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Pages must forge stronger connections.

THE INTERNET, TALK RADIO, 24-hour news stalions: Just where are newspapers going to fit into the brave new world of information media in the 21st century? That was the ambitious question asked by the first panel of NCEW's 1999 convention in Denver.

The panel, Led by Lynnell Burkett, editorial page editor of the San Antonio Express-News, was surprisingly optimistic. New forms of media are not replacing the written word, Burkett said. If anything, as other forms of media seek out increasingly fragmented audiences, newspapers may become the sole remaining "mass" medium. Newspapers have other strengths they need to take advantage of, Burkett said.

'We're the industry that connects locally," she said. Newspapers offer readers both credibility and context.

The question is not whether newspapers can survive in the 21st century, but whether newspapers can learn to harness their strengths and do what is necessary to survive. If newspapers fail, it will only be because the industry stumbles itself, Burkett said.

Editorial pages, Burkett believes, can play a huge role in ensuring that newspapers stay connected to readers and remain vital sources of credible information, anaiysis and opinion that otherwise might be hard to find.

"Editorial pages should promote civility and community dialogue, as opposed to the screaming voices on talk radio and the Internet," she said.

Burkett recently spent four months on a research project for Northwestern University Media Management Center. It resulted in the publication of a 90-page booklet called "Future Voice -- Editorial pages: Newspapers' overlooked strategic tool."

Burkett talked with publishers from coast to coast. She came away with the belief that while many publishers don't understand the strategic value of the editorial page, many do. Many of the newspapers she visited are undertaking creative projects, many based in their editorial page departments, designed to help newspapers form stronger connections with their readers and their communities.

The panelists -- editorial writers from Minnesota, New York, and Delaware -- all have been involved in such projects.

Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer with the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis, told of her involvement with the Minnesota Citizens Forum, a partnership between her newspaper and Minnesota's public television and radio stations.

The forum, an ongoing effort to involve citizens and gauge public opinion on a variety of issues, is based on the belief that "what people have to say counts," said Sturdevant.

Forums have been conducted on a variety of topics, including taxes, education, public financing of sports stadiums, and welfare. "We make contact with citizens who care about public affairs," Sturdevant said.

A months-long series involving political candidates in the 1998 election alerted Sturdevant to the growing movement behind former pro wrestler and current Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura. Because of her involvement in the forum and the discussions with ordinary people it led to, Sturdevant said, she was not at all surprised by Ventura's victory.

Meg Downey, executive editor of the Poughkeepsie Journal in New York, became involved in a series of editorial campaigns while she was in charge of the editorial page, taking to heart Walter Lippmann's challenge to editorial pages to get "a community in a conversation with itself."

The impetus for Downey's first series was an economically devastating announcement by IBM that it would be eliminating a huge number of jobs in the area. Downey put together a series on economic development, regional cooperation, and planning the Hudson River Valley greenway. Her challenge, she said, was to get people involved and to help the readers feel they're at the table.

"You have to get the public involved," she said, "Ask people what they think."

Persistence is also important, Downey said. "Never let a series die." Downey's success came despite the fact her editorial page had only a two-person staff "You have to take advantage of the resources you have," Downey said.

John Taylor, editorial page editor of The News Journal in Wilmington, Del., became involved in a series of public summits on issues from education reform, race, health, and economic development through an unusual coalition with Delaware Public Policy Institute, a think tank with pro-business leanings.

The summits aimed to inform the public, and to bring a broad range of people together to make specific recommendations. The idea was to develop real solutions.

"We are responsible for much of the public cynicism," Taylor said. "We have an obligation to help repair it."

Glenda Holste and the St. Paul Pioneer Press in Minnesota took a different tack. Wanting to foster a community conversation about poverty in the post-welfare era, Holste teamed up with a local library to start a book club. As Holste noted in a column launching the project, "Literature illuminates, it evokes, it sings, and cries. It educates and advocates. It tells personal stories in ways the best newspaper reporting or editorial writing cannot capture."

While part of the idea was to provide a common frame of reference for the conversation, Holste wrote, 'This project is not intended to condense thinking about the implications of poverty. Rather it seeks to expand such thinking."

The seven-month project resulted in a comprehensive list of books and other resources on poverty, and an incredible amount of reader involvement. Currently, another book club is under way to complement a series on the farm crisis.

Burkett and her panelists seemed to share a common belief that newspapers and editorial pages have a bright future -- if they step out and do their best to involve the communities they serve.

NCEW member Dan Radmacher is editorial page editor of The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. His e-mail address is
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Publication:The Masthead
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 1999
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