2010 Archives


Tweeting With Arnold

Fresno Bee streams video of ed board with California governor

Published Sunday, January 3, 2010 7:00 am by Jim Boren

A Fresno Bee editorial board meeting with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger offered the opinion page an opportunity to use all the tools in our new media toolbox. Editorial board meetings with Schwarzenegger usually produce news, and this one ended up getting statewide coverage because of the way we presented it to our readers.

The response we got to this experiment surprised us, as this convergence of print and 21st century newspaper technology showed us how we could meet our readers' needs in several formats.

In addition to the traditional print coverage of the meeting, we streamed video live to give our readers a glimpse of the editorial board process and a look at their governor making news on several issues, including new revelations about the state budget crisis and an underground water tunneling device that sounded like it came out of one of Schwarzenegger's movies. The governor excitedly told us the real-life tunnel machine is similar to what he used in his "Total Recall" movie.

During the hourlong editorial board meeting, we used Twitter to send highlights of the session to followers through several real-time tweets. We even took questions via Twitter from readers watching the editorial board meeting on the Web. The readers tweeted the questions and they were passed on to Schwarzenegger.

The governor was delighted to participate in this experiment. A staff member for Schwarzenegger told us, "He's all about the tweets," and that he personally uses Twitter before and after events around the state. He also uses other social networking platforms to get his message to Californians. So Schwarzenegger understood the impact of what we were doing.

We look for opportunities to promote our content. We have been gathering e-mail addresses from readers who have signed up with us to get e-mail blasts when something newsworthy occurs. In addition, our New Media department has a separate broader list of readers who have signed up for news alerts. We use that list when the opinion page partners with New Media, such as the video of the Schwarzenegger editorial board meeting. We also have a weekly opinion bulletin that goes out on Mondays and promotes editorials, columns, letters and reminds readers of our archived video. We also "drip irrigate" our content to interested groups. For example, an editorial on immigration reform will be sent to immigration groups, and they often send the link to their members. We call this drip irrigation because we send material out in drips and hope it will grow like the crops in our San Joaquin Valley.

We posted blog items from this meeting on our Opinion Talk blog and the session was covered in the news section of the paper. Material gleaned from the meeting also was fodder for editorials on state issues. We routinely post blog items and links to editorials on our Facebook and MySpace pages.

We later learned that several reporters for other news outlets watched the video in their offices and wrote stories based on what Schwarzenegger told our editorial board. At one point, the governor announced that the state budget gap had grown by $6 billion to $7 billion, and that was the basis of a front-page story in The Sacramento Bee the next day and news reports by the Associated Press on that revelation. Others picked up that fact and credited our editorial board meeting as the source of the governor's comments.

While we intended to stream video of the meeting, the Twitter portion occurred when Executive Editor Betsy Lumbye decided to attend the meeting and tweet bulletins of the session to her followers. (Editorial board meetings are on the record and the news side can attend.) We quickly learned of all the possibilities that technology offers us in extending our reach. Twitter is now on our editorial board meeting menu of options.

While we often offer our readers opportunities to send us questions for high-profile guests at editorial board meetings, we were surprised when some readers wanted us to ask questions of the governor via Twitter and then see him answer their questions live on the Web. Clearly, this is something that we should be doing when we have newsworthy guests at our meetings.

We learned several things at the meeting, including the need to have a better microphone system to pick up questions from editorial board members. While we had a lapel mike on the governor, we used table mikes for the other participants and you can't always hear their questions. We also need to do a better job of telling our readers in advance about how they can participate. We gave them short notice. We did an email blast just before the meeting. But better planning would have allowed more to watch.

We had 160 people who viewed the video live and 928 who viewed the meeting through our video archive.

We believe that this was a successful venture in combining all the technology available to us to increase our reach and allow our readers a peek at the inner workings of an editorial board meeting.

Jim Boren is an NCEW member and editorial page editor and vice president of The Fresno Bee.

Commentary for print, Web and Web-plus

Published Sunday, January 10, 2010 7:00 am by Susan Mannella

In the world of ever-evolving new media, where yesterday's latest trend is something everybody is doing by tomorrow, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Sept. 1 launched a truly different product, an attempt to provide readers with expanded content if they're willing to pay a few cents a day to see it.

We call it PG+, with an emphasis on the "plus." PG+ is a separate platform from the newspaper's Web site,www.post-gazette.com.The regular site is where Web readers can find the complete contents of the print edition, along with blogs, audio and video components, timely updates, expanded original documentation such as court filings or news releases, and links to hundreds of other sites on a regular basis.

From the beginning, Post-Gazette President Christopher H. Chamberlain, the father of Plus, was adamant that nothing would be taken away from customers who already were subscribing to the newspaper or visiting the main Web site. So the newsroom staff of the Post-Gazette set out to create a separate layer of content for the site, www.post-gazette.com/plus. The attitude from the start was that almost anything was worth trying, but we weren't wedded to ideas that didn't pan out.

Subscribers pay $3.99 per month, or $2.99 per month if they sign up for 12 months at a time. A log-in and password are required for access. On the main page, a running item called "The Feed" provides nuggets of news and commentary throughout the day, seven days a week, and refers readers to features inside.

There are seven sections: Perks, where readers can access coupons for discounts at local businesses and win tickets to concerts and other events; Sports, where our regular columnists chip in and writers provide real-time reports from team practices; Life, which includes gardening, gossiping, video gaming and more; Money, with business news and Q&A  sessions on current topics; a Video channel, with seven staff-hosted talk shows on music, television, comics and other things; a blogging site, where readers can set up their own; and Insight, which is where the editorial department comes in.

 Cartoonist Rob Rogers gives readers a daily preview of tomorrow's cartoon by posting what he calls "Rob's Rough," an early sketch along with an explanation of his goal for the cartoon and where he got the idea. Readers can ask questions and comment if they wish.

Deputy Editorial Page Editor Reg Henry, who has a liberal streak, and columnist Jack Kelly, whose conservative credentials are firmly established, conduct an hourlong "FaceOff" at lunchtime three days a week. The format is a lively, live transcript.

Reg and Jack don't write it in advance, although they do touch base on FaceOff days to make tentative plans for topics. We tried a couple of different pieces of software before settling on the blogging tool CoveritLive.

For readers who really want to get into the conversation, I created and I manage Town Talk, a variation on the old roundtable discussions that many newspapers have carried in their print editions. Post-Gazette letters editor Alice Rowley combed through her regular letter-writers and came up with a list of people in the community who had demonstrated an interest in current events and the capacity to write well-thought-out opinion pieces.

Editorial Page Editor Tom Waseleski sent out invitations with an eye toward diversity in background and opinions, and we established a panel of eight community writers, who were supplemented with four members of the PG's editorial board.

We wanted all of our writers to have equal power to start threads of conversation on the site, which meant selecting software that would give our "town talkers" access to the system without the ability to breach any Internet security features. It's not perfect. The system is very easy to use, but it's not very appealing visually and we cannot add photos or links to other sites. It stacks submissions so that the first item posted each day stays at the top, rather than allowing each new posting to get the lead-off position, also not ideal. But after working out some kinks, we managed to get the comments to flow directly under the post to which they are related. When we first started out, they were all over the place and it was next to impossible to follow the conversation.

As experienced writers of letters to the editor, the community participants quickly got the hang of it, but some were shy about starting conversations. With only one exception, we haven't had the problems with language or tone that some sites have experienced, and which we have found more common on the letters and editorials blogs on our main Post-Gazette Web site.

Dick Marshall has been one of more frequent contributors and he had this to say about his first three months on Town Talk:  "I have obviously appreciated and enjoyed participating here.  I hope I'm not hogging too much space ....but the news seems to keep feeding my imagination...and I can get my two cents in."

Cathie Huber, who hasn't done as much writing but who brings a gentle touch to the site, offered that, "Although subjects come up that I don't feel I can participate in, I like the forum format that allows for reply and give and take. There has been some interesting, even passionate, commentary.  Keep it going!"

Sometimes our writers want to tell us a little more about themselves than we think is appropriate. Personal restaurant or movie reviews aren't what we have in mind for Town Talk, for example, but an email from me to the offending writers has been enough to get them back on track with commentary on recent news events.

We expected a large volume of comments from the public on this site, which is what we have seen on our regular blogs, but that hasn't happened yet. We hope that will come later, as we continue to add subscribers every week.

Animation animates Miami Herald cartoonist

Drawing for the Web

Published Monday, January 18, 2010 2:00 pm by Jim Morin

Cartoons of all kinds look like fun, but aside from their creators, few understand how much effort goes into making them look effortless.  This is especially true for animated cartoons, where the output of drawings required to effectively realize a vision is staggering.

So I thought a lot about what I was taking on before I concluded the only realistic answer to creating a new feature for the Miami Herald Web site was to - gulp - animate the cartoons.

I had seen other cartoonists take one of their newspaper cartoons, put a little digitally produced movement in the arms and legs, add some dialogue and then post it online. The cartoons themselves were very good, but the still image version struck me as far more effective and potent than its animated offspring.

If this was the future of editorial cartooning, I didn't want to be a part of it. 
So I resolved to do animation for the new-fangled Web the old-fashioned way: by drawing each individual frame of the 12 frames per second.  Fortunately, I discovered Toon Boom's animation software, a digital platform that uses the same traditional techniques used for camera animation.  This enables a single creator to do the work done by teams of artists in the old days.

It also dawned on me that rather than simply drawing a single-panel cartoon featuring, say,  Dick Cheney water boarding someone, I could include gurgles, the dripping water, the tortured screams, sinister background music and Cheney's low, menacing voice. These elements would provide an atmosphere not possible in a single-frame drawing.

And that was it - I was hooked.

My first cartoon, "The Rainy Season," is 2 minutes 39 seconds long and took three months to complete. The second,"Alien Invaders,"took two months.  I'm hoping to master the working method so it takes three weeks from start to finish. 

In a way, you really are creating two cartoons: one for video, one for audio.   You have writing, storyboarding, voices, sound effects, painting, and possibly music, to add to the creative mix. 

The simplest human movement can be a terror to animate.  Take walking: It is as common an action as you can imagine, but until you break it down into 12 individual images, you don't realize how complex it is.  Then, consider that each person's "walk" is as individual as a fingerprint, and you can see the cartoonist really has his work cut out for him.

I continue to draw five print cartoons a week for the Miami Herald.  The animations are done in the evenings and into the early morning.  My weekends are almost entirely spent working on the animations as well.

I've been drawing editorial cartoons for newspapers for nearly 35 years, and over that time you develop a measure of confidence.  By taking on a new art form, I've been thrust into the unknown. There is so much to learn, and every revelation is an adventure, every accomplishment a thrill, every mistake a valuable lesson.

 I had started drawing cartoons at age 7, entirely influenced by animated cartoons. I tried my hand at it with flip books, rotoscopes and two very short filmed animations.  As a child, I was ecstatic about seeing a drawing I had created move across the screen as if it had a life of its own. I was entranced with the infinite possibilities of what could be achieved.

And that's where I am again now. Jan. 30 is my 57th birthday, but I feel like I'm age 7.

Jim Morin is the editorial cartoonist for the Miami Herald.

Runyon promoted to head Louisville Courier-Journal opinion pages

Published Monday, October 12, 2009 7:00 am

Keith Runyon, longtime member of NCEW, has been promoted to head the opinion pages at The Louisville Courier-Journal.

Getting what you want from the syndicates

Wash Post Writers Group revamps lineup

Published Thursday, January 28, 2010 7:00 am by James S. Hill

I'm usually pretty ho-hum when it comes to newspaper redesign. And that was my initial reaction when The Washington Post revealed its new look this past fall -- until I got to the editorial pages. The changes are bold, imaginative and appealing.

And also stingy. You can't tell it at first glance but on the op-ed page, there's less here than meets the eye. Whereas before the Post could accommodate five columns per page, now there are only four. It's more of a balancing act to get everything in, which is one reason why we hold our Washington Post Writers Group columnists to a 750-word limit. Welcome to the world of creative editing, I'm sure most NCEW members would say. 

Indeed, The Washington Post has not been immune to the pressures all of you have been going through. Yet the Post’s commitment to great journalism remains unchanged. Space may be tighter, but good stories still abound, in print and online. It’s the same at publications all across the country. We journalists may be a complaining lot, but we still put out better newspapers than anyplace else on earth.

Some people contend this is the problem – that we’re too consumed with publishing our newspapers when we should be moving full-speed ahead to the Digital Age. I find that a false indictment. We’ve already moved into the Digital Age at warp speed. Yet the paper remains our core product, and our mission isn’t one of either/or: we have to serve both our print and online readers. And this means providing content that is both thoughtful and diverse to attract readers daily and keep them. It's the challenge of our times.

Columnist Robert J. Samuelson once said that he could provide his opinion in 300 words, but to offer new information (the critical analysis that provides a column with its distinctiveness) based on reporting takes longer. Writers Group columns are fact-based and packed with reporting. It's a standard we insist on.

We're trying some new things, however. With the emergence of Ruth Marcus as a columnist, The Writers Group has started to distribute one of the items she writes each week on Post Partisan, a blog at washingtonpost.com. So far, Ruth's contributions have ranged from 500 words to 725 words, and they also offer a fair amount of depth.

We’re also emphasizing variety. While it’s true that most of our columnists do politics and policy from a Washington perspective, none do it quite the same. Two recent additions to our lineup – Kathleen Parker and Michael Gerson – are noted for straying off the ideological reservation. Check out these two columns (linkand link) to see by just how much.

Editorial cartoons also pack quite a wallop. And better, they can be displayed well even in tight places.

We don’t offer a magic formula for excellence. That’s a call editors have to make. But we do offer columns and cartoons that can help make your pages look bold, imaginative and appealing. And you can take it from there.

James S. Hill is managing editor of The Washington Post Writer's Group and blogs at www.postwritersgroup.com.

Knight Center for Specialized Reporting closes

A lost resource

Published Monday, February 8, 2010 7:00 am by Kay Semion

There it was. The shock. Belted out in a Dec. 11, 2009 press release:  "The Knight Center for Specialized Journalism will cease operations at the end of this month ..." after 22 years.

The Center was like family to me.  And to hundreds of other NCEW members. Heck, it was founded in 1987 with the help of former NCEW President Reese Cleghorn, then dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. 

We NCEW members had become accustomed to our free Seminar for Editorial Writers in College Park, Maryland, near Washington, D.C. We were spoiled even. For two-and-a-half days during the first week of December, we could be assured that the Center would offer us access to key national leaders, broaden our knowledge and engage our imagination.  Not to mention entertain us and treat us royally. 

Actually, the seminars were initiated in 1982 by Cleghorn, four years before he and colleagues brought in the Knight Center.  Knight added the opinion seminar to its roster -- a series of weeklong studies of foreign affairs, energy, economics, urban issues and much more.  Knight seminar leaders always conferred with NCEW members before deciding on a topic.  And while it wasn't exclusively an NCEW gig or even an editorial writers' gig (columnists, TV commentators and others also attended), we NCEW members felt special ties to the Knight Center and its people.

People like Peggy DeBona, acting director when it closed, and Carol Horner, director from 1999 to 2008, put on a class act.  Horner (whose death in 2008 was way too early) kept everyone in line with her charming but stern reminders to follow the rules.  Carol always put everyone at ease at the same time she put her on the spot. She'd command a "secret" from each speaker -- like getting kicked out of high school -- that made him human and made us laugh.

Those memories never got into The Masthead (nor did the gatherings at the Oracle, the bar where we hung out), but a lot of other stuff did.  We who attended wrote Masthead pieces about the issues we studied -- such as the war on terrorism, the energy crisis, the economy, immigration, health care, civil liberties. We shared our experiences about field trips to places like the Pentagon, the Congressional Budget Office, the Executive Office Building. We reminisced about our excursions to the National Press Club, where we had meetings with Washington insiders.  We heard speakers like J. William Fulbright, Al Gore, John Bolton, Donald Rumsfeld, Anthony Lake. And we'd share our new knowledge with our colleagues at home -- as heartily encouraged by the Knight Center.

Cleghorn, who led the program in its first years, believed strongly that a journalist's mission was to find the truth and disseminate it.  After his retirement in and until his death last March, he would attend at least one part of each seminar to offer his inspiration -- always making us, the participants, feel important.

And now the Center is closed.  But it remains alive in NCEW's history.  It enriched us. The topics we studied made us better opinion writers, gave us better perspectives and shaped our thoughts for years afterward.  You can't ever take something that great away.

Kay Semion is a past president of the National Conference of Editorial Writers.

Policing Astroturf

Too quick to reject 'turfy' letters?

Published Monday, February 8, 2010 8:00 am by Bill McGuon

There's a saying in science that no one wants to read about a thesis that is disproved. I hope that is not true, at least in this case.      

The impetus for this article was the impression that there was a wide range of opinion among NCEW members, as expressed on the list-serv, about the handling of so-called Astroturf letters, mass-mailings designed to give the impression of a grassroots effort.      

That was not the case, at least among the 10 members who replied to my appeal on the list-serv for views.      

All those who offered a definition of Astroturf agreed that the key was identical or nearly identical wording. "Precise wording" was the term of Judy Sly, editor of the opinion pages for The Modesto (Calif.) Bee. She also used the term "cut and paste," as did William Perkins, editorial page editor of the Dothan (Ala.) Eagle.      

"What we refer to as 'turf' is something written by one person, distributed for publication and signed and submitted by someone else as if they had written it," said Susan Parker, community conversations editor of The Daily Times in Salisbury, Md.      

"Astroturf is advocacy mail that is not the original work of the person who represents himself as the author," said Robert Price, editorial page editor of The Bakersfield Californian. 

"I define Astroturf mainly as a letter that is either identical to or pretty close to a letter or letters submitted to other papers," said Jay Jochnowitz, editorial page editor of the Times Union in Albany, N.Y.      

To Greg Peck, opinion page editor of The Janesville (Wis.) Gazette, it is "a letter that plagarizes the words of someone else."      

The only deviation from the theme came from Pat McKenna, associate editor of the Times-Tribune in Scranton, Pa., who defined Astroturf as "generally any product of a letter-writing campaign funded or promoted by a third party."      

But everyone, including McKenna, said they would run letters that used talking points from an advocacy group as long as the writer reworded them. "(T)he requirement was that the writer had to use his/her own words but that it was OK to use talking points from some group as long as the letter was substantially original," said Tom Chulski, former editorial page editor of The Monroe (Mich.) Evening News.      

The closest to a dissent here came from Tricia Vance, editorial page editor of the Wilmington (N.C.) Star-News. "Canned letters, even those in which the writer uses his or her 'own words', usually sound as though they were manufactured to factor out any passion about the issue ... . That said, I will run those I can't readily identify as copied unless I get three or four very similar letters in one day."      

If the talking points were not rewritten, opinions were fairly evenly split. Sly, McKenna and Mary Kaull, assistant editorial page editor of the Rockford (Ill.) Register Star, said they would run such letters anyway. Chulski, Price, Perkins, Jochnowitz and Peck said they would not.

Policies varied, even within a newspaper, over whether to run one or more letter from a letter-writing campaign. Parker, Peck and Sly said they would, Perkins said he wouldn't and Price and Jochnowitz said it depends.

Price's criterion was "how similar" the letters were. "We try not to run letters that repeat the same points as others," said Jochnowitz. "But it's not an absolute."

Only Peck and McKenna would routinely use an editor's note to explain that a sampling of similar letters was being published. All except Sly always or sometimes contact the writer to explain why the letter is not being used. "I did that a few years ago and the people got angry and wanted to argue. I decided it wasn't the best use of my limited time," Sly said.

All those who do make the contact give the writer the option of rewriting and resubmitting the letter.

And what about running Astroturf letters with an editor's note giving the source? None of those who responded to that question did so. All reiterated that they do not run such letters, period.

Kaull has perhaps the most interesting observation about using information from advocacy groups. "How many of the editorials we write include truly original arguments?

Bill McGoun is a retired editorial writer from The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post and a contributing editor for the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times.

John Penney recognized by Gannett

Published Friday, January 22, 2010 7:00 am

NCEW member John Penney, Community Conversation Editor for the Poughkeepsie Journal, was recognized by Gannett as one of 15 winners of the Corporate News Department's inaugural News MVP award.

Here is what the judges said about Penney's accomplishments:

John brings an insightful perspective to the range of work he produces for the Journal's editorial page. The well-researched editorials he produces set the agenda on local and state issues and reinforce the newspaper's First Amendment priorities.

When Hillary Clinton was named Secretary of State, John coordinated a statewide 13-newspaper editorial project spelling out the regional and economic priorities for the next senator. He used community engagement techniques on several projects, one focused on reviving the economy and another, a 13-column op-ed healthcare reform series, drew strong response from readers. To develop strong editorials on issues such as a school referendum and local elections, John meets with local groups to gain a broad array of positions.

The judges said: "John's ability to bring innovative thinking to editorial page work has resulted in multiple special reports and strong recognition for the newspaper. His outreach to groups in the community and maintenance of a Reader Advisory Board results in an engaged community. His commitment to excellence is evident throughout his work."

