is to quit reading?

* "Persuade. Editorials are not stories. They are arguments

To read Gartner's speech and other convention material, go online to: 2005%20Portland/Reports.html.

Gartner's book, written in partnership with the Freedom Forum, is published by the National Geographic Society, 1145 17th St., Washington, D.C. 20036, http:// The Newseum, an interactive museum of news, funded by the Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan foundation dedicated to free press, speech and spirit, is online at

Marianne Ratcliff is opinion page editor of the Ventura County Star in southern California. E-mail mratcliff@
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Title Annotation:2005 CONVENTION; Michael Gartner
Author:Ratcliff, Marianne
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1U9OR
Date:Dec 22, 2005
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