By: Don Heinzman
More editors are wondering how to engage their readers so that the newspaper and digital platforms become forums for give-and-take on important local issues.
The opinion page is the place for the discourse on rezoning, secret meetings, racial make-up of police departments and variances for gun ranges.
At the very least, the opinion page should have a local editorial and or column dealing with a local matter.
If editors are cowed by a management concerned over what a controversial opinion will do to a sales account, they should find another newspaper to edit.
Editors should be concerned when their only letters are thank-you letters from the Lions Club for good coverage on their pancake breakfast.
Editors, however, bear responsibility for the tepid reaction to their newspaper, because they determine what stories to cover and how to cover them.
Editors should check the agendas ahead of time and decide whether or not the story of a council dealing with closing a popular city-funded golf course will be on page 1. If possible, a guest opinion on closing the golf course should be part of the next week’s opinion page
A story on the school board handling a parental complaint about content in a text book should be on page 1—not inside on a school page. interview the parent for a story on why she’s so concerned in the next issue.
An editor is in control of the opinion forums either in print or digital. Too often we see an opinion page with a cartoon, lazy letters, a column about fun at the family reunion.
Letters should get special attention. Lead off with the best one under a bigger headline, perhaps with a photo of the writer.
Seek opinions from both sides of an issue like closing the golf course.
Better yet, take a stand on why the golf course should be kept open
Write a series of stories, always on page 1, on the need to reconstruct an intersection where 10 people have been killed in crashes.
Follow up the series with an editorial declaring the editor’s position on an intersection that must be corrected.
Draw your readers into your newspaper by playing up issues that are important to them: possible tax increases, increasing cases of family violence and dropping graduation rates.
Finally, plan an editorial agenda at the start of the year which outlines your positions on upcoming local issues that will set the tone for your opinion page for the year.
Don Heinzman is a consultant on improving weekly community newspapers, based on his 50 years as a reporter and editor. He is the author of a manual for editors: “Managing a Weekly Newsroom Staff”.