RUSH to 2010

Published Sunday, January 24, 2010 by Tom Waseleski

It came to me on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

I was driving to the December board meeting of NCEW in Harrisburg, Pa., and my mind turned to  membership. This is my 20th year in NCEW and so I wondered: If I were new to opinion journalism in 2010, would I join this group?

As the mountains and farms rolled by outside, I wondered about what we deliver, especially to newcomers who know no one in the organization. Does NCEW offer enough value to someone who doesn't have friends here or a history with the group?  Of course, I know the list of member benefits and I can recite them in my sleep. But if you aren't someone who can make it to the annual convention, is the chatter, advice and tips on the list-serv, the online Masthead, the State Department briefing, etc., enough to make you join, especially if you're footing your own dues?

What seemed to be missing from the equation was a chance for connectivity. NCEW members need a low-cost, short-term way to connect face-to-face, to develop the personal and professional connections that others get when they go to the convention in Salt Lake City or Kansas City or Pittsburgh. The event would have to be short, only a day long with no overnight in a hotel. It would have to be nearby, no more than three hours away. And it would have to be brimming with information you could take home -- maybe from a good speaker, a pro-con panel on a timely editorial topic and opinion journalists who could commiserate over common problems and trade a few tips and solutions.

Had I just resurrected the old regional convention idea? NCEW veterans will remember that as something we did around the country to gather members who couldn't make it to the national convention. But when we all started working harder, faster, smarter, cheaper, no one seemed to have time to put on regional conventions. Even the term sounded daunting.

That's why this idea, this event, had to be quick 'n' dirty, easily accessible and, hey, if you could draw some college writing students into the mix, then so much the better. The name seemed a natural. Why not call it NCEW Rush?

Here's the template:

So here's the idea I sketched out to the NCEW board. It contains specific terms and follows a template, all of which are flexible according to the organizer's taste. As you look it over, think about the possible benefits to you and NCEW. Then consider whether you could partner with your nearby college campus in mounting your own NCEW Rush for the sake of gathering NCEW members in the region, attracting non-member editorial writers to the fold and acquainting students with the organization.

  • Title: NCEW Rush
  • A quick and dirty workshop for opinion journalists and students who want to become one, Co-sponsored by the National Conference of Editorial Writers and the University of ..........
  • Aim: To gather opinion journalists and students, advance the craft, and recruit for NCEW
  • Cost to NCEW: Little or none; college donates meeting space and basic lunch to participants (10-30 attendees)
  • Cost to participants: Free to NCEW members; $15 for non-NCEW professionals and $5 for students, which gives them NCEW membership for the rest of 2010
  • Hours: Begin at 10 a.m. and end at 6 p.m., so that someone within a three-hour drive need not stay overnight
  • Program template:
    • 10 a.m. - Welcome: NCEW and college host (quick intro to NCEW, its work and benefits)
    • 10:05 - Shop Talk: How jobs, journalism and consumers have changed in      five years (discussion led by facilitator)
    • 11:20 - Tricks of the Trade: Coping with fewer staff, less space and an ever-hungry web site (discussion led by facilitator)
    • 12:45 p.m. - Lunch with ...... (sandwich buffet and informal Q&A with newsmaker)
    • 2:00 - Pro-con I: Legalizing medical marijuana (for instance) (two advocates with opposing views go at it on a newsy issue, with      moderator and Q&A)
    • 3:15 - Pro-con II: America needs to revive the draft (for instance) (same drill, different issue and players)
    • 4:30 - Idea Exchange: Better Opinion Pages through Shared Solutions (each participant brings 5 ideas that work for editorials, pages, blogs, chats, etc.; discussion led by facilitator)
    • 5:45 - Closing

One day worth a busy person's time

That's one way to do it. You may have your own ideas. The trick, I think, is to build in value, keep it moving and make it an attractive day at nominal cost that is worth a busy person's time.

The question is, are you up to partnering with one of your local colleges to host an NCEW Rush? The university where you teach or do guest visits would probably be eager to have such content available to its writing students. Absorbing the nominal cost of lunch, refreshments and a program flier adds up to a good deal for the school.

Melinda Condon, one of our friends at the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association (which runs NCEW headquarters), likes the idea and suggested offering giveaways to build student attendance. The college or a local press association might be willing to kick in a couple prizes (iPod Shuffles, for instance, go for only $55).

NCEW Rush is one way to offer some personal connection to our members. It works on two other levels, too, by engaging other editorial writers and building a presence among students. Can our members pull off an NCEW Rush in, say, five locations around the country in 2010? I'd like to give it a try in Pittsburgh, but I'd love to see a handful of partners elsewhere.

Let me know if you're up for it.

Tom Waseleski is president of NCEW and editorial page editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Space-saving ideas

Summarize in print, expand and promote online

Published Thursday, February 25, 2010 10:00 am by Kate Riley

Space has never been more dear on the opinion pages. Our pages have shrunk or been cut --- so how do you still provide a useful opinion package for readers?

In January, we tried an experiment that straddled our print and Web pages. It was well received with little bellyaching from print readers who didn't want to go online and read the rest of the package.

Washington's state Legislature is facing a daunting budget deficit -- and the governor and the leaders in the Democrat-controlled House and Senate promised budget cuts and tax increases. How much of which were the questions that divided interests from businesses, who feared another bump in their taxes, to social services, who feared severe funding cuts.

Big picture issue, but not much space. The Times opinion section is two pages on Sunday, down from four six years ago.

We decided to ask six different citizens to write full-length opeds (about 600 words these days) giving advice to the Legislature. Our writers hailed from the state employees union, a group of Washington's largest employers, the Children's alliance and three think tanks, representing right, left and center.

Catch is, we didn't have the room for all of them in print. So we worked with the writers and came up with 250-word summaries of their longer pieces -- those, we ran in print wth mugshots, an explanatory preamble and a beautiful illustration of the capitol dome.

In the preamble, we referred readers to the authors' longer pieces online. Knowing this was going to be a bloodbath year for legislators, and that we would have a number of editorials and opeds about the dire situation, we created an index of budget-related opinion pieces where people could check back, called "Washington's budget crisis: Balancing the books." . We include all of our related editorials, opeds, blog items and some of our letters in this index.

Kate Riley is the Associate Editorial Page Editor/Online for the Seattle Times.

What's lost with banning comments

When anonymity distracts from the greater good

Published Monday, March 8, 2010 11:00 pm by Mitch Olszak

As a journalist, I am a strong advocate of free speech and expression.

As an observer of human nature, I am bemused by how quickly those who are given such liberties can sink to the lowest common denominator.

It's been a couple of years since the New Castle News pulled the plug on our Web-based readers' forum. The unfiltered forum ran 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week and allowed people to anonymously post their views on topics of their choosing.

Individuals could initiate a discussion, or add to one already under way.

Some threads were harmless and noncontroversial. It was the other kind that killed the forum.

Typically, these threads would begin with serious comments or observations. But at some point, they would turn from substance to insults. These threads inevitably deteriorated into cheap shots.

The News is part of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., of Birmingham, Ala., which provided the design for our Web site, including the forums. But it was the responsibility of our local publisher, Max Thomson, to monitor the forums and attempt to control them.

This kept Thomson busy -- and frustrated. He was constantly removing threads and individual comments, and banning people from using the site. But the design of the system allowed people to sign up under different names, or use another computer to create a new identity. In short, the troublemakers kept coming back.

Max often would post general threats, warning he would completely shut down the forum. This tended to mute the behavior briefly, before it flared up again.

A key flaw in the system was its anonymous nature. I receive very few libelous letters to the editor, mainly because we identify all writers. Knowing this, writers edit themselves.

It wasn't that way with the forum. Participants could get away with smears they never would attempt if their names were attached. The theory behind anonymous postings is that they encourage openness. But they also encourage abuses that distract from any greater good.

Something else about the forum bothered me. I raised it during a meeting with the newspaper's solicitor. I wondered about the paper's liability for postings.

Our attorney compared the forum to blank pieces of paper. He argued The News was no more responsible for libel on the forum than someone who provided another individual with a sheet of paper used to produce a libelous letter.

But, I pressed, isn't it possible that by deleting some offensive postings, The News was placing its stamp of legal approval on those that remained? Wasn't the paper accepting some sort of proprietary control over the content of its forum, and therefore exposing itself to a possible libel suit?

The attorney acknowledged some people could make that argument, but he believed removing certain content was a good thing for the paper to do to maintain a civil conversation. That didn't exactly settle things for me.

Such concerns on my part became moot a few months later when Thomson cried "Uncle!" A discussion over the fate of a high school basketball coach became relentlessly vile and childish. After repeatedly killing threads and issuing warnings, Max shut down the entire forum.

And it never returned.

For a while, the posters migrated to other newspapers in our group with similar forums. What had been quiet, backwater posting sites began to look like war zones. But most of the audience tired of the tirades and faded away. Eventually the zealots disappeared too. 

I argued for a return of the forum with a more disciplined structure that could identify posters. But it never happened. Management at The News sees Facebook as the preferred method for this type of communication.

I'm not convinced. I still believe the newspaper's Web site is a natural gathering spot for individuals concerned with issues.

The death of the New Castle News forum can be chalked up to another consequence of newspaper staffing stretched too thin. With our publisher as the only person who policed the forum under normal circumstances, and no one else having the time to take up the responsibility, burnout was the result.

The losers are members of the community, who are denied a potentially valuable resource, and the newspaper itself, which surrendered substantial Web readership.

Mitch Olszak is the editorial page editor of the New Castle News in New Castle, Pa.

Respect the First Amendment -- edit online comments

Publishers believe they must give miscreants free rein -- not

Published Monday, March 8, 2010 11:00 pm by Peter Scheer

Some people have no choice but to live in a cesspool. (Consider the young protagonist in "Slumdog Millionaire," leaping into a pool of human waste in order to escape a locked latrine.) But news organizations are not among them.

The cesspool that many newspapers occupy is the "Comments" sections of their Web sites. This is the space,  typically following a paper's own stories and editorials, where readers have their say. If postings to that space are completely unfiltered, it is sure to be stuffed with the rants and invective of people who have too much time on their hands (and too little gray matter between their ears.)

Reading online comment sections, one can easily get the impression that bigots, psychopaths and conspiracy theorists comprise a majority of newspapers' online readers. (Note to publishers: This is hardly a desirable demographic to show to  advertisers.) In reality, such commenters are relatively few in number, although they are, regrettably, loud and prolific.

Sociologists will someday figure out whether these readers arebona fidenut jobs, or just average Americans transformed by the anonymity, and access to a broad audience, that the Internet makes possible. My own guess is that they are the same people who, as high school students, scribbled profanities on bathroom stalls. The Internet affords them, as adults, a superior surface for graffiti.

Not all newspaper publishers give free rein to miscreants in their comments section. Among those who do, however, a commonly heard rationale is that they are forced to stay their hand due to legal constraints. In this they are mistaken. It is a mistake based on common misconceptions about what the law does, and doesn't, require in this area.

Misconception No. 1 is that newspapers, by actively moderating online discussions, and by editing (and selectively deleting) comments, assume liability for defamatory comments posted by readers. Although traditional print publication of "letters to the editor" does carry some of these risks, online publishers of user-generated content enjoy a degree of legal protection bordering on complete immunity -- thanks to a 1996 federal law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Section 230 protects newspapers that operate  their reader Comments section as a cesspool, permitting readers to post whatever they wish, no matter how libelous or harmful. Injured parties can sue the authors of those online comments, but not the newspaper. The newspaper is shielded even if it has been given notice that statements in its Comment section are false and it refuses to remove them.

But newspapers are equally protected if they act responsibly, screening comments or editing them. Section 230 was intended to overturn pre-1996 court decisions suggesting otherwise and giving news organizations a perverse incentive to refrain from editing user-generated comments. Under Section 230, as long as editors don't alter the meaning of a comment completely (for example, by changing a reader's comment so that it says the opposite of what the reader posted), the newspaper will be protected.

Misconception No. 2 is the belief that to regulate readers' comments, enforcing rules of civil discourse on  a newspaper Web site, is to engage in a form of censorship -- and that censorship by a news organization, if not strictly illegal, is at least hypocritical.

But this concern confuses censorship with editing. It is the role of news organizations to edit the content that they publish. Although the online venue may remove the need to edit comments for length, it does not diminish the obligation to edit for substance. The First Amendment insulates news organizations from interference by government in their editorial decisions. The independence thus established includes the right, under the Constitution, to control all content published on a paper's pages or its Web site.

Reader comment sections have huge potential. Particularly in communities dominated by a single newspaper, an Internet-based "letters to the editor" platform offering unlimited space, the opportunity to debate both other readers and the journalists responsible for the paper's news stories and editorials, can reflect democratic self-government at its best.

However, this ideal can only be realized if editors take seriously their responsibility to edit. A newspaper's online comments section can be either a cesspool or Platonic ideal. Editors and publishers have to choose.

What members say about editing comments

Should editors delete offensive comments online?

Published Monday, March 8, 2010 7:00 am by Jay Jachowitz, Linda Seebach

Jay Jochnowitz, Editorial Page Editor, Times Union, Albany, N.Y.

We do this, too, but in keeping with the idea that our blogs are "a conversation" I try when time allows to drop a short note to the  rejected commenter's e-mail letting them know why a comment was rejected. I don't do this with the obvious nasties and those who go entirely off topic,  but mainly in the case of comments that might have gotten through save for,  say, an expletive, a personal attack on other commenters, the excessive use of all caps, or outright errors of fact. But I'm careful to stay in the role of  moderator, not editor. It's about the rules, not the content.

I used to brace for a response about how I was stifling free expression, but surprisingly, most of these communications result in a note of  appreciation.

If you do this, one suggestion: cut and paste original comment in the e-mail. Usually, people don't save a copy.

Linda Seebach, retired editorial writer, Rocky Mountain News, Denver, Colo.

I think there are middle grounds between allowing everything and allowing nothing.

The last few months I was at the Rocky (early 2007, so pre-Facebook), we installed a blog-type format for online letters, essentially everything we received (if it was publishable at all) beyond what would fit in the paper. It was all go or no-go, no editing at all, and said so on each letter. (We did it for op-eds, too.) It was wildly popular, going from nothing to more than a thousand comments a week.

I monitored it, loosely, and I was surprised at how little evidence of somebody watching was needed to keep things reasonably civil. It probably helped that the software, Movable Type, had a very aggressive offensiveness filter, and that I could customize it to filter IP addresses. Most of the comments came from a core group of about a hundred people, and maybe another 200 who showed up often enough that I recognized the names.

Most of the regular commenters used screen names, rather than full names (and at that time, we weren't requiring commenters to register) but somewhat surprisingly, that didn't seem to create the kinds of problems associated with anonymity. They were as jealous of their screen-name reputation as anybody using a full name. I only ever banned two people, if I recall correctly. One of them, snidely, referred to the person responsible as the Hall Monitor, and I thought that was about right, so I used that as a screen name. But it wasn't any particular secret, and if someone sent e-mail to the Hall Monitor it was sent on to me, and I answered in my own name.

I don't know what they did after I left.

A new proposal to amend NCEW's bylaws

This will be the first amendment put to an electronic vote

Published Thursday, March 11, 2010 7:00 am

NCEW members should be aware of an upcoming vote on a proposed amendment to the National Conference of Editorial Writers bylaws. The amendment offered by the board would shorten the leadership ladder by combining the offices of Secretary and Treasurer. The amendment would make the following changes to Article III of the bylaws:

A) The board shall be composed of a president, a vice president, a treasurerand a secretary/treasureras officers, plus six members elected at large, the immediate past president, the convention chair, the editor of The Masthead, and the Website editor. The president of the NCEW Foundation shall be an ex-officio member of the board.  The officers of the organization shall include the president, vice president, treasurer,secretary/treasurerand the immediate past president.

C) The officers are elected in a ladder format. Once elected as secretary/treasurer, a person automatically assumes the treasurer's office,the vice presidency and the presidency in succeeding years. The at-large members serve two-year terms and may not succeed themselves. The officers of the organization shall be elected annually by the membership and each officer shall hold the office until the first Monday following the annual election of the new board of directors.

F) In the event of incapacity of any officer or vacancy of any office, the officer next in rank shall perform the duties of the vacant office. In the event of incapacity of the secretary/treasurer, the board shall designate one of its own members to fill the office temporarily, and, in the event of a vacancy in the office of secretary/treasurer, the board shall elect a successor from among its own membership. In the event of vacancies occurring on the board during the interval between annual meetings, the president shall be empowered to appoint interim members with the consent of the board.

Pursuant to Article II, Section E of the bylaws as amended in 2009, this amendment will be decided by a secure electronic vote of the membership. The vote began on April 7 and will end on April 14.

Combining editorial forces to combat a common issue

Yucca Mountain decision leaves Hanford and Aiken stuck with nuclear waste

Published Sunday, March 21, 2010 1:00 pm by Chris Sivula

On March 14, the Tri-City Herald in Kennewick, Wash., and the Aiken Standard in Aiken, S.C., published the same editorial.

Herald Publisher Rufus Friday tossed out the idea of somehow combining forces. That quickly evolved into a plan to produce one editorial that would appear in both our Sunday editions -- thanks to the NCEW list-serv.

What came to mind was the bashing NCEW members gave to the worldwide publication of a front-page editorial on global warming in December.  Despite the generally negative thread, it sounded like a pretty good idea for  two papers so similarly affected by national events.

Jeff Wallace, the Standard's editorial page editor, endorsed the plan immediately. We discussed the general approach for a few minutes and I put together a  draft.

We're hoping our combined effort extends our reach, of course. But the bonus was a fresh approach to an issue both papers had been hitting pretty hard. The Herald was looking at its third consecutive Sunday editorial on the Obama administration plan to discard the Yucca Mountain site as a place to store of nuclear waste.

And it was one more time that my NCEW membership paid off for Herald readers.

Chris Sivula is the editorial page editor of the Tri-City Herald in Kennewick, Wash.

Dallas Morning News takes Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing

A sampling of prize-winning pages

Published Wednesday, May 5, 2010 7:00 am by Lois Kazakoff

The Dallas Morning News took journalism's highest prize with a three-year campaign to address the differences between north and south Dallas, and the institutional biases that kept the economic and quality of life gap widening. Click on the image below or click here to see the 10 pages submitted to Pulitzer judges.

Search warrant derails journalist in iPhone case

Bloggers take note

Published Saturday, May 15, 2010 11:00 am by Peter Scheer

Search warrants have always been a blunt instrument for finding evidence of crime. Think of television cop shows from the '70s and '80s: A police search of an apartment for drugs was, de facto, a license to ransack all closets, cabinets and dressers. A warrant to seize a letter or other specific document was a green light to overturn desks and dig through all files and writings, no matter how personal. 

But on a scale of intrusiveness, the threat to personal liberties posed by search warrants in the pre-digital era was trivial compared to the virtual strip-search that a warrant has become today. 

This is illustrated by the ongoing investigation into Apple Computer's loss, and eventual recovery, of a supersecret prototype for the next-generation iPhone, which ended up in the hands of Gizmodo, a gadget blog, after the blog reportedly paid $5,000 to the person who found the missing phone. Jason Chen, an editor-reporter for Gizmodo (which is owned by Gawker Media), returned home after dinner April 23 to find San Mateo County sheriff's deputies hauling away his computers, external hard drive, cell phones and digital camera -- all on the authority of a search warrant, requested by the San Mateo district attorney and approved by a Superior Court judge, for evidence of unspecified crimes related to the missing iPhone. 

Imagine the disruption caused by this search and seizure of virtually   every document, file and byte of data in Chen's possession, from e- mails to phone numbers to calendar entries and working files. For you, me and most people, a loss of this magnitude would be   crippling, essentially bringing one's work to a complete halt for the   duration of a police examination in which government agents will have   access, not only to business records, but also to one's most private   files (medical and financial records, communications with family   members, etc.). 

But for journalists, particularly investigative journalists, the loss would be catastrophic. This is so because journalists obtain sensitive information -- about   government, big corporations, other powerful institutions -- from inside sources who, for reasons good and bad, will disclose the information only if their role in releasing it is never revealed. Journalists must be able to promise confidentiality to these sources.   

Equally important, journalists must be credible in these representations -- their sources must be persuaded that the journalists not only intend to keep their promise of confidentiality, but that they are able to keep it. Use of search warrants against journalists is devastating because it demonstrates that they can't keep this crucial promise -- it is beyond their power. And the damage is not confined to the journalist who is the subject of a warrant, but extends, logically and inevitably, to all reporters who have confidential sources.

In this sense the Apple iPhone case is not about Jason Chen and Gizmodo. Their ethical and legal calculations about paying a news  source, or the importance of their "scoop" (relative to the harm to  Apple's business), are beside the point. The iPhone investigators'  use of a search warrant highlights a grave threat to independent  journalism generally.

