Wick Communications

Better local opinion pages

In Opinion pages on December 9, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Recently, Williston Herald Managing Editor Jacob Brooks has been helping the folks at the Wahpeton Daily News to reconsider their newswriting, packaging and other aspects of the editorial product. One of the things he noticed was that the paper could benefit from better opinion page pieces. Vibrant opinion pages are the heart of any good newspaper. I am not sure you can have a good community newspaper without local content on your editorial page. Jacob compiled a list of tips for publisher Ken Harty and his team and I asked Jacob if he would mind my reprinting them here. I think he has something in here we could all use. — Clay

Columns:

I think we all use those syndicated columnists, but if I could, I’d do away with them entirely. They are good writers, but all they talk about is Washington politics, so it’s about as non-local as you can get.

I know this is hard, but try to schedule a local column to run every day. Here at the Herald, all the newsroom staff is required to write a column, which gives the Opinion Page local flavor every day.

The community can help, too. At the Bogalusa Daily News, there was a man in his 20s who was community-minded and liked to write letters to the editor. I approached him about writing a weekly column and he was all for it. I think we paid him $10 per column, and while his work needed some heavy editing at first, he got better after time…

Here at the Herald, I’ve got a local food columnist (for our weekly food page) and another local who writes a business column.

Editorial cartoons:

Again, I think we all use the syndicated cartoons that never have anything to do with our communities. If you’re lucky, you might be able to find a local cartoonist who might be willing to draw cartoons for a nominal fee that fits in your budget. But that’s not likely.

Another idea I have (and I have not done this yet, but I plan to) is to approach a local art teacher at the college or high school, and see if they will assign their students to draw editorial cartoons. Just give them the dimensions (7 inches wide by 6 inches high or so), and let them go at it. I would encourage them to draw pictures of local issues. If one class agrees to do it, that would give you 20 or 30 local editorial cartoons at no cost. The only real work would be to scan the artwork and place it on the page.

Editorials:

The Wick standard is for a local editorial to appear in every edition, so we all need to adhere to this. And it adds local content to the paper, which should be the goal every issue. I sometimes draw a blank when it’s time to write an editorial, but there are some easy ways to get through it:

  • Take a look at the last city commission or school board story that ran, and just take a stand on what they passed or didn’t pass. Writing an editorial supporting the school board’s decision to add a five new teachers or the city’s decision to review its hiring policy, for example, is usually pretty easy.
  • Questioning the status quo is another editorial option. I wrote a column a few weeks back questioning how the city plows the snow, and it must have gotten 50 online comments or so. And I didn’t say the city was wrong, I just suggested it might be time the city reviews its snow-plowing policy.
  • Pats on the back for do-gooders in the community. In Bogalusa, we ran a “We Salute” editorial every Friday, recognizing the accomplishments of locals during the past week.

Letters to the editor:

With everybody able to post comments online, letters to the editor are a dying breed. But here at the Herald, I still get two or three letters per week. That’s probably about average, but I wish it were more. If you have a letters policy, it might be a good idea to review it and open things up if possible (i.e. allow longer letters, poems, certain thank-you letters, etc.)

Some newspapers offer a “Golden Pen” award or something similar, recognizing the top letter of the month. It’s an easy program to organize. Just keep the first letter you get in a given month in a drawer in your desk, and as soon as a better letter comes along, replace it with the better one. That way, you will always have the top letter on hand, and can easily award the winner at the end of the month. You don’t have to actually give the writer a “Golden Pen”, just a paper certificate will do, and it’s a good way to interact with the community.

Also, letters have a way of generating more letters, so the more you can get, the better. I also encourage letter writers to e-mail letters to me whenever possible. (It saves time on typing them).

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