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Turning to readers to cover big stories.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch

Virginians do their best to keep newspaper editors on their toes. In 1989 they voted the nation's first elected black governor, a Democrat, into power, but no Democratic presidential candidate has carried the state since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. In 1994 Virginians returned the incumbent Democrat to the Senate while the rest of the country was electing Republicans.

Just a year earlier, though, Republican George Allen swept into the Virginia governor's office with a 17-point victory on promises to attack crime and rein in government. Even after four years of government reductions under Democrat L. Douglas Wilder - which were forced by the state Constitution's requirement of a balanced budget - Virginia voters opted for even less government. In 1994, so did voters in other states.

The Virginia Senate race involving Oliver L. North, Senator Charles S. Robb and Republican-turned-independent Marshall Coleman was not a typical campaign for 1994 because it turned as much on questions of character and integrity as on public policy issues (crime, health care, education and the economy). North carried baggage from the Iran-Contra affair and Robb from allegations of past drug associations with drug users and womanizing. Our public opinion polling and calls and letters from readers reflected that.

Virginia's contrarian political record makes an editor wary of professing to know the people's "mood." And just when one hazards a prediction about what "conservative" metro Richmond might think, along comes a public opinion survey showing that local views on abortion and gun-control mirror the nation's.

We use statewide survey research and increasingly use local focus groups, but we are still routinely reminded that we have not covered the spectrum of popular opinion. Readers call our ombudsman and our editors and contribute a flood of letters. The editorial pages published more than 2,500 letters last year; hundreds more were not published and a few hundred more not intended for publication were sent to the news department.

Some of the complaints and compliments directed to the news department come in response to a "From the editors" column that appears every three weeks in the Sunday Commentary section. The topics vary from how we plan to cover an event to how we make decisions. Columns inviting comment usually succeed; sometimes they're mentioned by a caller months after publication.

Richmond's demographics assure a wide division of opinion on many political and social issues. The city itself is relatively liberal, with an African-American majority that supports Democrats with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The surrounding suburbs are predominantly white and generally elect conservatives, of either party.

Beyond the metropolitan area, The Times-Dispatch covers a state that ranges from the gridlocked suburbs of Washington to the Southwest's coalfields and Southside's tobacco farms, from the Shenandoah Valley's neat farms to sleepy Chesapeake Bay fishing communities, from white-columned county courthouses to the neon strip of Virginia Beach. The spreads in income and education are as sweeping as the geography.

We try to stay tuned in any way we can: survey research, focus groups, a youth advisory board, feedback from speaking engagements, reader calls and letters, and newsroom discussion.

For judging the moment's hot stories and spotting fads, staff feedback from neighbors and friends works well. What are parents saying as they stand on the sidelines at their kids' soccer games? What styles do middle school students absolutely have to buy for school this fall? This is the metro version of small-town readers cornering the editor in the barbershop or at the post office.

Staff feedback, though, has drawbacks, and a big one for us is demographics. Our staffs median age is 41. In a metropolitan statistical area that is 30 percent black and a state 20 percent black, our staff is 10 percent black. Thus chunks of our potential audience are underrepresented or not represented in our planning, assigning and editing.

That's one reason we are turning to our readers more in-reporting big stories. We learned some years ago that when ordinary folks are given the time to delve into an issue, most of them reject sound-bite analysis and either-or solutions in favor of more complex approaches to difficult issues.

Early in the 1989 gubernatorial campaign that Wilder eventually won, we asked thoughtful people of many occupations and backgrounds in different parts of the state to chat with us about their concerns and hopes. Those views helped us write several stories that might not have been developed by our reporters and editors.

We did the same thing on crime and corrections last summer when The Times-Dispatch joined with The Associated Press, and three other metro dailies - The Daily Press in Newport News, The Roanoke Times & World-News and The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot - to study Governor Allen's no-parole plan and how states with similar policies fared. The project team used structured but unscientifically chosen discussion groups that we called "community conversations."

Gathering in eight groups around the state, the more than 90 citizens knew that the issues were broader than depicted by the politicians and too complex to be solved in one special legislative session. They doubted that government could or should resolve the issues alone, and they placed great importance on working with the next generation.

The citizens' opinions and the results of a scientific opinion poll appearing across the state just before a special session of the General Assembly apparently reflected the views of a substantial number of Virginians. Almost six months later, the legislators have not resolved all the issues related to the no-parole policy, even though a majority in each house had signed on to the proposals before the special session in September.

Given the complexity of a newspaper, though, readers can probably find a misstep - in commission or omission - for each success. Communication with readers is still as good a short-term barometer as any for measuring what we cover and how well we do it. If they know they'll be heard, they will call and write.

RELATED ARTICLE: Mencken on Correctness

What ails the beautiful letters of the Republic is what ails the general culture of the Republic - the lack of a body of sophisticated and civilized public opinion, independent of plutocratic or governmental control and superior to the infantile philosophies of the mob - a body of opinion showing the eager curiosity, the educated skepticism and the hospitality to ideas of a true aristocracy. This lack is felt by the American author, imagining him to have anything new to say, every day of his life. He can hope for no support, in ordinary cases from the mob: it is too suspicious of all ideas. He can hope for no support from the spokesmen of the plutocracy: they are too diligently devoted to maintaining the intellectual status quo. He turns, then, to the intelligentsia - and what he finds is correctness. In his two prime functions, to represent the life about him accurately and to criticize it honestly, he sees that correctness arrayed against him. His representation is indecorous, unlovely, too harsh to be borne. His criticism is in contumacy to the ideals upon which the whole structure rests. So he is either attacked vigorously as an anti-patriot whose babblings ought to be put down by law, or enshrouded in a silence which commonly disposes of him even more effectively. H. L. Mencken in Prejudices, Second Series, 1920.

From: "The Second Mencken Chres-tomathy," published January 30, 1995, Alfred A. Knopf, New York; $30.

Louise Seals is Managing Editor of The Richmond Times-Dispatch. Before becoming M. E. in 1994, she ran the night news operation for 10 years, led three redesigns, and helped start the paper's acclaimed Urban Journalism Workshop. She is a director of Associated Press Managing Editors, past president of Virginia Press Women and a Pulitzer juror, and is active in Virginia Press Association. She holds degrees from Virginia Commonwealth University and West Virginia University. She also worked at The Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y., and The Daily News in Dayton, Ohio.
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Title Annotation:Keeping In Touch: How The Media Can Connect With The Public; includes related article; Richmond Times - Dispatch
Author:Seals, Louise
Publication:Nieman Reports
Date:Mar 22, 1995
Previous Article:Surveys, polls, but above all - dialogue.
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