It didn't have to be this way. The DA could have, and should have, served Chen with a subpoena for records relating to the iPhone story.  Use of a subpoena, unlike a warrant, gives the recipient an  opportunity to hire a lawyer, to consider his options, and to assert  any defenses or privileges that might be available.

Even if those arguments fail, and the reporter is ordered to produce records and information, the harms from a search conducted pursuant  to a warrant -- including the jeopardy to journalists' access to  confidential sources -- are avoided.

For these reasons, two laws, one federal and the other a California  statute, require prosecutors' use of subpoenas, rather than warrants,  to obtain information from journalists in criminal investigations.

Less clear, however, is whether this prohibition applies if Chen or  Gizmodo are targets of the criminal probe, as some bloggers speculate  they may be (although the DA has given no clues about their status,  and criminal charges would seem to be a stretch under the  circumstances).

The federal law, The Privacy Protection Act, may bar search warrants  in this type of investigation even if the prosecutor is planning to  charge journalists with crimes. That application, however, may be  vulnerable to the constitutional argument that the privacy law  exceeds federal power to dictate state judicial proceedings.

Perhaps there is a more mundane explanation for the failure to use a  subpoena in this case: The DA may have been under intense pressure  (from whom? Apple, which reported the phone was stolen?) to act even  before he could convene a grand jury to issue a subpoena.

If so, the DA may come to regret his haste: If a court rules he  shouldn't have used a warrant, the DA's possession of evidence seized  from Chen's home may undermine any possible prosecution of other,  more culpable, parties.

Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist, is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for freedom of speech and government transparency. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mr. Scheer.

Dale Davenport takes on final battle with cancer

Harrisburg Patriot-News editorial editor -- one of the best of us

Published Tuesday, May 18, 2010 7:00 am by John Taylor

(Update: Dale Davenport passed away May 19, 2010. John Taylor, Davenport's friend and colleague, wrote this piece on May 18. -- The Masthead Editor)

Today, our colleague, Dale Davenport, is at home with his family and friends under hospice care. It has been only nine months since he retired as the editorial page editor of the Harrisburg Patriot-News and only eight months since he learned about the cancer that would ravish him.

Dale Davenport is one of the best of us. His dedication to opinion writing and editing is unsurpassed. He served NCEW on committees and as a member of the NCEW Foundation board. But of more consequence, he embodied what NCEW stands for. He was until his retirement an outstanding editorial writer and columnist who knew, loved and understood his native Pennsylvania and its people. Dale challenged governors, legislators and mayors, but he liked them. He didn't think all politicians were crooks. Rather he believed most of them were dedicated public servants. Those who let the people down, however, were skewered. He continued to write a weekly column until just a few weeks ago; like many of us, he couldn't resist sharing his opinions with others.

Dale Davenport's gentle manner and quick smile made him a friend to so many of us. Even when he no longer really needed the advice of critique sessions, he kept doing them while others of us went off to play. He told me that he could always learn something and that he might be able to help those new to the opinion craft.

Dale and Sherry were vacationing at Myrtle Beach planning to join Maria and me in Salt Lake City to wander around Utah before the NCEW convention when persistent stomach pain forced their return to Pennsylvania and a diagnosis of cancer. The Utah trip was cancelled so that they could deal Dale's illness.

For all these months Dale has fought as courageous a battle as I've ever seen against the formidable foe, cancer. His optimism never faltered; he was absolutely convinced that he would beat this thing. Just a month ago we were planning to meet at one of his favorite restaurants for spicy Spanish food in Lancaster halfway between Wilmington and Harrisburg.

His research had led Dale to a Pittsburgh doctor and a new way of treating his illness. The first attempt went awry in January but the day we were to meet in Lancaster, Dale was called back to Pittsburgh for a second attempt at the new process. But it went wrong again.

The drug "cocktails" as Dale called them have finally taken their toll on his weakened body.

Around 6:30 this morning Maria and I were preparing to go to Harrisburg to say goodbye to our friend when Sherry called to say Dale was losing ground and that he no longer recognized anyone. She asked us not to come but to just remember the Dale Davenport we were with six weeks ago. She asked me to call our colleague Morgan McGinley who was set to leave New London to make the six-hour trip to Harrisburg to bid farewell to his fly fishing buddy.

Morg and I had hoped to represent all of you who cared for Dale and cherished his friendship. It wasn't to be in the way we'd hoped, but we know Dale was comforted by all the prayers and good wishes he received in the last few months.

John Taylor is the past president of NCEW and the NCEW Foundation.

iPhone app delivers NCEW members' views

A cutting-edge benefit of membership

Published Saturday, May 29, 2010 7:00 am by Julia Haslanger

NCEW is taking its first step into the mobile world -- an iPhone app that links to NCEW members' editorial commentary.

The application, developed only for the iPhone platform for now, will show users the latest editorial headlines. Users can choose to view headlines in their region of the country, to sort by the most popular editorials and to search by topic or keywords. When users select a headline, they'll arrive at a screen where they see the headline, the name of the organization that produced it, the 250 or fewer word description for it, a button to go view the editorial on its website and a list of topic categories, (e.g., education, Obama, etc.). On that screen, the user can choose to agree or disagree with the editorial. They can share the link to the editorial using Facebook, Twitter, e-mail or text message.

The iPhone app was developed by me, David Bunten and Brian Schneier as part of a class at the University of Missouri. We began the process by talking with NCEW iPhone Committee members Miriam Pepper, Kate Riley, Dan Radmacher and Larry Reisman. They mainly wanted an app that would drive traffic to NCEW members' sites.They stressed that participating in the app should be a benefit (read: incentive) of NCEW membership. The committee agreed that the goal of the app would be to provide "relevant and credible" opinion content in a very simple manner. The next step was to find the people to make it happen. In this case, it was finding the students in the iPhone app development class at the University of Missouri, which included a mix of journalism, information technology and computer science students.

We spent a few weeks discussing what kind of features the app should have, how much to expect NCEW members to do in order to get their content included in the app, and how much content we can use in the app but still drive people to the members' sites. Then we mocked up the look and feel of the app, and after that David and Brian began coding it. We started the whole process in early February, the mock-ups were done in mid-March, and the coding is done. Next step is to test it, and then NCEW will submit it to Apple's App Store for approval.

There isn't another good comprehensive national editorial/opinion app out there. The app is similar to most news apps in that it uses the list view for browsing headlines, and it's similar to apps like Digg's (http://m.digg.com/) where users can respond to articles within the app, but have to click the link to the original site in order to view the full piece. What will participating NCEW newspapers and television stations get from the application? Traffic.

This app is designed to bring people to your sites. If people want to read your editorials, they have to click the link to your site, so your site will load on their phone and you'll get that page view. You'll be getting traffic from people who own iPhones, who are probably people your advertisers will like.

You'll also be achieving some brand recognition. The name of the organization is before the headline for each editorial, so people will begin to recognize the names of organizations in the app the more that they use it. If users decide to view the editorials by region, you'll be getting your organization's name and editorial positions to those in your area. This app doesn't cost you anything more than your NCEW membership, but it has the potential to drive significant traffic to your site.

To be included in the app, members need to have an RSS feed that includes only their editorial content. The RSS feed needs to include at least the four most basic fields:

  •  <title> the headline for the editorial,
  • <description> a brief summary of what the editorial is about (the shorter the better),
  • <pubDate> the date it was published,
  •  <link> a link to the editorial's URL (if you have separate URLs for mobile viewers, this URL would work best, but otherwise the normal URL works fine).

NCEW members need to let us know that they want their content included and that they have an RSS feed ready. The easiest way to that is to fill out the survey.

Julia Haslanger, with David Bunten and Brian Schneier, developed the iPhone app for NCEW as part of a class at the University of Missouri.

Van Cavett's legacy

St. Louis editorial page editor set the bar of opinion-writing craft

Published Saturday, May 29, 2010 7:00 am by Keith Runyon

For Van Cavett, who spent a half century in journalism and most of his career in the realm of opinion-making, the National Conference of Editorial Writers was a beloved institution, filled with colleagues who became dear friends. He served as president and later was deeply involved in the NCEW Foundation. He was a life member. He made trips abroad and wrote about them with zest. And, with his death on April 11, 2010, at the age of 77, NCEW has lost one of its grand old men.

I first met Van back in the early 1970s, when I was a young Courier-Journal reporter and he had just become opinion pages editor of the old Louisville Times. He took a great interest in young people on the staff, and when he learned that I had an interest in writing editorials one day, he became a great encourager. That opportunity came sooner than I might have imagined. In the summer of 1977, when one of his writers was heading off to Harvard for a Nieman Fellowship, he brought me in for a one-year trial. I was just 26, the youngest editorial writer on the paper since Barry Bingham Sr., and, through the happiest of circumstances, I am still here as opinion pages editor.

I was only one of many people Van groomed and encouraged. Some, like Jacqueline Thomas, went on to distinguished opinion-writing careers elsewhere. Van not only encouraged young people; he also was a passionate advocate for women and African Americans, and at a time when opinion-writing was still a white men's province, he made diversity and youth the hallmarks of his staff.

To some, Van may have seemed an improbable prophet of change. Born in Memphis and reared in Mississippi, he emerged from a region and time when Jim Crow was still strongly in place. But, as his father-in-law, Norman Bradley, once told me: "Van was an original thinker. He was the truest liberal I've ever known." And in many ways, he was. In his career at The Louisville Times and later The Courier-Journal, he led the way in the support of integration of the schools. The son of educators, he understood the vital need for equal opportunity in education, and in strong support for public schools. He also fought for environmental protections, vibrant cities and historic preservation, women's rights, and a strong and independent judiciary.

His editorials helped Kentucky pass a nationally heralded court-reform amendment in 1976, and a year later, when judical candidates emerged, Van was the newspapers' principal writer and editor in selecting a brand new, nonpartisan bench. His editorials were critical in the formation of a blue-ribbon panel that recommended candidates for office, Citizens for Better Judges, and it remains in place more than three decades later.

Van and his wife, Caroline, were proud citizens of the communities where they lived. In Louisville,  they were leaders in St. Matthews Episcopal Church, and they continued the tradition in Chattanooga at the Church of the Good Shepherd. In their home, they hosted wonderful dinner parties that brought together not only Van's young staff members, but also other up and coming young people in Louisville. It was a special time, engineered by a special couple.

Passion is a word one can use casually, but Van Cavett was truly passionate. About so many things. About good government. About nice clothes. About making bread. About fine but affordable wine. About Robert Bork (he loathed him). About William O. Douglas and Thurgood Marshall (he admired them). About getting his mail on time in the morning. And if something set him off, this good Episcopalian vestryman could be heard declaring "Gottdammmittt" all the way down the hall.

In his retirement, I looked forward to the emails that came with less and less frequency as his battle with aging and disease slowed him down. Often I wrote him about the passing of mutual friends and colleagues. We kept in touch with each other about our children (he and Caroline, with their Southern grace, were among the first people to pay a call and bring a gift when our daughter was born). He was proud of his career, of his children, Anne and Andrew, and of his wonderful wife. Of few can it be said that they lived good, long and meaningful lives. Van Cavett was a person who did that.

Keith L.Runyon is the editor of the opinion pages and the book editor for the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Launch a series in two days

Published Monday, June 14, 2010 7:00 am by Jay Jochnowitz

So there we were in our editorial board meeting a few Tuesdays ago, when one member wondered if there was a way to hold state legislators more accountable for New York's late state budget.

Too often, we agreed, we let them all take cover, as they are wont to do, behind their  leaders, "the  culture" of the Capitol, the "process," and so on. What about focusing every day on an actual lawmaker or two, to put them on the hotseat?

That's when I realized that we were talking "series."

The idea of a series has always terrified me. It's a hangover from my days as a news reporter. There you are, blissfully living day to day on 15-inch stories (filed on deadline so your editor has no time to tinker with them), and then - WHAM! - someone wants you to do a "project."

Suddenly you're drawn into deathly meetings at which editors want every last detail planned out - mainbars, sidebars, photography, graphics, and the occasional  random inane angle ("While we're looking at graft, should we explain how paper money is made?" ) You spend, it seems, as much time meeting and drafting and refining budgets as you do reporting and writing stories.

But now I'm an editor -- a writing one, to be sure -- and the idea of a series has imprinted on my DNA. It was only after I enthusiastically bought into this idea that I remembered I was also the poor sap who had to execute it.  

Fortunately, our culture has changed somewhat in recent years. Throughout the editorial operation -- including news, features, photo, art, opinion and online -- we've talked about the concept of "good enough," the idea that part of being leaner and more agile means launching some ideas without the intense planning we were accustomed to in fatter times. It doesn't mean doing shoddy work; it means developing and executing good concepts but not treating every undertaking as a major resource-consuming enterprise.  

Also, I had the benefit of hearing at the 2008 NCEW convention a presentation by Scott Milfred of the Wisconsin State Journal on their  "Frankenstein veto" series. What impressed me was that there was no  detailed plan for what would be written daily; they trusted their own creativity (and perhaps the inspiration of deadlines) enough to flesh out the concept on a daily basis.

The plan came together like this:

Following the meeting, I met with the copy editor who handles our pages, and we worked out in the span of five or 10 minutes an alternate layout concept (something that alone could once have taken weeks of prototypes and meetings). We used our normal daily templates but made the text shorter and added larger boxes for short lawmaker "profiles." (You can see the pages here http://tinyurl.com/Shame1 and herehttp://tinyurl.com/Shame2)

One of our Web staffers, in a discussion that took about five minutes, concluded that we could just use our blog as a place to collect and present this material online, rather than set up a more elaborate presentation, with bells and whistles like a slide show, on the paper's main web site. We came up with a user-friendly hyperlink that would re-direct people to all the entries tagged "Hall of Shame" on our blog. By giving them all a common tag, they could appear as a single package. As we produced them daily, I double-posted them, time stamping the duplicates in reverse order so that they would eventually appear as a continuous series when someone went to the proper link (you can see what I mean by following this link:  http://timesunion.com/hallofshame).

After that, it really was "just" a matter of doing a fairly short daily opinion piece and filling in the boxes with a combination of bio information, readily obtainable from legislative handbooks, and some additional commentary that complemented what were saying in the mainbar.

Conception to print: Two days.

We ended up with a 7-day series, covering the Legislature's top leaders and all 11 of our local representatives. Reaction was good in letters and a number of readers told us they were taking our advice and writing to these representatives. My only real disappointment was that the online response was light, but then, our blog doesn't get the high traffic yet that we'd like.  

I'll have to ask the lawmakers how pestered they were by constituents as a result of the series. If they'll talk to me again...

Jay Jochnowitz is the editorial page editor of the Albany, N.Y., Times Union.

An update from NCEW Foundation President Neil Heinen

'Beyond Argument' is updated and reprinted

Published Monday, June 21, 2010 7:00 am by Neil Heinen

First off, please accept my apology for this delinquent report. It's been six months since your NCEW Foundation Board elected me president,and this update is long overdue. But like many of you, I was laid pretty low by losing our friend and colleague Dale Davenport. I hasten to add to all the marvelous tributes with which you have honored Dale the fact that he was an irreplaceable asset to the foundation for as many years as I've been on the board. His wisdom and guidance was a tribute to the respect he had for this organization, and his willingness to step up and volunteer when the need arose was a tribute to his grace and spirit.

We all miss him, none of us more than my three immediate predecessors in this chair, John Taylor, Morgan McGinley and Tommy Denton. All four of them contributed immeasurably to the sound state in which the foundation finds itself today. Not that said state could be sounder. It could, and should be because our mission is more important than ever: to support NCEW in its role of providing professional education and training and encouraging the diversity of voices of our craft.

We've had some successes:

  • The long-awaited second edition of "Beyond Argument" (NCEW's guide to the art of opinion writing) should find its way to your library shelves soon. Thank you is a woefully inadequate tribute to Barb Drake and Maura Casey for once again organizing, cajoling, encouraging, editing, feeding and nurturing "the book."
  • The 15th (!) Minority Writers Seminar in Nashville the last weekend in April was a tremendous -- if dangerously sodden -- success. Thanks as always to Tommy Denton, "Dean" Doug Lyons, and their terrific faculty, Ricardo Pimentel, Linda Campbell, Dwight Lewis, Rick Horowitz (as usual,) Dwight Lewis, and of course Joan Armour who once again made everyone feel at home even if the floods delayed her from actually getting to her own home. Supporting this important annual seminar is one of the Foundation's foremost goals.

But our ambitious goals for providing a permanent foundation for the seminar, to say nothing of strengthening the foundation itself, were short-circuited by the ugly recession. We need to redouble our efforts. As always, it starts with us.

Each member of NCEW has a responsibility to support the organization that so steadfastly supports us. We'll be asking you to contribute in the next year and expect that you will. We're planning an end of the year "ask," another request in the early spring, a return of the dial-a-thon sometime next year, and of course at the annual convention as part of the traditional "celebration," which Foundation Treasurer Robyn Blummner has so graciously agreed to chair this year.

Robyn, you will recall, was also the driving force behind the creation of the Nancy Q. Keefe Endowment Fund, which has generated some generous gifts and is a wonderful way to support our organization.

So you'll be hearing from us. We'll give you plenty of advance warning. But to start ,you might want to consider throwing a small check in the mail when you receive your new copy of "Beyond Argument." And thank you, for all you do already to support the NCEW Foundation.

Neil Heinen, a past president of NCEW, is the president of the NCEW Foundation.

When public universities hide behind private foundations

Fresno State defies law by hiding Sarah Palin's speaker's fee

Published Monday, June 21, 2010 7:00 am by Leland Y. Yee

There is an unfortunate growing trend among our public higher education institutions of doing public business behind closed doors without any accountability to the taxpayer. Over the past several years, I have authored new laws in California to bring greater transparency to executive compensation decisions and provide protections to students and workers who report waste, fraud and abuse.

However, another such abuse has remained unresolved for nearly 10 years, despite court challenges and two legislative attempts at a fix: public university auxiliary organizations. Although statutorily defined as nonprofits, campus auxiliary organizations are often governed by university officials such as campus presidents and have assumed many essential functions within universities such as operating book stores and parking facilities. According to the California State University, campus auxiliaries now account for 20 percent of the entire CSU budget.

In 2001, Fresno State University was involved in an egregious pay-to-play scenario where well-heeled donors were given exclusive access to luxury box tickets to future events at the yet-to-be-built SaveMart Center in exchange for a donation. When reporters inquired about the nature of the donations through a California Public Records Act request, Fresno State responded that the donations involved the Fresno State's campus auxiliary, and thus fell outside of the provisions of the public records act.

A lawsuit forced not only the university but the auxiliary to disclose the requested information. But Fresno State appealed, arguing that a strict reading of the California Public Records Act does not apply to these quasi-governmental entities. The appeals court clearly struggled with their decision, "scratching their judicial heads" as they acknowledged the implications. In ruling in favor of the university, the court bemoaned, "We are fully cognizant of the fact that our conclusion seems to be in direct conflict with the express purposes of the CPRA -- ‘to safeguard the accountability of government to the public.'" In forcing its hand to rule against the public interest because of a legal technicality, the court remarked, "What was the Legislature thinking?"

Since that case, the number of incidents that cry for greater transparency has grown.

Last year at Sonoma State University, an auxiliary board member was given a series of personal loans totaling more than $2 million after resigning from the board. That former board member filed for bankruptcy and defaulted on the loan, depriving students of hundreds thousands of dollars in lost scholarships and grant funds.

Last year at Fresno State University, a judge voided a contract to build a multiplex theater on campus because a member of the auxiliary organization who negotiated the contract had a financial interest in the deal and did not adhere to state conflict-of-interest laws. Alarmingly, the CSU argued in court that the conflict-of-interest laws did not apply because the auxiliary was a "private" organization.

And perhaps most famously, this year the CSU Stanislaus Foundation, an auxiliary organization, negotiated a speaking engagement contract with Sarah Palin but refused to disclose her compensation. Although governmental agencies are specifically barred from negotiating away the public records act in their contracts, the CSUS Foundation unsurprisingly claimed exception and refused to provide the information, prompting two entrepreneurial students to dig through a Dumpster when they noticed university personnel suspiciously destroying records on a furlough day. The CSUS Foundation also conveniently ignored the portion of the 2001 Fresno State case that ordered the university itself to disclose auxiliary organization documents it had in its possession.

With their growing budgets and greater prominence at California public universities, campus auxiliary organizations have become the biggest unturned stone in state government. The public universities have perpetuated the status quo by suggesting increased transparency will have a "chilling effect" on future donations without offering any proof to that effect. In fact, when the CSU made that argument in court in the 2001 Fresno State case, the court concluded their claim "constituted nothing more than speculative, self-serving opinions designed to preclude the dissemination of information to which the public is entitled."

I am happy to announce that California Senate Bill 330 -- legislation I am authoring to ensure campus auxiliaries and foundations in California adhere to the public records act -- has received broad bipartisan support. This bill will soon be on the governor's desk again, giving him a second chance to do the right thing and sign this important good government bill.

Sen. Leland Y. Yee represents San Francisco and San Mateo County in the California Senate.

