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You're a WHAT? Getting used to the job title takes a while.

Sometimes I don't tell people I'm an editorial writer. I don't want to make the paper look bad.

I hate to disillusion those who pictured pipe-puffing men with giant brains, bristling with tweed and analyzing Canadian politics. What they get instead is a ponytailed girl, someone who graduated 10 years ago from public high school without knowing when World War II was. Telling them my pre-journalism experience waitress, deckhand, furry mascot - never seems to help.

Getting paid to learn and think and write is just about the biggest scam on Earth, and every day I get up and thank God for this job. No other job allows you to be reporter, dreamer, diplomat, and table-pounder every day. That's why it doesn't bother me, much, when a visiting politician insists I'm the secretary, or when a businessman starts every sentence with, "What you probably don't understand is...." If I were a fifty-something journalist with a tie and a respectable head of Donahue hair, they wouldn't reveal that part of themselves.

I started as a reporter, then editor, of a weekly newspaper north of Seattle. I've worked as an editorial writer at two Washington papers: The Columbian in Vancouver and The Seattle Times. The Columbian's editorial board desperately sought a woman to join its phalanx of middle-aged white men. They were gems; they never asked me, "What do women think about this?"

Mindy Cameron, editorial page editor of The Seattle Times, has hired editorial writers with a vast range of backgrounds and ideologies. We have a hard-hearted conservative, musing moderates, and at least one recovering liberal; writers who are Filipino, Irish-Catholic, Danish, Jewish. The two of us in our twenties tease, and get teased, by those in their fifties.

Some grew up comfortably and some scraped by. This year, one bought a condo, another registered a daughter for middle school, and a third had a grandson. Our private worries make us follow some topics more closely: student loans, Medicare, school reform, estate taxes, rent increases, glass ceilings. The board has a libertarian think-tank analyst, several seasoned reporters, and, uh, me.

This mix of perspectives and ages makes the job challenging; we have to research carefully and write reasonably because we know our arguments have to hold water with each other. When we are more accountable to each other, we are more accountable to our readers.

The shift in editorial boards to accommodate more diverse writers is something to which none of us is quite accustomed. I'm not yet used to editorial writers who look different, either - including myself. Young, female, or minority writers must squelch the suspicion that their application got a boost to fulfill an invisible quota. It's hard to sense that suspicion emanating politely from but it's hardest when it comes from within. The obvious remedy is to overreport, stay late, volunteer for Easter editorials, whatever it takes.

It's a whatever-it-takes attitude from nontraditional writers that often is their biggest asset. And it makes for a balanced group of writers: The nontraditional writers don't have the been-there, done-that weariness that seasoned writers can face, and the seasoned writers provide the context and experience that nontraditional writers can lack - like when World War II was.

I suspect that without affirmative action, I might still be toiling over a waxer and line tape at the Marysville Globe. I feel guilty, sometimes, about sitting in a chair that, 10 years ago, would have belonged to a more experienced man.

But I see what diversity does to editorial pages. Individual perspectives come through in the pages, and readers of all ages and ideologies hear the words speaking to them.

Newspapers need all the credibility they can scrape together, and a healthy mix of conscientious writers is the best way to earn it. That's why I promise to start telling the world I'm an editorial writer. In about 30 years.

NCEW member Susan Nielsen is an editorial writer for The Seattle Times. Her e-mail address is
COPYRIGHT 1998 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:editorial writer; The Nontraditional Editorialist
Author:Nielsen, Susan
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Dec 22, 1998
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