Editorial page intended to spur discussion

July 6, 2015

By Jim Pumarlo
Everyday Ethics 

Why would a Minnesota community newspaper reprint editorials from out-of-state newspapers, even a letter from a Texas resident—especially on a topic that likely could draw sharp response from local readers?

The question was raised more than once during my tenure as editor in Red Wing, MN. Our coverage on the news and editorial pages was placed under extra scrutiny many years ago when the Minnesota Legislature was debating whether to allow on-site, above-ground storage of radioactive spent fuel at the local nuclear power plant. Commentaries from authors outside our readership area added to an already lively exchange of local opinions in an emotion-filled debate that sharply divided our community and state.

To add to the mix, we took an aggressive editorial stance in favor of the storage. That was especially disconcerting to the Native American reservation that bordered the plant site and vigorously opposed the storage. The Legislature eventually approved the utility’s plan.

Make no mistake, however, the decision to broaden the scope of commentary on this issue had nothing to do with whether we advocated or opposed the storage of nuclear waste. It had everything to do with presenting a diverse range of opinions from recognized experts whose opinions, we believed, enriched the debate.

Op-eds can be a valuable addition to enhancing the dialogue on editorial pages. Admittedly, there is a great deal of subjectivity in selection of materials, but some general criteria should guide the process. Among them:

Relevance: Is the topic of local interest? For example, we often reprinted editorials or other commentaries about the vitality of downtowns or the statewide dynamics of rural and urban economies.

Contrary opinion: Does the commentary represent a perspective that might not be regularly presented in a newspaper’s editorials? Given our strong editorial bent in support of nuclear power, we frequently presented the contrary viewpoint—maybe to a fault.

Strength of argument: Does the writer do a good job of stating the facts, then drawing a conclusion? Commentaries lacking substance, or simply poorly written, are often best sent to the recycling bin.

Variety: Does the editorial address a topic not regularly discussed on the editorial page? An offbeat commentary may be just the ingredient to spur new voices and fresh opinions on an otherwise predictable, if not stagnant, editorial page.

Editors have a variety of sources to seek a mix of opinions. The Web makes it easy to scan other newspapers. Trade associations, think tanks and other advocacy organizations regularly circulate commentaries. A word of caution, though, when surfing the Web. Do your homework; make sure the commentary is authentic and original. Verify the author’s credentials.

Editors must be careful not to reprint only those commentaries that align with a newspaper’s perspective. Doing so would make for a stale page, and it would be a disservice to readers by not affording an opportunity for all sides of an issue to be aired.

In similar respect, newspapers must take care to ensure that their editorial stances do not taint news coverage. Our newsroom constantly evaluated our coverage of the nuclear waste debate.

So how did we perform in the eyes of those who counted most—our readers? One answer was provided by two letters that arrived the same day. One reader complained that we showed our pro-nuclear bias in our news reports; the other said we were giving the anti-nuclear activists too much attention. On this day, at least, we concluded our reports were striking the proper balance.

We also remained committed to promoting an active exchange of opinions. In the end, a lively editorial page is at the heart of a dynamic community. The page serves its role best when it energizes citizens to debate a variety of issues at the foundation of a healthy community. © Jim Pumarlo 2015


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.

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