BP Oil Spill: This is about our home

This isn't some Washington political debate

Published Sunday, July 11, 2010 7:00 am by Jane Nicholes

In the midday heat, oil melted on the sands of the public beach in Gulf Shores, Al., I was as sickened as if I had come home to find the stuff poured on my kitchen floor.

All of the words, all of the photos, all of the video -- none of it hit me as hard as the sight of oil washing up on Alabama's beaches.

I'd gone looking for oil that Saturday morning, half-jokingly calling it an "editorial field trip." On my favorite piece of beach to the west of Gulf Shores, I found lots of brown and black pebbles. Only they weren't pebbles. From the public beach, I moved on to Gulf State Park where I climbed up on the first section of the new public pier. Oil stained the beach, as far as the eye could see, on both sides.

The editorial board for the Press-Register in Mobile and The Mississippi Press in Pascagoula has been immersed in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill since it became clear that BP wasn't exactly accurate when the company first claimed that no oil had escaped into the Gulf of Mexico after the rig explosion on April 20.

We've written more on this oil spill in less time, and held more editorial board meetings, than on any other single topic in my 10 years as an editorial writer, including Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina in 2004 and 2005. Between April 29 and the end of June, we published nearly 40 locally written editorials on the subject. We can speculate about the oil forecast with the same layman's expertise we usually apply to hurricane computer models this time of year. We can talk mousse, patties, tarballs, sheens, slicks and subsurface water columns. We debate the merits of boom versus ocean boom versus pantyhose filled with human and animal hair.

But when an historic environmental disaster washes up on your state's doorstep, you learn the most by leaving the office.

Our publisher, editor and cartoonist have flown with the Coast Guard, checking out everything from Louisiana marshes to the site of the rig explosion to the island in Mobile Bay made from dredging spoil that was adopted by the brown pelicans as their home base. Our editorial page editor and I have made separate excursions to the beach. All of us had much the same reaction: This is awful. We've also practiced the same "all hands on deck" attitude we have called on BP and public officials to show. Publisher Ricky Mathews, for example, couldn't seem to relax during a weeklong family reunion in Orange Beach. By the middle of that week, he had presented us with an op-ed on what he had seen and experienced, with photos.

J.D. Crowe drew a particularly artistic and moving cartoon based on what the ribbons and sheens of oil looked like from the air. Aerial photos by Mathews, Crowe and Editor Mike Marshall have been published on the news pages along with those photographers and reporters. If you're in a helicopter around here, you're expected to take a camera and come back with something. The same visceral need to tell the story and express an opinion has clearly affected our readers. We haven't had to seek out and engage them; as Editorial Page Editor Frances Coleman says, we open the door and turn on the lights.

We've had so many letters to the editor on the oil spill that most of the letters on a very close Republican gubernatorial primary, recount and subsequent runoff election didn't make the cut for lack of space. Authors Winston Groom and Sonny Brewer, both south Alabama residents, have written op-ed pieces, as did Lucy Buffett, Jimmy's sister who owns a well-known restaurant. So did our outdoors editor, Jeff Dute, whose knowledge of coastal geography and sources in the fishing community and in wildlife protection have turned him into one of the lead reporters on the oil spill.

Groom, who simply sent us an unsolicited essay, drew his own flurry of letters with his strong criticism of the lack of big oil skimmers responding to the gulf. Buffett made a plea for the tourism industry that has been devastated by canceled vacation plans. In Brewer's case, with just a bit of encouragement,a one-sentence Faulkner-esque letter to the editor turned into a Sunday Insight piece.

The detail and the outrage expressed in our editorials, and the frustration expressed by our readers, stem from familiarity and involvement with the subject. Most everyone who lives in coastal Alabama has a favorite stretch of beach, or loves to boat and fish, or at least knows someone employed in the tourism, seafood or oil industries.

This isn't about some political philosphical policy debate going on in Washington, D.C. This is about our home being fouled by something we can't seem to stop and haven't figured out how to clean up. If you're down on the Gulf Coast, you have to come see it.

Jane Nicholes is an editorial writer for the Press-Register and The Mississippi Press.

Judging judges

What do you ask judicial candidates?

Published Sunday, July 18, 2010 7:00 am by Linda P. Campbell

There's a peculiar contradiction in what judicial candidates too often ask of the public: Elect me to make critical decisions on your behalf -- but don't expect me to help you make the most informed decision about whether I should be elected.

For years, the crutch has been the ethics rules, which generally have prohibited discussion of pending cases or promises about how a judge might rule. But those were extrapolated to mean no comment on much of anything of substance.

In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Minnesota vs. White that a state judicial conduct rule violated the First Amendment by barring judicial candidates from discussing their "views on disputed legal or political issues." Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority that the state couldn't leave "the principle of elections in place while preventing candidates from discussing what the elections are about."

That didn't make it much easier to elicit meaningful information from candidates for state judgeships. Maybe that's because Editorial Boards don't have the clout -- or the kind of time -- that Senate Judiciary Committee members have in questioning nominees for lifetime appointments to the federal bench.

But here are some questions that can help get beneath the surface of the women and men who want to be a judge:

  1. Why do you want to be a judge? This might seem trite, but the answers can illuminate. "I just want to serve." What the heck does that mean? "It would be a capstone on my long career." Translation: I'm tired of working but not of getting a regular paycheck. How about a thoughtful answer on what the judiciary needs and why this candidate could provide it? A recent candidate for a local criminal court had considerable experience in federal court and wanted to deal with constitutional issues, though those aren't a mainstay of criminal cases. A candidate for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had worked in the U.S. Justice Department but had little state court experience. We pressed her about why she wanted a job for which some people might consider her overqualified.
  2. What is the biggest challenge facing the court you're running for, and how would you address it?Trial judges are managers as much as they are arbiters of the law. Candidates should be able to address, for instance, whether the court they're running for has a backlog and how they would tackle it (besides "I'll move cases faster"). Are too many defendants getting jailed without bond? Are civil cases taking too long to schedule for trial because of the criminal case load? Candidates' knowledge about day-to-day workings reflects on their experience, the learning curve they face and how in-touch they are.
  3. What's the reputation of the court you want to join and what impact would you have on it? Texas' Supreme Court has nine Republicans and no Democrats. For several cycles, candidates have made the court's reputation as business-oriented and plaintiff-unfriendly a campaign issue. That opens the door to questions about what is the right balance and whether judges should be concerned with how many defendants or plaintiffs are winning.
  4. Who's a judge you admire and why? This isn't necessarily a softball. A candidate who cites Justices Thomas and Scalia because they believe in interpreting the law and not making it apparently doesn't know the difference between Thomas' and Scalia's views and may not understand that the buzz phrase "interpreting, not making the law" ignores the reality of what judges do. If a candidate hopes to emulate a well-respected local judge who‘s always prepared and treats litigants with respect, that reveals something important about temperament.
  5. Should judges be elected or appointed? We always ask that question because we've long advocated switching to a system of appointments with retention elections. It's revealing to know how much thought candidates have put into the flaws and advantages of electing judges.

A few other tips:

  • Ask about claims made on the candidate's website or in campaign literature. A local family court judge seeking re-election claimed to have jailed parents who failed to pay child support "in 100 percent of cases," but his opponent argued that jail might not be the best response in all cases. A law enforcement group supporting the incumbent put out a flyer opposing the challenger because, it said without any other context, she would "favor probation over jail." That same incumbent maintained a website for his court, complete with bios of court staff and documents lawyers might need to file. The trouble was, he used the same site for campaign materials, including the Republican Party platform, supporters' names and a link to make campaign donations. He didn't see a conflict -- but amended the site after we wrote an editorial calling it misleading.
  • Ask about campaign funding.See how honest statewide candidates drawing large donations are about how bad that might look to the public.
  • Ask whether candidates have applied for judicial appointments. Get the paperwork, if they have. A large percentage of Texas judges first got on the bench through appointment by the governor. The questionnaires they file with the governor's office are available once an appointment is made and provide background on legal credentials.

Linda P. Campbell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She is the current NCEW Nominations Committee chair.

Bingham Award winner announced

Published Wednesday, July 28, 2010 7:00 am

Sree Sreenivasan, a professor of digital media and dean of student affairs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, is the recipient of the 2010 Barry Bingham Sr. Fellowship. The award, given in recognition of an educator's outstanding efforts to encourage students of color in the field of journalism, will be presented at the National Conference of Editorial Writers (NCEW) annual convention in Dallas, Texas, which will be held September 22-25, 2010.

The Bingham Fellowship brings to the NCEW convention an outstanding faculty member who has shown great initiative in mentoring college students. The faculty member receives an award for career-long contributions to students of color. NCEW pays the cost for the educator's travel to the convention and helps the educator with projects he or she may want to do.

Sree Sreenivasan, the first South Asian and the first from a graduate school to receive the honor, embodies the essence of this award because of what he has done for a wide range of minority students in his 17 years as an educator at Columbia.

Sree is best known for his work in co-founding SAJA, the South Asian Journalists Association, in March 1994. The organization has since grown into a major force, representing 1,000+ journalists across the U.S. and Canada.

SAJA just celebrated its 15th anniversary and it has done its good deeds without any paid professional staff, thanks to Sree's boundless energy and dedication. Under Sree's leadership, SAJA has given away hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships, built mentoring programs, recognized quality student work through awards, and supplemented unpaid newsroom internships with fellowships. He is an active member of the executive board and is involved in nearly every aspect of the group's programming.

Sree's job as dean of student affairs means that he plays a pivotal role in helping minority students at the J-school. In his position, he has made the success of minority students a critical part of what they do.

That means actively seeking out minorities, bringing them to Columbia, ensuring they succeed, helping them get good jobs and following their careers. Sree takes personal interest in all of this and has formalized many aspects of minority support that were done in an ad hoc basis - including appointing a multicultural affairs coordinator who supervises the Journalism School's Asian American Journalists Association, Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association, National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and South Asian Journalists Association chapters. The J-school has among the highest percentage of minority students at Columbia.

Founded in 1947, the National Conference of Editorial Writers is a non-profit professional organization that exists to improve the quality of editorial pages and broadcast editorials and to promote high standards among opinion writers and editors. The National Conference of Editorial Writers Foundation is a 501(c)3 corporation dedicated to promoting the craft of editorial and opinion writing and supporting the work of the National Conference of Editorial Writers.

Some tools for successful editorial campaigns

The reader must have a role

Published Sunday, August 15, 2010 7:00 am by Lois Kazakoff

So you've run an editorial campaign for a year and succeeded in shaming the state legislature into killing a piece of legislation that had "special interest" practically stamped on it. You heralded the accomplishment as striking another blow in the public interest. But what have you done for democracy lately?

Sure, you kept the klieg lights on a corrupting practice. You called on the public to write, call, even march on the capital, to make it clear to the unresponsive legislators that the citizenry was watching and would remember their skullduggergy at election time.

But the readers didn't respond, even after 40 editorials and a boatload of facts to convince them that they were being sold down the river. Disinterested? Disdainful, even, of the newspaper's effort?

How about left out?

That's an observation of scholars at the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio, think tank that has studied democracy for 30 years. Americans, Kettering scholars note, are disengaging from our democracy because they see their role as citizens being eliminated by politicans fronting for special interestsand "experts."

As part of its annual Deliberative Democracy Exchange at the end of June, the foundation hosted 14 opinion journalists among some 140 participants from some 20 countries. David Holwerk, Kettering's communications director and resident scholar (and a past NCEW president and former Sacramento Bee editorial page editor), led two days of discussion about how editorialists can help communities weigh choices and take action to resolve problems.

Kettering, Holwerk explained, doesn't give advice or take polls. "Kettering is interested in what enables people to make sound collective decisions."

What allows the public to make those decisions -- common values, a shared set of facts, and an urgency to do something -- is also the hallmark of a meaningful editorial campaign. Those campagins that work -- ones that the public both responds to and takes up as its own -- are campaigns that clearly define a role for the ordinary citizen, Holwerk said.

As a veteran of dozens of editorial campaigns (including two that won Pulitzer prizes), Holwerk sees in Kettering's work concepts that could help editorial boards. Kettering offers a set of tools to assess where the public is on an issues and where and when the editorial page might step in to help the citizenry act on choices.

Campaigns also need to go beyond urging citizens to contact their elected representatives or to vote. The goal is to strengthen democracy by dispelling cynicism of government to advance policy changes and increasing the citizens' sense of responsibility to find community solutions. Kettering's research shows that little will improve until the community stops pointing fingers and learns to do things for itself, Holwerk said.

So how do editorial boards put the practices of deliberative democracy and journalism in sync? How do you as an editorialist get attuned to where opportunities lie? How do you recognize what is stopping the community from acting?

"You need to organize the way you listen to the community you are part of," Holwerk said. "Then try to name the campaign in terms that people value."

For example, seminar participant Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press helped launch an editorial campaign to address illiteracy and public school failure in Detroit. Academic performance tests showed found Detroit fourth-graders' reading level was so poor it was as if they had never attended school at all. The newspaper searched for a name that encapsulated the problem, implied a need to join the campaign and conveyed urgency to get something done. Thus the Reading Corps mobilized 4,000 volunteers to tutor elementary school students on reading.

My newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, used a multiyear editorial campaign on foster care to improve the lot of some 80,000 foster children in California (the most, by far, in the care of any state). We framed the issue as one of collective parental responsibility -- that making a child a ward of the state meant that they, the readers, were these children's parents. And the readers got it. Groups stepped up to help the children transition from foster care to adulthood, or ensure they had shoes, clothing and school supplies. Those groups became a vocal constituency that, together with the editorial clout of The Chronicle, effected needed policy changes.

Kettering, Holwerk said, doesn't give advice. "But if you were doing something that was an experiment in the way journalism encourages people to make better decisions and govern themselves, Kettering would be interested in talking to you about it."

Lois Kazakoff is The Masthead editor. She attended the 2010 Kettering Foundation Deliberative Democracy Exchange in Dayton, Ohio.

How to evaluate a potential campaign

Try to determine at what stage in coming to a
judgment the public is on an issue

4. Wishful thinking

1. Dawning awareness

5. Weighing choices

2. Greater urgency to do something

6. Taking a stand

3. Reachingfor solutions

7. Making a responsible judgment

A guide for op-ed writers

The basics for submissions

Published Saturday, August 28, 2010 7:00 am by Doug Floyd

The most important thing to remember is that we edit the page for the readers, not the writers. 

We prefer columns on local or regional topics -- the kind of issues that syndicated writers don't tackle.

Maximum length is 750 words. Tight writing is encouraged in all cases. We reserve the right to edit, but we make significant changes only in consultation with the writer.

A word about bylines:  "By" means written by, not approved by. Many businesses, organizations and agencies have staff or other resources to do the writing that then is submitted under the signature of a figurehead. That's customary, but it's not accurate. We expect the columns we publish to be written personally by whoever is listed as the author.

We also assume that, unless we're told otherwise, you are submitting your column to us exclusively.  We won't categorically rule it out if you've sent it to another publication, but we want to know about it so we can take that into consideration.

Columns should be written to stand alone, not in response to another commentary. (Responses are best suited to letters to the editor.)

Columns should not contain a commercial message or an appeal for funds, even for charitable purposes.

Naturally, we don't consider columns containing potential libel, obscenity, racism or other tastelessness.

We rarely use unsolicited guest columns that deal with ballot issues or candidates during a campaign period. 

The guide is courtesy of Gary Crooks and Doug Floyd at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.

Freedom of Information -- history of the good fight

Book review

Published Saturday, September 18, 2010 7:00 am by James H. Smith

If you want a unique view of how democracy should work, pick up Mitchell W. Pearlman's new book "Piercing the Veil of Secrecy, Lessons in the Fight for Freedom of Information."

Pearlman, the retired general counsel and executive director of Connecticut's singular Freedom of Information Commission, is a national treasure -- no, international treasure. He is recognized from Hartford to Beijing to Johannesburg to Mexico City as a leading expert on the fault lines of government secrecy and ways to pry it open.

In 1990 he was a delegate to an international meeting of government information commissioners in Ottawa. "For the first time," he writes, "Freedom of Information laws were looked at from a comparative law perspective (internationally) and ... It opened up a whole new vista for thought."

And therein lies one of the benefits of his book, written with lawyerly restraint and with a literary rhythm that pulls the lay reader to the next page.

Who doesn't want to know what the government is up to -- whether it's how the local police department is protecting the community or how national security agencies are hiding too much from the public? In a refreshing worldview, Pearlman writes of the demise of the Soviet Union and the fall of apartheid in South Africa as democratizing movements that let the sunlight in to help root out corruption and human rights abuses that were and are so common in totalitarian societies.

"Piercing the Veil of Secrecy is a celebration of how far we've come and an acknowledgement of how far we must go if we truly embrace the potential of government transparency," is how University of Missouri journalism Professor Charles N. Davis puts it in the foreward to the book. Executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, Davis writes "this book is well worth reading" because it encourages us "to engage with these ideas."

And how good it is to read about ideas, their points and counterpoints, from a man immersed in them for an entire career who makes them so very accessible to just plain people. Pearlman understands that is who he served for three decades in Connecticut government -- the people and their God-given right to know what their government is doing.

His book delves into Connecticut's secrecy and it also takes the reader from Ancient Egypt to the American Constitutional Convention in 1787 to the Nixon White House and to a flight of some fancy into secrecy versus transparency as we explore outer space.

Mitch Pearlman is a learned yet humble man. In four pages of acknowledgments, he gives his compatriots their due. He remembers those editors and publishers who fought to establish open government laws here in the Nutmeg State -- Bice Clemow, the late editor of the West Hartford News and "maitre d' of Freedom of Information in Connecticut;" the late editor of the News-Times of Danbury Stephen A. Collins, "the behind the scenes leader of the movement for Freedom of Information in Connecticut;" E. Bartlett Barnes, the late publisher of the Bristol Press. These men and a few others were instrumental in convincing a woman that the state needed a Freedom of Information Commission, one that could fine government officials for breaking right-to-know laws.

And here I quibble with the author for leaving out Ella Grasso, the first woman elected governor in her own right in the United States and who signed the bill into law.

Pearlman devotes considerable space and an entire chapter to the crucial role of watchdog journalism and freedom of the press in the ongoing battle to keep the public informed.

As a young man heading off to New England for my first full-time newspaper job, my grandmother really preferred that I stay closer to home in our little village in western New York State. Her scholarly son, my uncle, told her not to worry -- "He's going to work for Herb Brucker's paper. The Hartford Courant is one of the best."

And indeed, Pearlman writes Brucker "I believe coined the term 'Freedom of Information,' the title of his 1949 book."

James H. Smith is executive editor of the Bristol Press and New Britain Herald.

Orlando -- 2012 convention site offers something different

University of Central Florida proposes to host NCEW

Published Tuesday, September 21, 2010 8:00 am by John C. Bersia

Most NCEW members probably know Orlando for the reason it is globally famous: theme parks and attractions -- 75 of them, notably Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World. Or perhaps because it sits at the center of Florida, a state of increasing prominence in national politics.

But the "other" Orlando offers just as much to talk about, for example, education, including 22 public and private institutions of higher learning. Best known is the University of Central Florida, the third largest university in the nation, with 56,000-plus students. UCF, which is proposing to host NCEW's 2012 convention, is not simply big. U.S. News & World Report's "America's Best Colleges" list ranked the school in its top tier in August.

Why a university rather than the customary newspaper?

Why not?

In this period of news-media flux, UCF can be a good partner. It taps into a different audience -- including students-- that can complement regular NCEW convention participants. It brings resources and connections that otherwise might not be accessible. It is training students who are contemplating careers in the broad field of communication. And it has secured the full support of the Orlando Sentinel, which hosted an NCEW convention in the past, for this bid.

Further, UCF is well-equipped for NCEW's requirements. It handles dozens of conferences, symposia and other programs each year, making use of the region's lure as a destination to bring in a multitude of prominent speakers. As many NCEW members already know, UCF has also had a direct relationship with the group since 2005; the two co-sponsor a fall global issues forum in Orlando that attracts several hundred people each year.

The Rosen College of Hospitality Management -- the UCF facility that would accommodate some of the convention sessions, along with the selected area hotel -- has been called the largest learning laboratory in the world for hospitality and tourism. Students have the unique advantage of learning in a city with 42 million annual visitors, 120,000 hotel rooms, 4,000 restaurants, and those 75 theme parks and attractions. By the way, the Rosen College has a state-of-the-art beer and wine laboratory that offers tastings (NCEW President Tom Waseleski has been there and can vouch for it). The Rosen College has another advantage: It is located far from the main campus, and is immune to the complications of a home football game and competition for parking.

In case NCEW members are wondering what to do when they are not toiling in convention workshops and meetings, think no more. Orlando has an abundance of nearby natural attractions such as beaches, wilderness areas and pristine waterways. Shopping? 50 million square feet of it. Oh, and more clubs, theaters and festivals than one can possibly list, all within a short walk or drive.

