Wick Communications

You reap what you sow

In Opinion pages on February 9, 2012 at 4:38 pm

On Thursday, several of us met by the magic of the telephone to discuss ways to engage more readers on our opinion pages. I don’t think we have any more important job as writers, photographers and editors of community news organizations. In fact, I think it is a duty that is in some ways more important than ever.

I realize that I’m running upstream a bit. Just this week, I read that the Chicago Sun-Times wouldn’t be endorsing candidates any more. The newspaper’s explanation (“We have come to doubt the value of candidate endorsements by this newspaper or any newspaper, especially in a day when a multitude of information sources allow even a casual voter to be better informed than ever before…”) may be true if you are talking big-city politics or national candidates, but I’m not sure you can say that in a place like Roanoke Rapids, N.C. or Montrose, Colo.

The instant gratification of commenting online has taken many of our old letter writers. And these days, fewer of us employ columnists to fill all that open real estate on opinion pages. We’re all busier than ever. Who has time to think of writing opinions when the dang scanner keeps jabbering about crime down the street and the school board is acting up again?

Fortunately, there are innovations we all use every day that can help. …

  • Harvest local opinion online: You probably have a ton of commentary attached to your stories online. You may be reticent to publish any of that, sometimes anonymous, blather in your newspaper. Well, I think times have changed. Your readers have become accustomed to seeing commentary like this online. The photo at the top of this post is the Half Moon Bay Review opinion pages this week. (No, we don’t regularly run two full pages of opinion; but we had a lot of stuff brought by a very full news week.) You’ll notice that a good bit of it – labeled Talkabout and “Comments” – is pulled directly from our website. To be sure, I choose carefully. I’m more likely to run comments that identify the author and absolutely will not put into print any of the more scurrilous stuff. In fact, I hope commenters have noticed that the way to get into print is to be reasonable and succinct online.
  • Encourage staff participation: Time was, staff writers weren’t allowed to have a written opinion. It may still be dicey to, say, cover the city council and also write opinions about its work. I probably wouldn’t allow that. But I don’t see why the sportswriter can’t offer an opinion about the worst traffic nightmare in town, do you? I think all publishers should contribute, at least occasionally, to their newspaper’s opinion pages. John Dillon, at the Argus-Observer, in Ontario, Ore., does a great job with a regular column that routinely mentions the good works of local readers. And he’s certainly not the only one. Do you have a pressman with an opinion? Encourage his contribution.
  • Seek outside voices: Lance Nixon, the editor of the Capital Journal, in Pierre, S.D., has created a new column called, “Community Voices.” He is seeking interesting experts from outside the building who might provide particular vantage points. He has an architect writing about the state’s architecture, a former staffer who is now in the Peace Corps and, consequently, has a perspective on the world, a local historian who can comment on the town’s past. You get the idea. Of course, you may get lucky. These things may just walk in the door. But more likely you have to work at it, seeking out community voices.
  • Include art: So many opinion pages are drab. Usually, there is an editorial running down the left-hand column, an editorial cartoon from gosh knows where and a syndicated column that is 10 inches too long and gray as the Confederate army. Add some life to the page. Put a poll on there. If someone writes a letter referencing the high school basketball game, run a staff picture of the game to illustrate it. It’s great to have a template but know when to break it.

Lastly, know that opinions are a snowball that runs downhill. It can seem terribly hard to find opinions to publish at first, but one man’s opinion has a way of drawing responses from two more. The more opinions you include in the newspaper the more likely you will have even more the next week.

Clay

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