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Sizing up a new audience.

Almost everyone agrees that the World Wide Web opens tremendous opportunity for opinion pages. The problem is finding ways to tap that potential.

A panel of online practitioners tackled that topic in a Saturday morning session on the final day of the Seattle convention. The panel was moderated by NCEW's online guru, Phineas Fiske.

To make the most of online opinion pages, newspapers "have to abandon the idea of the traditional editorial page," said Stanley Farrar, the Seattle Times assistant managing editor for online media.

"The Web centers around narrow communities of interests," Farrar said. "The traditional editorial page is aimed at the community at large."

The Times has used its online presence to promote and advance an editorial agenda. But the newspaper doesn't always do this in a direct fashion. For instance, the Times publisher was an advocate of establishing a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

The Times put together a Martin Luther King Jr. memorial Web site. The site didn't mention the Times' editorial goal, but it was a useful, informative site that still gets considerable attention.

Michael Zuzel, editorial writer and online content editor for The Columbian in Vancouver, Wash., suggested that newspapers must look beyond the traditional advantages of the Web: wider reach, continuous publication cycle, and unlimited news space.

"Many of the advantages we first considered aren't really that important for opinion pages," Zuzel said.

Instead, online opinion editors should look to increase the interactivity and customization of their pages for individual readers.

"The Web allows participation by people we usually consider as receivers of information," Zuzel said. "Opinion pages should not be atop-down, one-way communication source."

But even traditional forms of interactivity -- user forums and other methods of reader feedback -- aren't enough. "We have to find ways to make information tailor made to the individual," Zuzel said.

Keven Wiley, editorial page editor of The Arizona Republic, has had some experience with that. The Republic put together a candidate scorecard for the most recent election. Online Republic readers can search a database by office and categories to see how candidates fare on a large number of agenda items.

The Republic also put responses to their candidate questionnaires online. Voters can read the entire response from every candidate.

Opinion section rivals sports section for readers

The response to these initiatives has been very positive. Tracking numbers for the Republic's Web site show the opinion section often rivaling and occasionally beating the sports section in the number of readers.

This was not simply because of the interactive features, Willey said. A more prominent link to the opinion pages from the Republic's home page, promotions in the newspaper, and a better site design all contributed.

No magic bullets were offered by any of the panelists. Opinion pages are feeling their way along, just like everything else on the rapidly changing Web.

But it is clear that successful online opinion pages will offer both individualized information -- whether through searchable databases or links to specialized information for those seeking more information.

At the same time, they will build some sense of community, even if that means many narrower communities rather than the one large one editorialists are used to dealing with.

The online world can both increase the visibility of the newspaper and help achieve the newspaper's editorial agenda. Newspapers must continue to find new and innovative ways to use the Web to reach those goals.

New NCEW board member Dan Radmacher is editorial page editor of The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia.
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Publication:The Masthead
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2000
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