The "other" Orlando is also open for business. An area that once featured endless acres of citrus now has a diverse economy, from health care to sports to movie-making to international trade. Business Week has cited Orlando for a particular sector: the world's largest cluster of simulation businesses. The region is also a leading center for magazine publishing.

So there you have it, the Orlando you probably know and the "other" one. Combined, they make a perfect location for NCEW 2012.

John C. Bersia is a former Orlando Sentinel editorial writer who now directs global initiatives at the University of Central Florida.

Meet Sen. John Cornyn

Conservative leader is Saturday luncheon keynote speaker

Published Wednesday, September 22, 2010 6:00 am by Rich Oppel

John Cornyn is a Republican who makes Democrats nervous. At 6-foot-4 with a head  of white hair and a gentlemanly style suggesting moderation, he has a voting record that won him a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., once called Cornyn "very smart, very articulate and very conservative." As Texas Monthly notes, Cornyn has become the most powerful Texan in Washington in just eight years. 

Stature flows from his courtly conservatism on wide-ranging issues on the Senate floor, in the Judiciary Committee where he combats Democratic court nominees, on Sunday talk shows, and in his role as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.  His ubiquity earned him the label of "precocious" from the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Cornyn has voted against including oil and gas effluents in mercury limitations, against banning drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and against factoring global warming into federal planning. 

He led the fight against same-sex marriages and voted against partial-birth abortions.  He has opposed use of embryonic stem cells in research. He is against the estate tax and for making the Bush tax cuts permanent.

Cornyn regularly wins by solid margins. In 2002 he defeated former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, a Democrat, 56-43 percent for the Senate.  Six years later he beat four-term state Rep. Rick Noriega, a ramrod-straight National Guard officer, 55-43 percent.

Born the son of an Air Force pilot in Houston in 1952, Cornyn grew up in San Antonio and graduated from Trinity University with a journalism degree. But reporting wasn't for him:  He took jobs waiting tables and selling real estate before  getting his law degree and defending physicians in malpractice cases.

Cornyn served as a district judge, Texas Supreme Court justice and Texas attorney general, where he made life miserable for trial lawyers,  sued ExxonMobil for royalties, and campaigned for open government -- a passion he has pursued in the U.S. Senate. 

Cornyn walks a fine line between the GOP's tough stance on immigration and the fact that he represents the state with a Hispanic population second only to California.  He also may face the wrath of tea party partisans, since as campaign chair he supported mainstream GOP candidates in hopes of winning the Senate, and now belatedly has moved to embrace tea party winners.

In Texas, Cornyn seldom shies from the give-and-take of editorial board meetings, and is quick to call and propose a meeting. Count him as reliably genial.

Rich Oppel, the former editor of the Austin Statesman-American, is a senior advisor for Public Strategies Inc. in Austin, Texas.

Dallas mayor charms NCEW members

Texan trait -- promote, promote, promote

Published Thursday, September 23, 2010 7:00 am by Amitabh Pal

This has to be said for Dallas city officials: They know how to promote their city.

Mayor Tom Leppert had barely 10 minutes to address the opening reception for the 2010 convention of the National Conference of Editorial Writers on Wednesday evening, because he had to rush to the airport. But in those few minutes on an outdoor deck of the Fairmont Hotel, he managed to sell Dallas convincingly, insert a few jokes and assure editorialists of the importance of their work.

He told the gathering about the $350 million arts center, and of the burgeoning hospitality industry in Dallas. He informed us of the reduction in crime and of his endeavor to take the whole city along on the path to development, rather than leaving entire neighborhoods behind.

"Great things are happening here," Leppert said. "Dallas will be the best place to live and work in ten to twenty years."

Phil Jones, the president and CEO of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, had a tough act to follow ("the mayor stole my thunder," he lamented). Jones told us about the $14 billion in new development in the city, and the various building projects around Dallas. He pitched us on the arts district, as well as the Texas State Fair. "Come back in three to four years," he said, suggesting the best is yet to come.

Not to worry. We will. We have been sold on Dallas.

Amitabh Pal is the co-editor of the Progressive Media Project in Madison.

What the new Census will tell us

A panel on demographics and politics

Published Friday, September 24, 2010 8:30 am by Chuck Stokes

If you think statistics are boring and don't paint a picture of people and politics, think again.  America is changing and the new census numbers will make it perfectly clear.  That was the topic Friday morning at the NCEW convention in Dallas.  Linda Campbell of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram moderated a panel of experts that included former U.S. Census Director Steve Murdock, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, and Texas state Senator Royce West of Dallas. 

Surprisingly, there weren't any strong differences of opinion between the speakers.  No fireworks, just good solid facts.  Each one drove home their most important talking points during their opening remarks.  Murdock said, "Texas today is the U.S. of tomorrow."  He then pointed out how much the Anglo population is dying off compared to the fast-growing Hispanic population. By the time the 2023 Census rolls around, Murdock predicts that half of all children in the United States will be non-Anglo.  If cities want to grow in the future, they will have to be ethnically diverse.

Mayor Castro made a strong case that San Antonio is the "new face of America."  It is currently the seventh-largest city in the nation and the third-fastest growing municipality.  San Antonio is overwhelmingly Mexican-American and is thriving economically.  Here are some facts the mayor is fond of pointing out:

  • More than a third of the city's businesses are minority owned.
  • Seventy percent of the people in the San Antonio area live in the city.
  • City workers recently received a 2 percent salary increase.
  • Female-owned Hispanic businesses are growing even faster than male-owned Hispanic businesses.

San Antonio's charismatic young mayor was also quick to let his audience of editorial writers know that demographic change doesn't mean "the demise" of the United States.  It could also lead to more political clout and a higher political office for Castro.  Some editorialists at the convention are already comparing him to a young Barack Obama.    

Few people in Texas know this better than Royce West, who has served in the state legislature for 17 years.   However, he is certain that changing demographics in his state, and others, will trigger "incumbent protection" redistricting fights of enormous proportion.  The Texas population boom is expected to win the state three to four more seats in Congress.  How this will impact the balance of powers between Republicans, Democrats, and independents such as the Tea Party movement supporters remains to be seen.  But Senator West made one observation about redistricting that few would challenge.  "We will probably end up with a map that no one will agree on and that is probably good," he said.

Provocative questions from convention attendees prompted these enlightening answers from the panelists:

  • "The majority of America's Hispanic growth is driven by births, not immigration."
  • "San Antonio's municipal government has made some smart investments in the college education of our young population."
  • "We're a country of immigrants but we never liked immigrants."
  • Arizona's controversial "SB1070 immigration law would not be good for Texas...our strong economy has helped to keep the illegal immigration debate civil within Texas."

When the new U.S.Census numbers come out in a few months, read them carefully!  They'll tell us a fascinating story about the changing face of America.

Chuck Stokes is the editorial director for WXYZ-TV in Southfield, Michigan.

Digital Innovations critique


Published Friday, September 24, 2010 1:00 pm by Jay Jochonowitz

Apparently, I was not the only one who had a hard time choosing between two of the new critique groups offered at this year's convention -- digital innovations and reader interaction.

The two really aren't separate; we're online, ultimately, because that's where readers are increasingly interacting with us.

As it turned out,  the leaders of the two groups, Miriam Pepper of The Kansas City Star on the digital side and Michael Landauer of The Dallas Morning News on the reader side, saw the inseparability of these issues. We held the two groups at opposite ends of the same room at the Fairmont Hotel, and then brought them together at the end to share our respective thoughts.

I'll skip any more narrative here and just throw out bullet points of things people are doing out there. You all know the discussion -- go digital or die; the great value of getting together with colleagues is to find out how we are surviving. So, in no particular order order (where examples might help, I've included the names of papers doing these things):

  • Incorporating RSS feeds from other newspapers' editorial pages on your opinion page or blog;
  • Video of candidates-- rather than throw an entire editorial board meeting at readers, have candidates answer specific questions separately, with a reasonable time limit (The Day, New London, Conn.)
  • A question or issue of the day. This is done in various ways; some papers select one big issue of the day and do a write-up on it, with links to news background and opinion (Dallas Morning News'"Big Story," the Hartford Courant's"Today's Buzz," the Sun Sentinel's"Today's Buzz," Kansas City Star's"Today's Top Five"); others put out a "question of the day" for comment and/or a daily poll (Hartford Courant, Sun Sentinel).
  • Using the web for excess letters to the editor, such as ones that didn't get in because of deadlines, length or limits on frequency of submissions for print.
  • Posting a notice of the topic(s) you're writing about for the following day and taking comment as you're developing the piece.
  • Open up a topic to reader comment after the editorial board members have weighed in(Dallas).
  • Using a "what we're reading" motif to send readers around the web (or on our own paper's site) (Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal-Sentinel). (My paper, the Times Unionin Albany, does a daily print feature called "Webviews," with short synopses of interesting things to read on the web, with a refer to the same pieces, with links, on our blog).
  • A cartoon caption contest (Courant)

I should also put in a word for the Kansas City Star's "Midwest Democracy Project," which fuses news and opinion into a single election resource.

Jay Jochonowitz is the editorial page editor of the Times Union in Albany, New York.

Eichenwald's appraisal of the press

Arrogance has made media reports boring

Published Friday, September 24, 2010 9:00 pm by Lois Kazakoff

Kurt Eichenwald, former New York Times reporter and author of best-selling books, had a few harsh words for journalists and the disservice they have done in perpetrating myths.

His case in point was the Enron story -- a topic on which he reported for the Times and then went on to detail in his 700-page book, "The Conspiracy of Fools."

Eichenwald excoriated journalists for laziness, both in reporting and for reducing a nuanced story to a tale of "good guys and bad guys." This results in false and damaging stories that drive away readers and sources, he said.

In the Enron story, a key chapter in the tale that gripped the nation for months was that Enron stopped its employees from selling their shares as revelations about the company sent the stock price into a nosedive. That, Eichenwald said, was "complete fiction."

Close examination of the facts showed that Enron was transferring management of its 401(k) plan to another company and had suspended trading by employees until that transfer was complete. When employees again were able to trade their Enron shares, they started buying -- not selling.

"We did a disservice because we failed to give the American public the correct information," he said. "We want to create a simple story line because it is easy."

The press also creates false controversies, he said, pointing to the media furor over Florida pastor Terry Jones' plan to burn copies of the Quran on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "A 50-member church is going to burn Qurans: Who cares?" he asked. "We created a controversy where none was.

"If we were going to cover a lunatic, we needed to cover reaction."

The press could have put the Rev. Jones in context, he said. Other churches had similar plans -- the Texas press reported on a church in Amarillo but the story was never picked up by the national press. Editorialists should have used their bully pulpit to explain why Jones was not relevant. Instead, he said, "We've given Jones the power of the press."

Further, a focus on prizes distorts how we present the news, he said. "I've never been comfortable with the fact that we give each other prizes."

The arrogance of the press, the conceit we adopt that we report the "truth" and the shortcuts taken to turn out the story quickly, are harming our reporting and ultimately our business, said Eichenwald, who exhibited plenty of arrogance himself.

"Our readers aren't stupid. There's something wrong with us," he said. Once we can stand on this, we can start recognizing our own faults and do our best to correct them."

Lois Kazakoff is the deputy editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Go digital to connect with readers

A discussion of emerging media from NCEW-U

Published Friday, September 24, 2010 7:00 am by O. Ricardo Pimentel

When to burn the presses.

That was the provocative question posed by a panel on emerging media Thursday morning at the NCEW convention in Dallas. The answer, however, was elusive, with one speaker seemingly embracing immediacy and another urging editorial writers to familiarize themselves with the finances that will ultimately dictate the decision for a newspaper to go fully digital.

But all speakers urged editorial boards to go digital as a concrete means to address the changing needs of new audiences. None seemed to have a firm answer on the question of whether news organizations can monetize this to make for a profitable business model.

Dallas Morning News Editorial Writer Michael Landauer moderated the panel -- Paul Burka, senior executive editor of Texas Monthly; Dave Parry, an assistant professor of emergent media and communication at University of Texas at Dallas; and Mark Medici, director of audience development at the Dallas Morning News. The lingering question of when news organizations should pull the trigger on going fully digital aside, all the panelists spoke in favor of journalists doing more to embrace or speed the transition.

Burka, who described himself as not very tech savvy, launched a blog four years ago -- www.burkablog.com. Told by his then editor that he would become a blogger, Burka's reaction was "that I was demoted," he said. The blogger, Burka said, must "find a voice that works." His voice, he said, is one of "impartial arbiter" -- someone who looks at issues with balance and nuance. He acknowledged that having the brand of Texas Monthly behind the blog has helped its success. The blog primarily offers commentary and observation on Texas politics. "It's important to keep your credibility," he said.

Burka praised the ability of blogs to touch readership immediately and broadly. "The difference in the power to reach an audience between the electronic world and the old-fashioned world is amazing," he said. "You can get what you know into the public sphere (quicker)."

Parry recounted a story of a Miami Herald reader, outraged over the amount of coverage devoted to the Tiger Woods sex scandal, succeeding in getting a letter to the editor published in that newspaper. Emblematic of newspapers' problems, however, the letter writer was elderly and wrote the letter on a typewriter. "The lesson," he said: "Newspapers are toast." He drew a distinction between newspapers and journalism. "Newspapers don't have an inherent value; journalists do," Parry said.

Journalism will continue to have readers as long as it fulfills a "social function." Newspapers, he said, are mostly about the business model. IPhones and other smart mobile devices can transform anyone into a journalist, he suggested.

"Expertise isn't dependent on institutional support; it comes from knowing something I don't," he said.

Journalists, Parry said, must begin viewing themselves as "hosting conversations" rather than driving them and he urged journalists to write narrowly but expertly to specific audiences.

This was among several suggestions he offered for digital journalists. The others:

  • Engage the readers, jumping into the comments that follow online articles.
  • Provide a link or links to other content with each posting.
  • Become technologically savvy enough to incorporate other media in the journalism -- not every posting has to be text dependent.
  • Think mobile. In other words, know how to get what's written to mobile devices.

Providing some limited contrast, Medici said the Dallas Morning News continues to court affluent Boomers as a key demographic. This group, he said, is the "second highest adopter of technology."

A newspaper's transition to digital -- a move he urged -- necessarily will be rife with failure. But risk also is part of this equation.

Editorial boards have already modeled a behavior worth modeling in the digital world, he said. That would be engaging readers and providing that their voices are included on opinion pages. But he urged editorial boards to become hyper-local, providing content that no one else can.

He acknowledged that newspapers have not yet fixed on the right business model to make this transition to digital work.

"The ad (revenue) answer is not a long-term solution," he said.

Asked how editorial boards could juggle the need to provide content for print products and to simultaneously go digital, Parry counseled for immediate and drastic action.

"The more you have a foot in each world, the more you do each badly," he said. "Burn the presses."

He said that erecting pay walls on content argues to the reader "not to read."

After the session, Parry was less clear on whether a business model that will result in journalists getting paid for their work will be on the other end of that transition to a fully digital newspaper.

"If it can't get paid (for), that's an indication it isn't socially valuable," he said.

O. Ricardo Pimentel is an editorial writer at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Janet Napolitano -- the issues, not the myths, of immigration reform

Homeland Security secretary offered NCEW keynote speech

Published Friday, September 24, 2010 4:00 am by Kate Riley

Turns out Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had to agree to meet with the National Conference of Editorial Writers at this year's convention.

How could she say no to convention Chair Keven Ann Willey, who in her introduction, revealed things about the nation's security chief, that only a friend of about 25 years could know? And she hinted at more.

Smiling, Napolitano said she started to worry until she remembered, "I know as much about Keven as she knows about me."

Napolitano wanted to talk about immigration ­­-- to refute the myths and discuss the five realities of what must be done to get to reasonable immigration reform. She has been steeped in such realities from her long career as an attorney and public official in the border state of Arizona. She left her job as Arizona governor in her second term to work for President Obama.

  1. Serious effort. Under the Obama administration, Napolitano has never seen a more serious and comprehensive approach to border security. About 20,000 federal agents now work at the U.S. border with Mexico -- more than twice as many as in 2004, And the hiring of another 1,000 agents have been authorized. Additionally, about 1,200 National Guard members will be in place by Oct. 1 to support civilian law enforcement.
  2. Immigration reform is also about immigration enforcement. Napolitano said her department needs more tools to go after employers who create the demand for illegal labor.
  3. Immigration reform is also about the economy. Many industries need legal workers. Among them are high-tech and agriculture. Napolitano urges that current rules regarding legal worker immigration be revised.
  4. Immigration reform is about improving legal immigration system. The current system is severely backlogged. Many people who seek legal residency status or visas have to wait in line sometimes for years to immigrate to join their families.
  5. Stop moving the goal posts on what constitutes border security. Napolitano expressed frustration at the politics that seem to dominate discussions about immigration reform. Members of Congress need to move to solutions rather than clinging to the idea that border security is not improving, which is contrary to the facts.

"These problems are not going to go away until Congress acts," she said. "We need the members of Congress who voted no to come to the table. And we need the members of Congress who voted yes before and then voted no to return to their earlier better selves."

She encouraged NCEW members to communicate these realities to their readers, to combat the false emotion-evoking myths that are so prolific.

"We are a nation of immigrants and we are a nation of laws," Napolitano said in closing. "Those are two traditions that we need to uphold. And the immigration law now needs to be reformed."

Kate Riley is an editorial writer for the Seattle Times.

Reader Interaction critique


Published Friday, September 24, 2010 4:00 pm by Dick Hughes

Ellen Raff found that she loves "having a reputation." Nell Ann Hunt thought that writing an occasional column for a newspaper would be fun.

Raff and Hunt, two of the volunteer community columnists for The Dallas Morning News editorial pages, talked about their experiences at the 2010 NCEW convention. They were a part of a group of nearly 15 people who discussed reader interaction during a Thursday afternoon critique session. Hunt is a Realtor, Raff a freelance writer.

Michael Landauer, The DMN's assistant editorial page editor for reader engagement, led the session and explained how he solicited volunteer columnists for three zoned opinion pages.

The volunteers submit an application and writing sample online. Community Voices has proved so popular that people often have to apply two or three times before they're selected; Landauer has added student and teacher panels of columnists, as well as the general volunteer columnists.

Members of Community Voices write about once every six weeks, choosing topics important to them. Landauer conducts a training session for them, they sit in on one editorial board meeting and a news meeting, they hear tips from the DMN's regular "professional" columnists, and the newspaper holds a graduation ceremony when their term ends.

Other highlights:

  • Lois Kazakoff of the San Francisco Chronicle is working on a reader engagement project with public radio station KALW and a former Oakland Tribune columnist, Brenda Payton, who is a freelance writer. The eventual goal is to examine the cultural clashes between the Asian and African-American communities in the Bay Area, an issue that simmers below the surface.
    Payton is starting by doing short video "person on the street" interviews about "What's your story?" so as to develop expertise for how the project will work and build connections.
    Critique participants suggested building a database of participants/sources, identifying several thoughtful people on various sides and bringing them together for a discussion, inviting students to submit self-made videos of their perspectives/experiences, and referring to the online videos out of the print newspaper.
  • Eric Ringham of Minnesota Public Radio discussed the Public Insight Network, which includes around 30,000 people in Minnesota and 90,000 nationwide. They have volunteered to help "report" the news by sharing their expertise or story tips. Their information is stored in a database, making it easy for American Public Media and participating radio stations to search volunteers by geography, expertise or other areas.
    "We're getting amazing things," he said, including three petroleum engineers who could explain factors of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
    Volunteers can go online to click a button next to provide tips: "Here's something you should know about."
  • Pete Wasson of the Wausau (Wis.) Daily Herald shared his full-color editorial pages in which non-governmental civic leaders were brought together to identify key issues, which were then pursued by the newspaper.
  • Tricia Vance of StarNews Media in Wilmington, N.C., discussed her newspaper's ventures into Facebook, and NCEW members bounced around ideas for using Facebook.

Dick Hughes is the editorial page editor of the Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore.

10 tips for how to (almost) win a Pulitzer

A report from NCEW-U

Published Friday, September 24, 2010 7:00 am by Jeff Charis-Carlson

The Pulitzer Prize Board defines "distinguished editorial writing" as "clearness of style, moral purpose, sound reasoning, and power to influence public opinion in what the writer conceives to be the right direction."

On Thursday, a panel of Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists provided a host of practical advice -- along with some encouraging words of inspiration -- for how other NCEW members might start their own editorial projects worthy of winning the top award in American journalism.

Although the four editorial projects were very different, there were a few general tips that emerged during the 90-minute discussion.

