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A salute to those who wave the editorial banner

By Jim Pumarlo
Newsroom Strategies Training

Last summer’s Grassroots Editor still sits in my stack of journalism publications. The edition announced the Golden Quill winners in annual competition sponsored by the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors.

I have a passion for vibrant, local editorials. I believe energized, local editorials are at the foundation of energized communities. The Golden Quill recognizes the top 12 editorials written among nondailies.

The competition is a reminder that many newspapers – even the smallest – still wave the banner of local editorials. They are a bright note amid a disappointing landscape of more and more newspapers giving less attention to their editorial consciences.

Among last year’s honorees:

Overall winner Brian Wilson at the Star News in Medford, Wis., addressed the death of a mentally ill man who was killed after shooting at and injuring a police officer during a standoff. “Legislative leadership cares more about playing political games than in having a grown-up discussion about firearms and lack of mental health care,” he wrote. “ … No action will be perfect, but action needs to take place in order to prevent the next tragedy.”

Marcia Martinek at the Herald Democrat in Leadville, Colo., gave accolades to a deputy who brought to light official misconduct in the sheriff’s department that was reinforced by a grand jury investigation. “For several years, we’ve been writing stories about how various law enforcement officers in Leadville and Lake County have run amok,” she wrote. “… So what a relief it is to be able to talk about a law enforcement officer who did the right thing.”

Dan Wehmer at the Webster County Citizen in Seymour, Mo., articulated in detail why residents should support a levy increase for the school district. “Over the past two decades, this newspaper has never endorsed a tax increase of any type,” he wrote. “Our tax-bump tally is zero. Until today.”

The editorials represent the best in community journalism. Many newsrooms devote immense resources to coverage of local public affairs. Yet they often fall short in the final step: advancing the exchange of opinions through local editorials.

It’s pretty easy to weigh in on national issues. Yes, you’ll have your detractors. But the response from readers – even those strongly opposed – will likely be less animated than if you take issue with the local human rights or economic development commission or criticize a decision by the school board.

Courageous publishers and editors take those stances, regardless of potential repercussions. That does not mean advancing positions with reckless abandon. Editorials, especially those certain to generate strong reaction, should be thoroughly researched and carefully crafted.

Here is one set of principles to guide editorial writing:

· Don’t portray yourself as an ivory tower: Editorials should not be positioned as the “correct” opinion or the final word on a subject. Editorials should present a well-reasoned argument and conclusion.

· Welcome rebuttals: Newspapers should readily publish contrary opinions.

· Be consistent in stances: Editorials should be unwavering in promoting common themes. Newspapers often are labeled – and criticized – for promoting a conservative or liberal agenda. But newspapers that regularly flip-flop on issues will lose their credibility. At the same time, be open to revisiting an issue and changing an editorial perspective if circumstances change.

· Offer kudos, too: Don’t hesitate to write complimentary editorials. Your credibility will take a hit – and communication with key individuals will be hindered – if certain bodies are always on the receiving end of an editorial rant.

· Think local: Editorials should be localized in the same manner as news stories are.

· Write with substance: Effective editorials, by definition, should leave an impression. In contrast, nondescript editorials are easily forgotten.

I fondly remember my late wife, who I often used as a sounding board. She’d admit, on occasion, that the aggressive local editorials could be uncomfortable among our circle of friends. We once were walking downtown about to cross paths with a local official who we had taken to task in our coverage. I could almost hear her saying, “Can we turn around?”

But, as I would remind her, many subjects received their editorial due at one time or another: Democrats and Republicans, downtown and strip mall merchants, business and labor leaders, school administrators and coaches. We’d never leave the house if we wanted to shy away from potential confrontations.

She knew that, too, and was my biggest booster. She admired and respected the fact that we took strong stances on local issues as an institution in the community. She’d suggest ideas, too. As you sit down to write an editorial, keep that at the forefront: Strive for the same admiration and respect from your community, and you’ll have the foundation for a strong editorial.

In truth, writing the editorial is almost the easiest part. You should introduce the subject, present the pros and cons, and reach a conclusion. The challenge is getting the ideas, then approaching a topic with facts and self-confidence. It’s not as foreboding as you might think if you devote attention to your editorial page on a regular basis and create an editorial mind-set.

The Golden Quill winners should inspire us all to strive for that editorial excellence.
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Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at jim@pumarlo.com.