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In search of good ideas to serve our readers: the Innovations Committee is creating a forum for sharing ideas on improving our pages.

We all know that our industry is changing dramatically. Just look at the popularity of such websites as the Drudge Report, examples of "converged" newspaper and television news reports, or the realignment of media-company capitalization on Wall Street.

Editorial and op-ed pages can't afford to sit still. Through it all, the newspapers that do best will be those that readers trust and that are strongly connected to the communities they serve. Good editorial and op-ed pages can lead the way. We need to find new ways to connect with readers, to make it worth their while to select us from the smorgasbord of information sources available to them.

Thus was born this year the Innovations Committee. The idea is to create several forums for editorial writers to share ideas about innovations on their pages. Following is a sampling of some of the innovations that members volunteered during recent list-serv discussions. Please contact me with other innovation ideas you have, or just post them on the listserv. The ideas can be big or small ideas, after all, beget ideas. And don't be afraid to cite an innovation that didn't work. The best learning comes from mistakes -- especially the mistakes of others, of course. (Rest assured, you'll get lots of moral support from your colleagues, each of whom has "been there" at one time or another.)

The best innovations, it seems to me, revolve around the goals that most editorial and op-ed pages share. Those are providing community leadership, providing a forum for informed debate, getting new voices/viewpoints on the pages, actively engaging readers, and increasing readership of the editorial and op-ed pages and the newspaper in general. So here are some examples.

Innovations that worked

Arizona Republic: Last election, the Republic mailed 249 questionnaires to state and federal candidates whose names would appear on the ballot and asked them to go online to our website to fill them out. We provided each of the candidates with a password, sign-on instructions, and notice that their answers would be available to anyone who signed onto our site.

Our intent was two-fold: To help us in preparing our election recommendations and to provide readers with meaningful information about candidates seeking their votes. We judged this project such a success that were doing the same thing this year. Except this time we've mailed to 310 candidates. We'll know later this summer if we are able to beat the two-thirds response rate or the 13,500 page views we registered last year.

La Presse: Andre Pratte, chief editorialist of this Montreal paper, says that each Monday an editorial writer selects a letter that asks a question about a previously published editorial. The letter and the editorial writer's response to it are published together under the heading of "Dialogue."

The letters selected "are interesting and constructive, and we answer them in the same spirit." In the examples that Andre mailed me, readers asked about the consistency of the paper's views on nationalism, the reasoning behind an editorial on the health of the pope, and an editorial's comment with regard to the cost of proposed repairs to a publicly financed local sports facility.

In each case, the answer was brief, informative, not at all defensive, and often witty. Andre describes the feature as an effort "to reduce the distance between editorial writers and readers."

Register-Guard: Editorial page editor Jack Wilson of this Eugene, Oregon, paper says that his board adopts a broad issue annually as a department project and then focuses its columns and editorials on that topic throughout the year. They actively solicit the participation of readers through op-ed columns for the Sunday commentary section. Last year's topic was the arts. This year's is mental illness.

Dayton Daily News: Kay Semion remembers from her days at the Daily News in Ohio that the editorial board teamed up with the local PBS station to televise interviews with candidates in key races. The interviews sometimes lasted an hour, though only 30 minutes aired. Kay cites several benefits to this innovation. First, in viewing the taped segments afterward, the board picked up details about candidates that they'd missed during the live interview. Second, the project required staffers to be more prepared for the interviews, encouraging them to do their research earlier in the campaign.

Bellingham Herald: Editorial page editor Carolyn Nielsen of the Washington paper describes a "wildly popular" feature called "On The Hot Seat." She invites readers to send her questions for the elected officials, which she then e-mails to the intended target with a request for a 250-word answer.

She publishes the question and the reply with "a nifty graphic of a flaming chair and some mug shots." She selects questions only on legitimate issues -- nothing that begins with "My neighbor's driveway...." The beauty of the project is that "there is no wiggle room for politicos to avoid the question without looking stupid or to claim to have been misquoted." Carolyn says she's been overrun with questions from readers who enjoy this direct exchange.

Innovation that didn't work

Arizona views Las Vegas as a major competitor for tourism dollars and -- much to the local tourism industry's frustration -- Las Vegas routinely pours significantly greater sums of public money into tourism promotion than does Arizona. In an Arizona Republic editorial intended to downplay the significance of the spending discrepancy and highlight how easy it should be to promote the Arizona experience over the Las Vegas experience (golf and the Grand Canyon versus Keno and the clatter of slot machines), we asked readers in an editorial titled "Make us an ad for the Un-Vegas" to send us their recommended slogans and logos for an Arizona promotion campaign.

A few weeks later, we published a brief "Duel in the Desert" editorial and devoted the rest of the editorial page to publishing the best "ads" from readers. The snag: We didn't get enough high-quality ad ideas to justify devoting an entire page to them. And the debate shifted from What Are Arizona's Best Features to the local tourism industry's frantic defense of their promotion dollars and its accusation that we put those dollars at risk by "mocking their efforts."

Final analysis: The idea of spurring discussion of how to overcome the spending inequity was a good one, but we should have done a better job at execution.


Mindy Cameron was editorial page editor of The Seattle Times in 1999 when the World Trade Organization opened its short-lived session in Seattle three years ago. Cameron had five editorial writers who were biting at the bit to write about the WTO. So she gave the assignment to all -- sent the writers out to different parts of the city and let them come up with their own creative editorials. Then she ran them all on the same day.

NCEW member Keven Ann Willey is the editorial page editor at The Arizona Republic and heads the Innovations Committee. She can be reached at

In 1996, Ron Clark implimented a rather shocking change to the editorial pages at the St. Paul Pioneer-Press. As editorial page editor, Clark was concerned he was filling too much space with editorials that existed merely to fill space. So he quit running editorials every single day. And his experiment continues: If the editorials are good and needed, he runs them. Other days, he fills the page with essays -- staff-written and solicited -- about significant issues.
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Author:Willey, Keven Ann
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2002
Previous Article:Masthead symposium.
Next Article:Innovate, schminovate! The answer isn't innovation; it's using your current tools better.

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