  1. Find a problem that is unique to your area and keep hammering at it.
    Unlike Scott Milfred at the Wisconsin State Journal, we don't all live in a state in which the governor has the veto authority to cross out words in a bill and create whole new sentences that the Legislature never intended.
    Unlike Marie Dillion of the Chicago Tribune, we can't all live in a state in which the political corruption has reached such epic levels that readers take a "perverse pride" in it.
    And unlike Tod Robberson of the Dallas Morning News, we don't all live in the most segregated city in the nation.
    But we do all have local and statewide problems that are clearly wrong, that desperately need to be fixed and that no one in power has shown the political will to address.
  2. Choose a topic that builds on your newspaper's history and strengths.
    Because the St. Louis Post-Dispatch used to be a more nationally focused newspaper, many of its older readers expect its editorial writers to take on national issues. But John Carlton also realized that he could best address the broader issue of health care reform by treating it as he would any other local or statewide topic.
  3. Recognize that your staff editorials alone probably won't be able to do justice to the problem you're describing.
    Robberson said the Dallas Morning News' entry won largely because of how well the writers supplemented their editorials with interactive maps, databases and other features. And Milfred's case against the "Frankenstein veto" was made through editorial cartoons, videos and other graphics as much as through any of the words he wrote in his almost daily editorial.
  4. Don't be afraid to write about the problem every chance you get -- every day if necessary.
    Politicians know that the public quickly loses interest in complicated, thorny problems. As such, politicians often choose to ride out waves of public disapproval in hopes that you'll eventually move on to other topics. Sometimes it takes sheer, repetitive doggedness to ensure that action finally gets taken.
  5. Don't be satisfied with the initial political responses to the problems that you bring up.
    Politicians are happy to provide window dressing reform -- especially for reforms focused on other people. If the reforms that result from your editorial project are only "half-assed," then use their inadequacy as fodder for future editorials.
  6. Get buy-in from your executive editor and publisher.
    If your editorial project really is of Pulitzer-quality, then you'll probably struggle to find a balance between focusing on the project and meeting all your other daily responsibilities. Because you might have to pitch a few more daily softballs than usual, it's a good idea to make sure that your editors and publisher understand and are excited about the project itself.
  7. Be prepared for some awkwardness with your news department.
    If you're hitting your stride in an editorial campaign, you may become part of the news directly. Because your editorial effectiveness may call the newspaper's objectivity into question, news editors may start taking extra steps to reinforce the wall between news and opinion during the course of your project.
  8. While shooting for comprehensive reforms, don't be afraid to identify more immediate goals.
    Even with an award-winning editorial series, the Dallas Morning News isn't likely to end inequality any time soon. But the newspaper does include a monthly "10 Drops in the Bucket" feature in which it lists 10 smaller problems throughout the city -- problems that won't have a citywide impact, but that matter greatly to the individuals involved. This list helps the editorial writers keep track of some "smaller wins" as they continue to opine on the bigger problem.
  9. Send in an entry even if you don't think you have a chance of winning.
    "You can't win if you don't play," Milfred said.
  10. When you fill out the entry form, make sure you include an introductory letter that clearly explains the context for the project and what you have so successfully accomplished.

Jeff Charis-Carlson is the opinion editor for the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

New tests for old neighbors

The U.S. and Mexico

Published Friday, September 24, 2010 10:15 pm by Jonathan Gurwitz

What's needed in the discussion of U.S.-Mexican relations is a greater degree of nuance -- a word not often associated with contentious, cross-border issues.

That was the message from Gerónimo Gutiérrez Gonzales, Mexico's deputy secretary for governance, and Antonio Garza, who served as the American ambassador in Mexico City from 2002 to 2009.

Gutiérrez presented a five-point analysis of cross-border relations, five facts that he says cannot be ignored.  First, the trend line in U.S.-Mexican relations over the last 50 years, and especially since the implementation of NAFTA in the 1990s, is positive.  Those relations have evolved from the two nations being distant partners to being strategic partners.

Second, no two nations face a set of issues on a daily basis -- from migration to security -- as comprehensive as those shared by the United States and Mexico.  Those issues are dynamic, and require timely attention from leaders on both sides of the border.

Third, those issues have become "intermestic" -- both international in nature and part of domestic political discussions.  That's a positive development, inasmuch as it places cross-border issues higher on the domestic agenda.  But it also makes critical aspects of U.S.-Mexican relations susceptible to demagoguery by American and Mexican politicians.

Fourth, concerns about cartel violence, economic sluggishness and political gridlock in Mexico are well-founded.  But those issues don't present a full picture of the progress Mexico has made in recent decades in reforming its political and economic system.  While much greater work needs to be done in strengthening Mexican civil institutions, those reforms provide a more promising view of the nation's future.

Finally, the United States and Mexico must build on NAFTA to define a binational strategy for regional competitiveness.  The two countries are economically complementary, with Mexico having a surplus of labor and a need for capital and the United States having surplus capital and a need for labor.  By increasing cooperation on logistics and infrastructure, they can reduce the costs of doing business and increase investment in the North American region.

Garza, whose friendship with Gutiérrez extends beyond his term as ambassador, largely reiterated the Mexican diplomat's talking points, including a metaphorical description of U.S.-Mexican relations as a river.  The river has areas of rapids and areas of calm.  The objective of responsible leaders is to steer clear of extremes, stay near the center and also try to broaden the margins of its course for instance by expanding NAFTA.

Extremes exist on both sides, Garza noted, with Mexicans and Americans utilizing the same rhetoric.  Whether the issue is immigration reform in the United States or reform of the nationalized energy sector in Mexico, the same emotional keywords of identity and sovereignty are employed.

The 9-11 terrorist attacks led to heightened security cooperation between the two nations, out of a sense of mutual security and self interest.  The attacks on Bali in 2002 made clear to U.S. officials that Americans could be targeted anywhere, and to Mexican officials that their tourist destinations -- along with energy infrastructure -- were vulnerable to attack.  The same mutual and self-interested motivations should also guide more difficult issues, Gutiérrez and Garza said, such as immigration reform and trade.  

Garza explained the concept of convergence -- a term Mexicans use to describe the tectonic issues driving U.S.-Mexican relations.  Mexican migration to the United States, both legal and illegal, is a result of market forces, which are in turn the result of demographic changes in the United States.  Removing obstacles to the legal movement of people north and capital south would balance those market forces.

Aside from the obvious amity on display, Gutiérrez and Garza demonstrated a sophisticated approach to the complex relationship between the United States and Mexico.  Opinion writers would do well to elevate their nuanced voices above the rancorous discussion that often prevails on cross-border issues.

Jonathan Gurwitz is an editorial writer with the San Antonio Express-News.

NCEW today and tomorrow

2010 business meeting and election

Published Saturday, September 25, 2010 2:30 pm by Tricia Vance

NCEW will continue to face challenges as it heads into 2011, but board officers are optimistic that the pressures facing the newspaper industry will not get in the way of the organization's commitment to its members and its mission.

Although dues and membership were down this year, the board of directors reported at the annual NCEW business meeting that it will pursue new revenue possibilities, including a push to get more ads on the website and an opportunity for advocacy groups to post op-ed columns in an online Opinion Pool for a fee. The pieces would be free to NCEW members.

The foundation also has faced a challenge but its board will add some non-NCEW members in an effort to branch out and find new endowments to help support the mission of NCEW.

The talk wasn't all about money. A suggestion by past NCEW President David Holwerk to use our talents and connections to create material to help promote the concepts of civil discourse and critical evaluation of the volume of information and misinformation available through the Internet and other sources generated an enthusiastic discussion. Lois Kazakoff noted that the American Library Association has expressed a willingness to work with NCEW on such a project.

The new, free iPhone application "America's Opinions" should be available soon. NCEW enlisted University of Missouri students to develop the application, and there are plans to develop similar applications for the Droid and the web.

A key concern has been how to increase membership and attendance at annual conventions at a time when many NCEW members are paying their own way. Next year's convention in Indianapolis will be shorter by a day (Sept. 15-17) and Pat Stroble was able to negotiate a room rate of $129 per night. Membership dues will remain at the same rates as this past year, and new members will get a discount. Topics already planned for the Indianapolis convocation include a discussion of where we've come since 9/11 with 9/11 Commission chief Lee Hamilton and Richard Lugar, and a look at the role of Muslims in America.

The 2012 convention will be held in Orlando.

A few members have reported problems sending and receiving messages on the list-serv. The computer support specialists have been contacted but anyone continuing to have problems should report them to Dan Radmacher at dan.radmacher@roanoke.com.

Outgoing President Tom Waseleski will pass his duties to new President Radmacher. Also elected to theexecutive committeewere: Froma Harrop, vice president; Bob Davis, who takes on the treasurer's duties in addition to being NCEW secretary; and newly elected board members John C. Bersia, Jonathan Gurwitz and Scott Millfred.

Tricia Vance is the editorial page editor of the StarNews in Wilimington, N.C.

The emerging world of nonprofit media

Evan Smith measures the progress of the Texas Tribune

Published Saturday, September 25, 2010 10:15 pm by Andre Jackson

It's old news that journalism has struggled to find a new business model that can pay for quality reporting.

It's not a new issue even for Texas Tribune Editor in Chief Evan Smith. "One of the questions I get more than 10 months into the Tribune going live is 'how are you paying for all of this,' " Evans told dinner attendees at the National Council of Editorial Writers convention in Dallas.

Smith explained that the not-for-profit Tribune's success thus far resulted from paying close attention to the donations that pay a staff of 26 full-time employees who're pursuing old-fashioned public-affairs reporting in a digital age.

"We are a nonprofit, nonpartisan public media organization -- that is how we define ourselves," he said.

Smith sounded much like the CEO of a for-profit media company as he discussed the revenue side of the Tribune, as well as its mission, audience and competitive niche.

"We're building a business that has a sustainable business model," he said. "A membership model built on major (individual) gifts, corporate gifts and memberships." In 2009, that meant the Texas Tribune raised more than $4 million; nearly $700,000 has been generated thus far in 2010. "We are like public radio. If you like it, we hope you'll give us a few bucks."

He believes this model for newsgathering is viable today because struggling newsrooms are doing less reporting on important Texas issues, such as education, transportation, immigration, the economy and state budget. "The decline in the economy has made it difficult for your papers, difficult for TV stations, to pay for serious journalism," he said.

"More coverage on these issues is what makes for a thoughtful and engaged electorate and that's not what we have right now," he said. Today's hyper-partisan political environment and politicized reporting in some corners has created a demand for nonpartisan news and information, said Smith. "The majority of us live in the middle, but we spend most of our time arguing about the 20 percent on either end."

Paying for it in Texas has been helped by the Tribune's nonpartisan stance, Smith said in response to a question by Michael Landauer of the Dallas Morning News, who asked why opinion wasn't part of the site. "Nonpartisan matters as a selling proposition," Smith explained, adding that Democratic and Republican donors often supported the Tribune for different reasons. The Tribune can't afford to alienate either group.

Smith believes that support of such journalism should extend to traditional newsrooms, which he sees as partners, not competitors. "We can either hang separately or survive together," he said, adding that Tribune reporters and print reporters have worked together on projects. "We see us, not just the Tribune, but folks in the nonprofit news world, which is growing by the day, as additive to what you do."

The Tribune's news model is helped by a tight focus on public-affairs reporting. "We're a big box store for people who care about public policy, politics and government," he said.

Andre Jackson is the editorial editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Closing the divide between politics and the press

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, speaks with NCEW members

Published Saturday, September 25, 2010 1:00 pm by Roy Maynard

It's reaching out without rancor that will help close the divide between politicians and the press, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in his luncheon address to the NCEW on Saturday, Sept. 25.

He recalled his decision, when he served on the Texas Supreme Court, to uphold the "Robin Hood" system of school financing -- in which property-wealthy school districts contributed some of their revenues to property-poor districts. That decision led to his first clash with editorial writers.

"I got pounded for that opinion, particularly because the most property-rich district is in the Dallas area," Cornyn said. "That was quite an awakening for me. I called a friend, a prominent citizen, and he said go talk to them."

Cornyn took that advice.

"That was the beginning of my coming face-to-face with journalists, and I found they were willing to listen to my reasons," Cornyn said. "I learned that notwithstanding differences of opinions, it's important to confront those differences, not run away. Sometimes we can even reach a mutual understanding, instead of becoming lifelong enemies."

Cornyn heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and took a few jabs at the Obama administration. Government derives its authority to rule on the consent of the governed, he said.

"Now they're standing the principle on its head, with government leaders telling 'we the people' what is good for us, whether we like it or not," he said. "But that's what midterm elections are for."

But he returned again to the principle of a free press and a transparent government. A former journalism student himself, he pointed to his efforts to bring more accountability, particularly through his work with Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of  Vermont to pass the OPEN Government Act of 2005, which limited the ability of federal agencies to exempt themselves from Freedom of Information Act laws.

"I was shocked when I went to Washington at how neutered the (FOIA)  laws had become," he said. "The OPEN Government Act provided real consequences to the government employees and federal agencies. Before the OPEN Government Act, we saw agencies take years to even start working on information requests. They were seen as very low priority."

Many requests -- even requests from individuals for their own military records -- were "denied with impunity," he added.

Cornyn quoted American revolutionary Patrick Henry, who said "The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactionsof their rulers may be concealed from them."

The laws aren't perfect, Cornyn said, but they're an improvement and he's now working on a "Faster FOIA" and helped to remove exemptions for the Securities and Exchange Commission from the FOIA Act in the Wall Street reform package.

"If there's anything we learned from the financial crisis, it's the need for more transparency, not less," he said.

He also addressed the Tea Party movement, and what it means to the Republican Party.

"It's a huge populist uprising," Cornyn said. "It's not a party; it's a movement, clearly concerned about spending and debt ... Republican or Democrat. We will all need to find a way to adapt, or you'll get run over."

Answering questions from the audience, he blamed Democrats for government gridlock, and said if Republicans re-take the House, as he viewed as likely, "the ball will be in Barack Obama's court."

President Bill Clinton reacted to the Republican surge in his first term's midyear elections by working with Congress on such things as welfare reform.

"There won't be a bill passed in the Senate without bipartisan support," he said. "And I would say after a petty successful two years of getting (Obama's) legislative agenda passed, people would like a little -- I won't call it gridlock -- but stasis and predictability."

Roy Maynard is an editorial writer for the Tyler Morning Telegraph in Tyler, Texas.

Justice in the age of DNA

A panel with Craig Watkins and Brooks Harrington

Published Monday, September 27, 2010 8:00 pm by Linda P. Campbell

On June 22, 1981, the body of a 22-year-old Georgetown University student was found about 50 yards from the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. She'd been raped and shot five times in the head.

Police arrested Donald Gates, a homeless man who not long before had been convicted of assaulting another woman near the same location.

A jury convicted Gates of the murder based on testimony from the earlier victim, a jailhouse informant and an FBI hair analyst. Gates was sentenced to prison for 20 years to life.

 "My great fear was that he would be acquitted and he would do it again," Brooks Harrington, who was the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Gates, told NCEW members at a riveting Saturday morning session.

"I was absolutely convinced that Donald Gates was guilty, and I was absolutely wrong."

In December 2009, Harrington received a phone call telling him DNA testing had shown that Gates was not the assailant.

"He spent 28 years in jail for a crime he did not commit. I did my best, and my best wasn't nearly enough," said Harrington, who's now a Methodist minister in Fort Worth where he does legal work on behalf of abused women.

Thus began a discussion of how the criminal justice system can use DNA testing as a starting point to improve its accuracy and rebuild credibility.

Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins told how he came to set up a conviction integrity unit in 2007 that has led to more DNA-based exonerations than anywhere in the United States. During his first week in office, Watkins said, he witnessed an exoneration that had been in the works for five years. He publicly apologized to the man who'd been wrongly convicted, and it made news.

"I would have expected that everyone would have thought that was appropriate," he said.

That same week, Watkins was brought an order to destroy a cache of old evidence. But he didn't sign it. Instead, the office started looking through stored evidence in about 400 cases in which defendants had requested another review under a Texas law that provides for post-conviction DNA testing.

But DNA "is just one small element" of improving the way criminal cases are investigated. "I think DNA opened the door for us to have this conversation about our criminal justice system, but it doesn't stop there," he said.

It's necessary to make eyewitness identifications more reliable and guard against police and prosecutorial misconduct, he said. The ultimate goal is to build credibility in segments of society that don't trust the justice system.

Harrington, however, said the system is "not going to be fixed."

"Human justice is always going to be flawed. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try to improve it," he said.

Prosecutors, he said, have a responsibility to not convict the wrong person but also to protect the public.

"The justice system is fraught with possibilities for going wrong," he said.

Prosecution in a competitive environment, and there are institutional pressures against admitting mistakes, he said. Besides that, "role ethics" have whittled down what being a decent human being means.

"The most dangerous word in human language is 'them,' "Harrington said.

He and Gates, the man who was wrongly convicted in D.C., have become friends. While nothing can compensate someone who was wrongly imprisoned, Harrington said, jurisdictions should be ready to help them transition back into society.

Still, "it all gets back to doing everything you can to avoid convicting the wrong person," he said.

"The key is, always be open after the conviction to the possibility that you got it wrong."

Linda P. Campbell is an editorial writer at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She moderated this disucssion at the NCEW Dallas convention.

Gov. Perry touts economic record -- ducks questions

Published Tuesday, September 28, 2010 5:00 pm by Rena Pederson

Texas Gov. Rick Perry began his talk to NCEW members Thursday by saying he wasn't laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign, then gave the kind of anti-Washington speech that GOP presidential candidates tend to give, touting his support of lower taxes and less government regulation.

However, if the Republican governor had hoped to impress the editorial writers from around the country, he miscalculated by leaving the luncheon before he could be asked any questions.  According to NCEW leaders, the governor's staff had agreed to a question-and-answer period at the time his speech was scheduled, but when Gov. Perry arrived at the convention, his assistants said the governor would not have time for questions because of another engagement.  NCEW leaders later sent a letterto the governor sharply criticizing his refusal to face questions from the group.

It also was pointedly noted in his introduction that he has refused to meet with newspaper editorial boards around the state to discuss his campaign for an unprecedented third full term as Texas governor.  

Because the possibility of a future presidential campaign was also mentioned in his introduction, Perry quickly brushed aside the possibility at the beginning of his speech, insisting, "I've got a better job being governor of Texas."  He then devoted the majority of his remarks to touting his economic record in the state.  Perry asserted that Texas leads the nation in job creation and is doing better economically than other states around the country that are losing jobs.  He noted that from January to August of this year, 153 California businesses moved to Texas.

"Why has Texas done so well in the last 10 years?" he asked rhetorically. "How has our state balanced the budget with $8 billion in a rainy day fund without a state income tax?" The answer, he said, was establishing a regulatory and tax policy that was stable and predictable so businesses could be confident of their investments in the state, having a legal system that does not allow oversized legal judgments, and setting budget priorities so vital programs like education are not cut.

Sidestepping the issue of how he proposes to solve a looming $21 billion budget shortfall in the state, Perry said Texas has faced budget shortfalls before and still managed to protect vital assets.  When the state faced a $10 billion budget shortfall in 2003, he noted, rather than panic and raise taxes, the state "did what workaday Texans had to do, we prioritized spending."  Despite the budget deficit, he said, the state managed to invest $1.8 billion more in education.

"Perpetuating the growth of government is not some irrefutable law of nature," he said. Echoing themes that have proven successful for Tea Party candidates around the country, he said, "Our citizens need a break from Washington excesses." 

He accused the federal government of "callous disregard" of states' rights as set out in the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which delegates powers to the states that are not specifically assigned to the federal government. 

In particular, he was critical of a provision inserted into a federal law by Democratic Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett that requires the Texas governor to promise Texas will maintain certain education spending levels through 2013 in order to get federal education funds. Perry said  the requirement is unconstitutional because the Texas Constitution prohibits him from committing future spending.  He announced that Texas Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott had filed suit earlier in the day against the federal Department of Education. The attorney general is seeking the overturn the federal department's rejection of the state's application for more than $830 million in aid to prevent teachers from being laid off. The aid has been tied up in the political wrangling over constitutional turf.

The funds in question are part of a $26 billion jobs bill intended to protect 300,000 teachers and other nonfederal government workers from layoffs. Democrats in Congress said they included the Doggett provision, which would bypass Texas lawmakers and send the federal aid directly to school districts, because of the way the state handled federal stimulus dollars last year.  Doggett contends that Texas lawmakers used $3.2 billion in federal stimulus money to replace state money and ended the legislative session with billions in the state's rainy day fund. 

At the NCEW luncheon, Perry said Texas is the only state whose funds application was rejected. He complained that Texas taxpayers are footing the bill for the federal education jobs fund without getting any of the benefits.  "This is not a fight we sought or enjoy one bit," he insisted.

The governor did not touch on other issues facing the state, such as immigration or drug violence along the Texas border, and left before NCEW members could ask him about those issues, much to the chagrin of the members.

Perry spokesman Mark Miner later described the tone of  NCEW President Tom Waseleski's letter  to Gov. Perry as "inappropriate" and said, "It's unfortunate that the president of the organization would think so highly of himself and his organization that he would write a letter like he did."  Miner said the group was aware that Perry would not be taking questions and that, "he had a schedule to keep."

Rena Pederson is a NCEW past president.

'How long are we going to import oil from the enemy?'

Oil magnate talks to NCEW about energy security

Published Tuesday, September 28, 2010 5:00 pm by Ellen Raff

"How long are we going to import oil from the enemy?"

A simple question, according to Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens. Yet, despite promises made by every presidential candidate since Nixon, we are still a long way from reducing dependence on oil we import from countries our State Department warns us not to visit.

Pickens demonstrated an encyclopedic knowledge of the world's energy use. "We (in the United States) use 21 billion barrels of oil per day. That's 25 percent of the oil (use) with 4 percent of the (world's) population. China uses 10 billion barrels per day with 25 percent of the population ... Now we're starting to move out of Iraq, and guess who got the oil?" he asked the group.

"The Iraqi oil will be developed, and a great deal of it will go to China." This will mean that 70 percent of all the oil in the world will be in the hands of foreign governments. Oil is not used to generate electric power in the United States, Pickens pointed out, so to reduce use of foreign oil, we must begin converting transportation away from oil. Natural gas is our best alternative. "We have enough natural gas right now to replace all the foreign oil we import, " he said. "If we don't use it, the next generation will brand us fools."

Pickens anticipates HR1835 (the Natural Gas Act) will come up for a vote soon in the U.S. Senate, and he believes it will pass. The bill advocates for a new tax credit to promote the production of more than 350,000 natural gas tractor-trailers, and would give tax credits for the manufacture and purchase of natural gas vehicles. The Wall Street Journal has criticized the Pickens plan, saying that it would disrupt free markets. "OPEC is not a free market," Pickens said.

"Whatever price they want, they get." Pickens made the surprising recommendation that the United States should not back away from the idea of a state-owned oil company. "Acquire something," he said (naming several U.S. oil companies), "then keep your hands off it." Although he believes natural gas is our quickest path to energy independence, he also believes we should move forward with wind and solar power. He considers even ethanol, despite its high production cost, a viable domestic alternative.

"The security issue is so great in this country, it's more important to get off OPEC oil." He advised the NCEW audience that they have an important role to play in energy independence. "Put pressure on Obama," he said. "Ask him: ‘When will we have a plan to get off Mideast oil?'"

Regarding the newspaper business, Pickens, 82, said, "What you do, I like, because I'm the old guy who reads the paper. Looks like you've lost the young people. I'm your audience." He admitted he was the wrong person to ask, but before he segued back to his favorite topic -- natural gas -- he shared some wisdom from his father. "A fool with a plan can beat a genius with no plan."

Ellen Raff is a member of the Dallas Morning News panel of community columnists. She was a guest at the NCEW convention in Dallas and shared her views on engaging with readers.

2010 Pulliam and Bingham award winners honored

The Internet and personal freedom is Pulliam award winner's focus

Published Tuesday, September 28, 2010 7:00 am by Frank Partsch

New Yorkers received the applause of the NCEW convention in Dallas for carrying off two of the more prestigious awards in the world of opinion-writing.

James Dwyer, a Pulitzer-prize-winning columnist for the New York Times, is the 2010 recipient of a Eugene C. Pulliam Fellowship for Editorial Writing.  He will use the Pulliam stipend accompanying the award -- $75,000 -- to conduct a journalistic inquiry into the effect of the Internet on personal freedom.

Sree Sreenivasan, professor of digital journalism at Columbia University and dean of student affairs at the university's Graduate College of Journalism, was awarded the Barry Bingham Sr. Fellowship.  His selection recognizes his 17 years of effort on behalf of minority students.

Dwyer, whose award was announced prior to the convention, holds two Pulitzer prizes for metropolitan reporting among other awards, was not present in Dallas.  His work was described at the convention luncheon ceremony by Steve Geimann, president of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation. The foundation is the educational arm of the Society of Professional Journalists, which sponsors the award named in honor of Eugene C. Pulliam, one of the founders of SPJ's predecessor organization, who was publisher of the Indianapolis Star, the Indianapolis News, the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette.

Geimann said Dwyer has become particularly concerned about "information being collected over the Internet about dissidents" in various places around the world.

A press release issued earlier by SPJ indicated that Dwyer plans to travel to the Middle East, Asia and Africa to observe countries that exercise tight control over Internet content and access. SPJ quoted Dwyer as having written that "the greatest invention of our age has given voice to the powerless, and also handed an unparalleled tool for suppression and surveillanceto authoritarian regimes."

As a result of the research he plans to undertake with the Pulliam grant, SPJ indicated that Dwyer plans to write a book on the relationship of human rights to the Internet and privacy.

The Bingham award, by contrast, recognizes past accomplishments.  Sreenivasan was honored for his "boundless energy and dedication" in advancing broadening the ranks of American journalists.

Neil Heinen, president of the NCEW Foundation board, read from one of Sreenivasan's nominators, who recognized the professor for his founding of the South Asian Journalists Association in 1994.

Under his leadership, the nomination letter said, "the SAJA has given away hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships, built mentoring programs, recognized quality student work through awards and supplemented unpaid newsroom internships with fellowships."

The letter said that Sreenivasan takes an active role in helping minority students, seeking them out, encouraging them to attend Columbia, helping them succeed as students and assisting them in their job searches.  In part due to his efforts, the J-school has one of the highest minority enrollments at the university.

The Barry Bingham award recognizes an educator's efforts to encourage minority journalism students. It is named for Barry Bingham Sr., who used his position as publisher of The Courier-Journal and Louisville Times to attract minority students into newspaper careers.

Frank Partsch is the retired editorial page editor of the Omaha World-Herald in Omaha, Neb.

New agreements will redefine trade

Increasing exports is key to restoring U.S. economy

Published Tuesday, September 28, 2010 7:00 am by Lois Kazakoff

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk has the job of promoting what many Americans think is not good for them – trade. Many Americans believe that in the pursuit of trade deals, America has “swapped jobs for cheap T-shirts.”

Kirk shared with NCEW members at NCEW’s annual convention in Dallas the Obama administration’s message that trade has a key role in attacking America’s No. 1 problem – turning our economy around. He acknowledged the American public’s anger with the strategy, but made it clear the administration would stay the course. “I can assure you that this administration has no plan to retreat from this trade policy,” he said.

Increasing exports will create jobs in the United States and address our trade imbalance, which is weakening our economy, he said.

Larger Obama administration policy priorities of promoting clean tech, in order to reduce oil imports, and national health care reform, to make U.S. corporations more competitive because they have to compete with companies from countries that have national health care, also strengthen U.S. trade.

Kirk emphasized three points in the administration’s new approach:

  1. Enforce trade rules, and confront situations that violate trade agreements, such Chinese tire imports flooding the market.
  2. Address labor rights and standards: The emerging economic giants of China, India and Brazil have hugely benefited from trade liberalization, but need to recognize and respect labor rules and environmental considerations.
  3. Move forward with three stalled trade agreements – South Korea, Colombia and Panama – and sign other free trade agreements. To do so, the United States needs to resolve differences with each of these nations. South Korea is concerned about the difference in access to their market versus ours; Panama needs to strengthen its labor laws; Colombia needs to stem violence toward labor leaders. “We’re trying to let everyone have their voice” and resolve these issues, he said.

 “Going after new market agreements will change what trade means in the 21st century economy,” he said.

The administration has made some progress:

The United States has grown more jobs in 2009-2010 than in the previous eight years.

The nation is at a critical crossroads, he said. “We (in the Obama administration) feel the anger of the public, but anger isn’t a governing philosophy. We have to make choices.”

Lois Kazakoff is the deputy editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.

She always had time for others

What Kay Semion meant to NCEW

Published Tuesday, October 26, 2010 7:00 am by Bonnie Calhoun Williams

When asked to write a remembrance for The Masthead of our friend, Kay Semion, my first (shamefully selfish) response was to wonder where I would find the time to do it properly. Then I thought of Kay and the times she listened to me as I recounted the difficulties of being a one-person shop and remembered: If the roles were reversed, Kay would find the time for me.

As most NCEW members know, because of Kay's illness, the leadership of our organization made an exception to a long-time rule when they told Kay before the Dallas convention that she would be honored with Lifetime Membership. The citation noted, in part, Kay’s leadership in membership recruitment and as The Masthead editor. It spoke of her “quiet persistence” and how she rose to the office of president a year ahead of schedule with “grace and wisdom.” It recounted her professional experience through 30 years of commenting on the issues of the day and in the communities in which she lived.

Her response was read at the convention, because she was unable to attend. “It is with great humility that I accept this Life Membership award tonight. It is so deeply meaningful. So I plan to limit my remarks to 600 words. No wait. Wrong journalism era. Make that 600 characters …” she wrote, her sense of humor not dimmed by the illness that would take her life in a few short days.

She wrote that she could have never made it through her career without NCEW and the people who nourished her since her first days in 1985. She paid homage to others with whom she shared Life Membership status. She said she was in Dallas in spirit and briefly mentioned her illness, ending with the declaration that “it’s time to live life to the fullest. … Uncork the good wine. Let’s live it up.”

Although many have read the comments that crossed list-serv with the news of her death, a few stood out. With your indulgence, I’ll repeat them here:

It pains me to hear this sad news. Kay was one of the first NCEW members to welcome me into this great bond of editorialists. She poured her heart and soul into our organization and her journalistic jobs. More importantly, she was one of the nicest and most caring individuals I’ve ever met. My world was richer because of her.” - Chuck Stokes

Heartbreaking! I loved Kay for her generosity and her class. I always thought that she’d rally and make it to the next convention. Now it’s goodbye forever.” - Froma Harrop

A year after I left the business, she invoked presidential privilege and invited me to attend the Portland convention as a guest. It was the sort of profound kindness that seemed to come so naturally to Kay. My heart aches. Farewell, dear friend.” - Michael Zuzel

I remember a wonderful dinner table conversation at a board meeting maybe around 2001, give or take a year, with Rick Horowitz and Harry Austin, maybe Michael Zuzel undefined I can’t remember the others undefinedand my husband was seated next to Kay and we all had the best evening talking about everything from wine to world peace. Heaven’s gain is our loss." - Keven Ann Willey

Kay Semion was one of the kindest and understanding people that I knew. But, at the same time, she could be a fierce, knowledgeable opponent of those things she considered, well, wrong. Her passions were worn as badges of honor. We both joined NCEW about the same time, in the mid-1980s, and became and stayed friends ever since. This last year or so was very tough for her but she fought her illness with unusual grace and fortitude. She was my friend and I will miss her.” - John Taylor

I can’t think of another editorial writer at NCEW with whom I had so many spirited, animated debates, and whom I so looked forward to being with. Her tolerance was remarkable, her good will infectious, her spirit indomitable. She personified what is best in us.” - Paul Greenberg

I had not talked to Kay in much too long. But I will always remember how she welcomed me into NCEW as if we were old friends. At each convention, her welcome was just as enthusiastic, her shoulder just as willing to be burdened, her smile just as serene as the year before.

Life’s fragility dictates that there will be loss. But, oh, what we can gain along the way if we take the time to look and to listen and to care. Kay did all of those things. She took the time for me, for NCEW as an organization, for all of us individually.

I am better, both in work and in life, for having known her, for witnessing her grace, experiencing her kindness and observing, even from miles and years away, her courage and determination to keep the faith and keep up the fight undefined until she could fight no more. Goodbye old friend. Godspeed.

Bonnie Calhoun Williams is the editorial page editor of the Independent Mail in Anderson, S.C.

Rick Horowitz named NCEW Life Member

A decades' long commitment to our organization

Published Wednesday, September 29, 2010 7:00 am by Tom Waseleski

Rick Horowitz has cultivated a national following through his words, wit, wisdom and wealth of talents. He is one of the National Conference of Editorial Writers' brightest stars and one of the most sought-after mentors in the field of journalism.

He is a syndicated columnist, Emmy-winning TV commentator, writing coach, adjunct college professor, public speaker, political satirist and lyricist. He is also a graduate of New York University Law School and has worked on Capitol Hill. His highly sought after "Getting Your Words' Worth Workshop" has helped countless journalists find their opinion voice. On a personal level, it seems only natural that his imaginative and insightful column, which appears on opinion pages nationwide, has earned Rick two National Headliner Awards.

But he never has been too busy for NCEW. His unselfish commitment to the organization dates back to 1986 when he attended his first convention in Charleston. That's where he met past president, historian and Life Member Sue Ryon -- love blossomed and they were married. Together, they are NCEW's dynamic duo.

Rick has served on the NCEW Board and Foundation. He is a past membership chair, convention critique chair and dean of NCEW-U. He has been bringing his popular workshop to the Minority Writers Seminar, free of charge, since 2000. Two words show up constantly on the seminar participant reviews: Rick is "awesome" and "funny."

Because of his tireless dedication to our organization and our profession, NCEW is proud to bestow its highest honor of Life Membership on Rick Horowitz.

The Editorial Page Editor's big gulp

Doubling back on an endorsement

Published Monday, November 22, 2010 7:00 am by Dianne Hardisty

A congressional race in Texas, a supreme court post in the state of Washington and a seat on the board of supervisors in California. Just three of the many thousands of November contests editorial page editors throughout the nation deliberated. They also were races that caused the “big gulp,” the sound of newspapers swallowing their words.

Newspapers and the editorial page staffs are “hand wringers” by nature. And every election cycle you hear some pondering: Is it appropriate for newspapers to endorse political candidates or recommend voters support or oppose ballot measures? Should newspapers just cover the campaigns and let readers come to their own conclusions?

My guess is that it’s not so much the editorial writers who are consumed by these doubts as it is the newspapers’ owners and advertising staffs. A well-written, thoughtful endorsement editorial will give readers worthwhile information to consider even if it doesn’t convince them to agree.

But for most of us, there comes a time -- if you are lucky, it is a very rare time -- when you want to take back your words. An incident or development in a campaign requires you to double back on your endorsement.

In the nearly 20 years I served at editorial page editor at The Bakersfield Californian, I did this only once. Just weeks before the 1996 general election, a candidate for the Kern County Board of Supervisors, who also was a county department head, used federal dollars to promote the jobs program he managed. In reality, the advertisements promoted the man’s candidacy. The newspaper yanked its endorsement of the candidate and went neutral in the race.

This year, my successor, Robert Price, faced a similar big gulp moment when, two weeks before the Nov. 2 election, a Californian-endorsed county supervisor candidate acknowledged that 13 years earlier, when he was a 23-year-old college student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he was arrested on a felony charge of possession of marijuana for sale. He pleaded guilty to felony cultivation and was allowed to enter a diversion program. The charge was later dismissed.

The arrest revelation was not as damaging as his failure to disclose it three times on the newspaper’s candidate questionnaire. Twice, as a successful city council candidate and then in this year’s supervisor race, he either responded with none or left blank: List all criminal convictions and pleas.

Although acknowledging disappointment in the candidate, The Californian stood by its endorsement and Scrivner appears to have won this close race. Thousands of provisional votes still being counted at this writing. (Read Editorial Page Editor Price’s column confirming the endorsement.)

In Texas’ Congressional District 30, The Dallas Morning News recommended challenger Stephen Broden over incumbent Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, who was embroiled in a scandal over her funneling Congressional Black Caucus Foundation scholarships to family members and associates.

But then the newspaper learned of Broden’s extremist views, including his comments during a television interview that a violent uprising should be on the table in 2010 to protect American freedoms and liberties.

Those comments, as well as others the newspaper deemed to be "irresponsible and toxic," prompted The Dallas Morning News just days before the election to go neutral -- recommending no candidate in the race. Johnson was overwhelmingly re-elected. (Read Editorial Page Editor Keven Ann Willey’s column about withdrawing the recommendation.)

Words also tripped up incumbent Washington state Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders and cost him The Seattle Times’ endorsement just days before the Nov. 2 election. The newspaper switched its support to challenger Charlie Wiggins, who won the race.

The newspaper concluded that earlier in the month, Sanders and another justice, who was running unopposed, "inflamed racial tensions with their remarks that African Americans are overrepresented in the state prison system because the commit more crimes."

Noting the remarks were made during a seminar on equal justice, the newspaper condemned equating race to incarceration rates, while seeming to ignore other social, economic and law enforcement factors. (Read Editor Page Editor Ryan Blethan’s column reversing the endorsement.)

Sanders lost his re-election bid and blamed the newspaper.

Dianne Hardisty retired in 2009 as The Bakersfield Californian’s editorial page editor. She is now a freelance writer.

Three who had 'Big Gulp' moments

Three editorial page editors who faced 2010 election "Big Gulp" moments that required them to double back on their newspaper’s endorsements were asked:

  • What were readers' reactions?
  • How did you deliberate the decision?
  • Do you have any regrets?
  • Would you do anything differently?
Robert Price, who stood by The Bakersfield Californian’s endorsement of a county supervisor candidate who failed to reveal a felony drug charge.

I wrote a column that described our disappointment with the candidate’s less-than-forthright behavior but also laid out the reasons we opted to stand by our original endorsement. The column quickly rose to the top of our most-commented list of stories. Most (anonymous) commenters were highly critical of our decision to stand by Zack Scrivner, “the dope dealer.” The column also inspired a YouTube cartoon in which the Scrivner character announced that the newspaper dared not pull its endorsement because otherwise he would shut us down. No, that wasn’t explained. I had one-on-one conversations with members of the editorial page staff, the publisher and the CEO, and several non-editorial board members of the staff weighed in. Personally, I was somewhere between keeping things as-is or going to a "no recommendation" position. The publisher believed that because the vast majority of voters would have to make a decision, weighing all of the positives and (abundant) negatives, we should, too. Most concurred.
Of course, I have regrets. I wish we had looked into Scrivner’s public records more thoroughly. Realistically, however, that would have been a challenge, given the fact that this particular file (which we didn’t know existed) was in another county, two hours away. I don’t need to tell other short-staffed editorial page editors where that expedition would have ranked on the priority list. I don’t regret the fact that we declined to endorse Scrivner’s opponent. In two separate meetings with the editorial board, Steve Perez was aloof, sarcastic and vague. And, most alarmingly, he rambled nonsensically at times. Scrivner, though a bit robotic, was focused, informed and well-spoken. It was really no contest. We’re really still thinking about what we will do differently in the future. We’re always looking at our endorsement process. Do we put combatants in the same room, or give them separate interviews? Do we require that they complete questionnaires in order to be considered? We’ve done it both ways over the years. I know this: We’ll be more specific when we ask about past convictions.

Keven Ann Willey, who withdrew The Dallas Morning News’ recommendation in the Congressional District 30 race. The newspaper went neutral.

We didn’t get a huge reaction. A couple of challenger Stephen Broden’s supporters contacted me to express their disappointment; we may have run a letter to the editor or two. But it blew over pretty fast. Nobody from incumbent Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson’s campaign contacted me.

After the controversial TV comments about government overthrow, I convened the three-person team that interviewed in this race and crafted the original editorial to discuss options. (Me plus two edit writers.) We decided we wanted to give Broden an opportunity to explain to us more fully his comments on this topic and others that we’d recently become aware of. So we invited him in for another board interview. We gave him the option of coming in person or doing the interview by phone. He opted for the phoner. We put him on speaker; most all of the editorial board attended and several of us asked different questions. After the 30-minute conversation, we thanked him and then discussed amongst ourselves whether we found his answers satisfactory. After hearing him out, some members felt we needed to stick with our recommendation; others felt his answers were unsatisfying and therefore we should revoke our recommendation. I made the call to revoke, which meant a "no-recommendation" in this race because nobody wanted to recommend incumbent Johnson, for the reasons outlined in our editorials on this race.

I wish we'd known more about Broden's thinking and public statements before we wrote the initial recommendation. We’d done considerable checking around with various sources in the area at the time -- we knew he was largely untested and unpredictable -- but nothing we turned up early in the process persuaded us against him, especially considering what we believed were the shortcomings of his opponents. Bottom line: We knew recommending him was a risk, but we felt, at the time, that the risk was worth taking. In hindsight, it wasn't.

What will we do differently? Dig a little deeper earlier to get a better assessment of just how such a candidate thinks. And check out YouTube sooner. That said, this sort of thing will happen from time to time in an era of accelerated campaigns. By that I mean that we work hard to get all of our recommendations published before the start of early voting. This year that meant we started interviewing in August for the November election. We began publishing our recommendations the day after Labor Day and published the last one -- No. 54 -- on Sunday, Oct. 17. (Early voting started Oct. 18; and we published a summary of editorial excerpts from our 54 recommendations that day and again on Election Day.) This sort of fast-paced time frame -- if you’re not careful -- can compromise thoroughness. So you try to learn from each experience, be honest and transparent about the process, and work to keep such occurrences to a minimum.

Ryan Blethen, who withdrew The Seattle Times endorsement of incumbent state Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders after the incumbent made remarks equating racial traits with Washington incarceration rates. The newspaper switched its endorsement to challenger Charlie Wiggins.

Reader response was mixed. It was equal parts pleased and displeased. Those who agreed with our change said it was about time that we dropped our support for Justice Sanders. The responses in support were much less spirited than those upset with our decision. Those folks were downright nasty in some cases. The page and I were called too politically correct. I was asked a number of times why I couldn't understand what Justice Sanders said was simply the truth.

I first learned of his comments in The Seattle Times’ news pages. I asked the staff at our morning meeting what they thought of the comments. Everybody but one staffer agreed with me that what Sanders said was too much. I told them I wanted to pull our endorsement. All but one agreed. I then cornered the publisher and explained why I felt we had to pull the endorsement. He wasn't completely comfortable with my suggestion, but allowed me to do it anyway. After it ran and he read the editorial, he was comfortable with what we did.

 I have no regrets. I wouldn't have changed a thing. I'm proud of the editorial board. It is important to be flexible and know when it is time to change course.

Why endorse?

Better to promote progress rather than politicians

Published Monday, November 22, 2010 7:00 am by Andre Jackson

Author’s Note: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution stopped endorsing political candidates shortly before the November 2009 elections. When asked by The Masthead recently to write about our decision, after some reflection, we thought that the letter to readers we published on the editorial page Oct. 11, 2009, best explained what we did, and why. It is reprinted below. Thanks.

After listening carefully to readers and thinking deeply about the modern role of a newspaper in elections, the AJC Editorial Board is taking a new approach to election coverage, beginning with this November's elections.

Going forward, our board will use its unique position to work for readers in pursuing with candidates the issues that are critical to the future of our community. The board will provide readers with clear, concise information about candidates' positions and records. The AJC will no longer endorse political candidates.

For the Atlanta mayor's race, we will publish highlights of that information on the Oct. 25 (2009) newspaper editorial page. It will also appear on ajc.com.

We have heard from readers -- and we agree -- that you don't need us to tell you how to vote. What readers tell us they need is information on who the candidates are, what they have done and what they want to do in the new job.

Please know that we are not moving away at all from our important role of informing voters. On the AJC's news pages, we have just completed (in 2009) a series of news profiles of all the mayoral candidates. Currently, we are in the middle of "The Atlanta Project," a seven-part series examining the big challenges facing the new mayor. Our online voter guide, which we run in conjunction with the League of Women Voters of Georgia, provides detailed information, in the candidates' own voices.

We want AJC readers to be as informed as possible, and this work on the editorial page will provide additional insight into the key candidates' vision for the future and how they would tackle big issues.

We understand this new approach is a significant change, and we did not arrive at this decision lightly.

Since the early days, U.S. newspapers have put their stamp of approval -- or disapproval -- on political candidates during election seasons. It's a system that goes back to days when cities had many newspapers, each with very clear political agendas. For example, the Atlanta Constitution was started in 1868 with a very clear position of ending federal military rule in the South and returning to "constitutional" government.

That world has changed, steadily and more rapidly in recent years. We see our role now as providing you with information to help you make decisions -- and not trying to make them for you. This is consistent with our move earlier this year (2009) to make the editorial pages more balanced -- offering a wide array of opinions.

At that time, we changed the focus on our institutional editorials. Instead of regularly opining on issues of the day, we are using the newspaper voice --- through the weekly editorials --- to push for progress in our community. That initiative, "Atlanta Forward," examines key issues facing the Atlanta metro area and the state of Georgia. The keystones of "Atlanta Forward" provide a sound base for us to examine candidates about how they would address the biggest challenges. Those issues are:

  • Transportation: How to resolve Atlanta's crippling congestion and issues around Georgia related to efficiently moving people and goods.
  • Economy: How can we best position our state to move forward out of this recession.
  • Health care: It's a critical question for companies, consumers and government.
  • Regional cooperation: How can we best align governments to solve our problems in the most-effective manner.
  • Quality of life: We need water to drink and streets that are safe, among other things.
  • Education: In an increasingly rugged global economic competition for jobs and prosperity, Georgia must field school graduates who are prepared for tomorrow's challenges and opportunities.

We believe providing information is the best service the AJC can provide to help readers build their own opinions on candidates.

Thanks for your support of the AJC and ajc.com.

Andre Jackson is the editorial editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Why we endorse

It matters

Published Monday, November 22, 2010 7:00 am by Jay Jochnowitz

Once -- just once -- in my time on the Albany Times Union editorial board I suggested we decline to make an endorsement in a particular race.

I don't recall the race; in my three election cycles as editorial page editor,  we've had a few races in which all the candidates either had problems that made endorsing any one difficult, or were of such high caliber that choosing one over another seemed too arbitrary.

I suggested we write an editorial laying out the pros or cons without making a recommendation. The piece, I argued, would serve readers by zeroing in on the key issues we felt they should consider before casting their vote. Cutting through the noise to what we think really matters, I reasoned, is better than nothing.

Until then, I had taken endorsements for granted, without really considering why we endorsed. The ensuing conversation clarified for me why we do what we do.

As the opinions editor explained it, it boils down to a belief that our readers want to know our opinion of the candidates.

It’s not that they always follow our recommendation (as their letters and phone calls certainly attest), nor that we imagine we’re in a better position to choose.

But we do believe that readers recognize that we are a group of people who make it our job to follow the issues, who have met personally with each candidate, and who in many cases have covered or followed the careers of one or more of these politicians. That gives us a kind of direct knowledge and experience that many readers don’t have the opportunity to gather or gain.

An endorsement is our opportunity to sum all that up to say, "Here's the candidate we think is best for the job, and here's why."

This is very different from the other endorsements candidates seek. Unlike a trade union, an environmental group, a business organization or political club, we usually have no agenda or corporate stake in a race, and if we do, we say so.  The majority of the time, the readers know we’re doing our best to offer them an honest, transparent, well-reasoned opinion, as free of conflicts as possible.

That doesn’t mean it’s free of bias, a point that a few readers over the years have missed ("That endorsement of Barack Obama was the most biased thing I ever read," complained one reader about my first major foray into endorsement writing). We are a fairly progressive board on most issues, and so the candidates we endorse tend to reflect that. But we are adamantly nonpartisan, and have endorsed Democrats and Republicans alike (I don’t recall any third-party candidates getting our endorsement).

This is not to say we endorse in every race. In this last election, we were disturbed that a candidate had not responded to our invitation for an interview. The individual was also  having issues complying with a Freedom of Information Act request. At the same time, he was far ahead in the polls, and his opponent in our view was entirely unacceptable. I suggested not doing an endorsement, letting our silence speak for itself.

We hit upon a more elegant solution: A piece acknowledging he was all but certain to be elected, but not actually endorsing him. Instead, we would tell readers that he hadn’t met with us, and use the rest of the piece to lay out his challenges -- including being more transparent and mindful of the need for open goverrnment.

His campaign apparently got wind of what we had in mind. They called the next day to arrange a meeting.

And that points to the final reason, I think, that we endorse. It matters. And they know it.

Jay Jochnowitz is the editorial page editor of the Times Union in Albany, N.Y.

Check Your Temper

As with some relatives, dealing with bloggers requires tolerance

Published Monday, December 6, 2010 7:00 pm by Luanne Rife

I dislike our editorial page blog because I hate what it does to me. Few people check their rigidity and stereotypes to engage in a meaningful exchange.

Anonymous posters to our RoundTable often start their comments with generalities undefined  “All conservatives think…” or “You liberals are so…” undefined then punctuate them with a charge of hypocrisy or stupidity. In between, they pack in plenty of mean. Sound familiar?

I find myself willing to strike back. I type a biting barb and just before I hit post, I delete it and compose a more reasoned response.

I’d like to think that I temper my remarks because I’m such a lovely person. But what if no one knew it was me? Would I still be respectful? Wait. Don’t answer that. Answer this instead: What would happen if a group of self-selected people agreed to debate online with the guiding rule being they had to own their comments in the same manner as we demand of letter writers?

Would the absence of anonymity prompt civility?

As we approach the two-year anniversary of Voices of the Valleys, our alternative-blog blog, I feel qualified to answer that. 

First a little background. Each panelist is required to post a name, hometown, photo and biographical sketch. (We leave the details up to the individual, knowing that some are more comfortable than others with what they disclose online).

Each Friday, I post the week’s question. Panelists who want to discuss that particular topic jump in. By noon Tuesday, they can post an official answer of fewer than 300 words that I consider for our Sunday section, but they can talk all week about that topic or any other.

When VoV (as they refer to themselves) first started, the Voices stepped gingerly. Within a few weeks, robust debates broke out, and members came up with a rule of their own: Stereotypes, labels and talking points aren’t welcome. 

It didn’t take long before they also were asking getting-to-know-you questions, finding similarities and differences. For example, two men of far different political persuasions, education levels and careers seemingly had little in common. Then they discovered each had three daughters about the same age, each had a daughter covered in tattoos and each was planning a daughter’s wedding. They bonded.

Before long, friendships formed offline, including a peculiar alliance. A few of the men challenge each other so vigorously that if they were seated at a dinner party the host would interject a banality, hoping to diffuse the exchange. The members of this particular subgroup learned they all have at least one dog. So on many Saturdays, they meet up and enjoy a long hike with their dogs, only to later resume their debate online. 

Which doesn’t mean all is pleasant at VoV. Some personalities just rub each other wrong.

At times, I get e-mails like this one from a Voice with bruised feelings:

He’s a bit insufferable if you ask me, which you have not. So, I quit. Please remove me however you do that. I cannot stand ridicule and disrespect….”

Yet, he stuck with it, and a few months later when another Voice threatened to quit, responded: 

I tried this. I even asked Luanne to take me off the mailing list. Didn’t work. … Here I’ll sound very egotistical, which I admit readily I am, we undefined you and I and every person on this panel undefined have important things to say. We may debate each other with rancor and spit and screams, but what we have to say is important, if for no other reason than to get it out of ourselves. I found that I was choking to death by reading the posts and not jumping in. I do not believe you can stay out. You’ve got so much to contribute to us and have not even begun to get it all out.”

The other Voice who thought about quitting is still there, too.

I expect both will be at the next gathering of the Voices. We’ll soon plan our winter get-together. Last January, one Voice, a docent at the local art museum, arranged a private evening tour, followed by a lovely dinner. Each summer, everyone who can brings a covered dish to a park for an afternoon picnic and a little guitar picking.

It’s just like any family reunion with its own crazy Uncle Ed and boorish Cousin Bob. They’ve all come to know each other and have welcomed new members into the fold undefined as long as they play by the one unwavering rule: Tell us who you are and we’ll be happy to talk with you.

Those who drop in, cloaked in anonymity just to throw bombs find out quickly their kind isn’t welcome. They either convert to the VoV way or they’re ignored. Both have happened.

Last January, when we approached our first anniversary, I asked them to reflect on this experiment in bringing strangers together to debate in the hope of prompting informed, civil debate.

I’ll leave you with two of the comments we received:

From one Voice: "Like many of you I had no idea of how this experiment would work from a structural standpoint. On the surface it appeared that we would receive our assignment from Mother Luanne, work like beavers to formulate an appropriate response then submit it within the allotted time, end of topic, then wait for new orders. Who could have guessed that this forum would become the group that we now are, a rather eclectic bunch, some local, some with roots elsewhere, old(er), younger, professional, not so professional, representing a wide spectrum of thoughts and ideas and even those guilty of long run-on sentences (like this one) waiting for Betty [the English teacher] to appear?"

And from another:  "Everyone on the panel has used this week to hug and kiss and rave about their deep and abiding affection for every other panel member, even the ones who normally infuriate them. I’ve even felt the soft brush of a few kisses myself.  Me undefined that cold-hearted conservative who wants children to starve and people to go without health care. I don’t know about you, but I’ve felt the love this week, and I’m afraid I could get used to it. Hopefully, it won’t change me, but I’m worried, and I find myself looking down at my chest occasionally just to make sure my heart isn’t bleeding."

Luanne Rife is an editorial writer at the Roanoke Times.

Only Connect

Town halls bring newspaper, community together

Published Monday, December 6, 2010 8:30 pm by Paul Hurley

When a local church renovated a former bar/restaurant into a gathering place two years ago, we at the Visalia Times-Delta were presented with an opportunity we couldn't refuse. What developed was a monthly public forum on topics of interest to our community and a partnership that is unique to newspapers.

The forum, called 210 Connect, takes on community topics each month in an open forum that encourages public participation. The topic is also explored through commentary in the newspaper and feedback on our website. The forums give us the opportunity to examine topics on several platforms that engage readers in multiple dimensions, and we hope, contribute to public discourse in our community.

Since it started in 2008, 210 Connect has addressed topics of urban planning, water quality and quantity, hunger, homelessness, the mortgage foreclosure crisis, suicide prevention, end-of-life issues, the role of arts and music in our community, green building, health care reform and animal control, among others. Attendance at our forums varies, and some have drawn only about two dozen people. But others have attracted more than 100, with about 200 people attending our health-care forum last fall. Average attendance is about 50 people.

Considering how difficult it is to get people to come out and engage in public issues, we're pleased with that.

Perhaps the most interesting thing  about 210 Connect, however, is that it is a collaboration between a community newspaper and a local church congregation. First Presbyterian Church in downtown Visalia had long had a reputation for social action and community outreach. Its downtown neighbor for many years was a night club that had a reputation for police intervention. The bar finally closed down for a number of reasons, and the century-old property on one of Visalia's most prominent street corners was put up for sale. First Presbyterian bought the property and its congregation invested millions of dollars into renovating it as a combination coffee house, youth center and performance venue. They called it 210, after its address at 210 W. Center Ave.

210's assembly room can accommodate 225 people. It is a venue for concerts and meetings. The Rev. Rich Hansen intended that 210 be a center for public discussion of community issues, and he invited the Times-Delta as a partner in 210 Connect. After several months of planning and consultation with community leaders, we held our first event in April 2008 with the cooperation of The Great Valley Center, a nonprofit that helps cities in California’s Central Valley plan, as we discussed how to plan for our community's future.

Our 210 Connect format slowly has evolved to its current format. We select a topic and narrow its focus. We try to choose a topic that has attracted some community interest, but not an issue that is in crisis mode(see Mission statement). The newspaper contacts stakeholders or topic "experts" to serve as panelists who provide information and perspective on the issue. For our program on homelessness, for instance, we included city planners, law enforcement, leaders of agencies who serve the homeless, advocates for homeless people and a person who had been living on the streets for several years.

Then we compose an agenda that frames the discussion through a series of questions. 210 also has capability for multimedia presentation, including sound, video and a performance, as well as wireless.

We have a newspaper staffer blog during the live forum through our Web site. We are also working to have online chats enabled so those who aren't at the forum can participate. A moderator, usually myself, guides the discussion by questioning the panelists and directing questions from the audience.

The keys to the forum are keeping the discussion moving and making sure the audience has the opportunity to ask questions and offer opinions. It can be challenging to keep the forum flexible enough to allow for the unexpected while focused enough to stay on topic. And we make sure to keep the forum at 90 minutes undefined no longer.

210 Connect has broadened the mission of our newspaper into community activism, enabling us to better fulfill our role as leaders of our community conversation.

Paul Hurley is senior editor for community conversation for the Visalia Times-Delta, 23,000-circulation general interest newspaper in the San Joaquin Valley in California that serves the city of Visalia (pop. 125,000) and Tulare County.

Prepare and plan

Setting up your community forum:

  • Include a partner in your ongoing community forum. Make sure it is a neutral, trusted institution and not a government entity. Seek collaboration from community leaders. Hold the forum at a neutral site, such as  a library. Choose topics that have some weight, and keep them focused, but stay away from volatile issues that have come to a head. Our forum on health care, while well-attended, was  difficult to manage because emotions ran so high.
  • Prepare an advance in the newspaper that gives readers background information. We publish an entire Opinion page devoted to the topic on our largest circulation day before the event.
  • Balance the panel of experts. Our forum on the  state budget included a Republican, a Democrat, a moderate and a Tea Party Patriot.
  • Establish a statement of principles that emphasizes respect for all points of view (see Mission Statement and principles). 
  • Prepare a detailed agenda in advance that lets panelists know exactly what is expected and hand them out at the event. We schedule them to the minute.
  • Allow plenty of time for discussion and audience comment. It's good to have an assistant moderator to seek audience comment and questions. Have another news staffer, perhaps a reporter, attend the session with a laptop and report via a live blog.
  • Get e-mail addresses of those who attend to give them feedback and alert them to the next forum. 
  • Follow up with a news report both in print and online and keep an archive of the forums for those who want to comment later.

-- Paul Hurley

Dallas Convention Schedule

WEDNESDAY, September 22

  • Noon - 5:30 p.m. Convention registration opens
  • 2:00 p.m. Optional complimentary tour of the Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, host of the 2011 Super Bowl.
  • 7:00 p.m Opening reception on the roof deck of the Fairmont Hotel
    • Welcome: NCEW President Tom Waseleski Convention Chair Keven Ann Willey Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert
  • 9:00 p.m. Hospitality suite

THURSDAY, September 23

  • 7:30 a.m First-time attendees' breakfast
  • 7:30 a.m. Continental breakfast
  • 8:00 a.m. Spouse Tour - The Mint and the Glint...leaves from the Ross Avenue entrance. (Details in box on opposite page)
  • 8:30 a.m. NCEW-U begins
      • Moderator: Michael Landauer, The Dallas Morning News Panelists: Paul Burka, Senior Executive Editor, Texas Monthly Dave Parry, Assistant Professor of Emergent Media and Communications, University of Texas at Dallas Mark Medici, Director of Audience Development, The Dallas Morning News
  • 10:00 a.m. Break
    • Moderator: Keven AnnWilley, The Dallas Morning News Panelists: Scott Milfred, 2008 Pulitzer finalist, editorial page editor, Wisconsin State Journal Marie C. Dillon, 2010 Pulitzer finalist, editorial writer, Chicago Tribune John G. Carlton, 2010 Pulitzer finalist, editorial writer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch Tod Robberson, 2010 Pulitzer winning editorial writer, The Dallas Morning News
  • Noon Luncheon at hotel
    • Speaker: Texas Governor Rick Perry
  • 2:00 p.m. Critique groups Attendees who sign up for these critiques will benefit from show-and-tell presentations from other discussion members and get to share their own. Discussion points should include what works/what doesn't and how to measure success.
    • DIGITAL INNOVATIONS: Miriam Pepper, vice president, editorial page, The Kansas City Star
    • READER INTERACTION: Michael Landauer, assistant editorial page editor for reader engagement, The Dallas Morning News
    • CRITIQUE LIGHT: PeteWasson, assistant managing editor for public service, Wausau Daily Herald
    • TRADITIONAL CRITIQUE: Tommy Denton, retired editorial page editor, The Roanoke Times
  • 4:00 p.m. Walking Tour of the Arts District Tour will include Booker T.Washington High School for the Performing Arts,Wyly Theater,Winspear Opera House, Crow Collection of Asian Art, and the Nasher Sculpture Center.
  • 6:30 p.m. Cash bar reception at the Fairmont Hotel
  • 7:00 p.m. Dinner at the Fairmont Hotel
  • Keynote speaker: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano
  • 9:00 p.m. Hospitality suite

FRIDAY, September 24

  • 7:30 a.m. Continental breakfast
    • Moderator: Linda Campbell, Fort Worth Star-Telegram Panelists: Former U.S. Census Director Steve Murdock San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro State Senator RoyceWest of Dallas
  • 10:00 a.m. Break
    • Moderator: Arnold Garcia, Austin American-Statesman Speakers: Former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Antonio O. Garza Former Deputy Foreign Minister Gerónimo Gutierrez Fernández of Mexico
  • Noon Lunch at Fairmont
    • Speaker: Kurt Eichenwald, former New York Times investigative reporter; Author, The Informant, Conspiracy of Fools
  • 1:45 p.m. Board buses to Sixth Floor Museum for tour and program
    • Speaker: Darwin Payne, Journalist, Author, Dallas historian, Professor emeritus of communications, Southern Methodist University
  • Evening Dinner on your own We'll have free tickets to the Texas State Fair, the largest fair in the nation, a real happening event! There are lots of live bands, rides, arcades, car expo, dancing dogs, livestock competition, craft shows and food competitions.
  • 9:00 p.m. Hospitality suite

SATURDAY, September 25

  • 7:30 a.m. Continental breakfast
    • Speaker: T. Boone Pickens, American financier, Texas oil and gas executive
  • 9:30 a.m. Break
  • 10:45 a.m. Break
  • 11:00 a.m. JUSTICE IN THE AGE OF DNA
    • Moderator: ColleenMcCain Nelson, The DallasMorning News Panelists: Dallas County District Attorney CraigWatkins Rev. Brooks Harrington, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney, District of Columbia
  • Noon Awards luncheon at Fairmont Hotel
    • Presentation of the Barry Bingham Award and the 2010 Pulliam Fellowship Speaker: John Cornyn, U.S. Senator, Texas (tentative)
  • 2:00 p.m. Town Hall meeting with NCEWPresident TomWaseleski
  • 2:30 p.m. Annual NCEWBusiness Meeting
  • 6:30 p.m. Reception at the Fairmont Hotel
  • 7:00 p.m. Dinner at the Fairmont
  • Speaker: Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune and former editor of award-winning Texas Monthly magazine

Sunday, September 26

  • 9:00 a.m. Past presidents breakfast