2013 Archives


A boy, a dead dog, and a letter

Published Tuesday, January 1, 2013 10:00 am by Jay Jochnowitz; eds Thea Joselow, John McClelland

So you’re the bigshot editorial page editor, with your policies and your standards and your word counts and your adult conversation. You’ve got a rule for everything, right?

Well, what about this? Give it a listen.

If you can’t hear the message, here’s the transcript: “My name is Zach. I just wanted to know, if I wrote a thing about my dog would you guys publish it in the newspaper?” The boy starts out fairly strong, but his voice breaks about halfway through. So did my heart.

The call came to our reader representative, who also handles letters to the editor. She passed this around to various editors, wondering what we might do.

I should tell you that I love dogs. I don’t think life is complete without them. Right now, I have two. My old retriever, in fact, is lying next to me as I write this.  I know that lots of other people love dogs, too, and of those who don’t, most probably love cats. Or ferrets. Or cockatiels. Or lizards. People love their pets.

I also know that stories about pets are well read, and I have nothing against them. I wrote something of a humor piece about one of my former dogs, who was really quite awful but grew on me in the months before he ran in front of a car; on a lark, I sent it to the opinions editor, who loved it and used it as an op-ed. The reaction was very positive; one local police chief even made a donation in Max’s memory to Cornell’s veterinary school.

That said, my impulse was to say no to using the letter in the letters to the editor space. I had several reasons for this:

Letters are usually for readers to comment on content that we published, or news that is well known enough that our readers would know what the writer was referring to.

We don’t generally allow letter writers to report their own, unverifiable news.

Publishing one dead pet letter could well open the floodgates to more, and while I wouldn’t have a problem telling adults that their piece wasn’t usable, I do not want to be the guy who has to tell a heartbroken child that their letter about their beloved late dog or cat or iguana just didn’t make the cut.

And yet. As I wrote in a note on the AOJ listserv: “We mourn the sense that we are losing relevance and that we have to cultivate a new generation of readers. Here’s one, begging to be a voice on our pages, who thinks being published in our paper would bring meaning to a painful moment in his young life.” (He also wanted in the paper, we would later learn, because the older people in his family only read us in print, not on line. Bless them.)

Fortunately, our features editor had a solution: use the letter as a springboard for an article on helping kids cope with the death of a pet (you can read it here: "A Few Words About a Beloved Friend").

I thought the solution was perfect. We bring human material to life and put it in context. Zach gets his letter in the paper. There’s no sense that we’re setting a precedent or even making an exception; this is exactly what papers do.  

Still, I wondered what other editorial page editors would have done. I sent a message out on the AOJ discussion list explaining the dilemma, expecting pretty much validation of my decision and compliments on our features editor’s elegant solution.

That’s not quite the response I got. More than a few colleagues suggested I loosen up.

Dick Hughes said he strays from the “rules,” allowing thank you and dead pet letters sometimes, and hasn’t been inundated with them. “For years, I was guilty of looking for reasons to discard letters. Our guidelines were ironclad, never to be bent,” he wrote. “Eventually I got smarter. Or humbler. The letters I was inclined to reject - not an important topic of local interest! -- were the ones that touched people's lives.”

Pete Wasson offered a similar view: “My philosophy is to try to find ways to say yes to readers rather than saying no...if we want what we produce to touch people's lives - and that is the only way that we will stay in business, imo - then we need to find more ways to say yes when readers want to help us do that. Dogs die every day. Kids are saddened every day. But on this day, a sad kid whose dog died wants to talk about it with his community to share his pain. Why in the world would we stand in his way?”

Pete also suggested that rather than try to legitimize the material by building an angle around it, just, “Put it on the opinion page, run a photo of the kid and his dog, and then sit back and enjoy readers reacting.”

Bonnie Williams related how she took a pet situation even further:

I had a similar situation a couple of years ago when someone had lost a pet. She stopped for gas and the cat escaped from her car. The lady called me in tears and said was there anything I could do. She was elderly and didn't feel that she could write a proper letter to the editor so, being an animal lover and rescuer, I wrote a short editorial.

The happy ending to this story is that the person who found her cat called me, I got the two in touch and lady and pet were reunited. The hero of the piece received his thanks in print as well.”

She explains why finding a place for this kind of material matters in her view: “(D)oesn't it tell them a little bit about us, that we're not just about the dishonest politician, the big story or the "gotcha" moments? I like to think it encourages readers to think of us as more like them than they realize - and maybe even demonstrate that they get that by reading us and supporting their newspaper more often.

Karen Nolan, who said she’d start an online blog feature “If I had tons of kids writing tearful dog stories to me,” asked, “Why in the world are we so afraid of people writing us letters to the editor, even about topics that we might not personally find interesting?”

I still prefer our solution, but I have been haunted by this situation like no other in my time as an editorial page editor. Maybe it’s the time of year, when I notice many papers running (as we have in the past) the immortal “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” How many rules did Francis Pharcellus break undefined how much arguing did he have to do with his rulebook thumping editor undefined to get that classic into print? Yes, there is a difference between a professionally written piece and the average letter to the editor.

But I do wonder if binding up our readers in all these old rules has a way of constraining us, too.

Jay Jochnowitz is Editorial Page Editor of the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union. The AOJ discussion list participants he quotes are from all over the U.S. map.

Morgan McGinley honored by NENPA

Published Tuesday, January 15, 2013  

The New England Newspaper & Press Association announced that AOJ Lifetime Member Morgan McGinley has been inducted into the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame. McGinley will be honored at a reception on February 8 at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel.

The Hall of Fame recognizes newspaper industry heroes whose talent, hard work and exceptional accomplishments provide inspiration to all New England journalists.

Sunshine is year-round

2013 FOI week is March 10-16

Published Monday, February 18, 2013 by Chris Trejbal and John McClelland

Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of open government, is nearly upon us. This year it runs March 10-16, and the Association of Opinion Journalists is an official partner organization.

Though we organizationally support the cause of open government, AOJ members can push for transparency as much or as little as they choose. One of AOJ’s greatest strengths is that people of different beliefs and political persuasions can come together to advance the craft.

Acknowledging that, why wouldn’t you support government transparency? Attending public meetings and reviewing public documents are essential journalistic tools. Our work would be shallow indeed without them.

Sunshine also enables an informed citizenry in a democracy. The people can vote intelligently only if they know what elected officials have been doing and how they have spent public dollars.

In truth, the journalistic and democratic benefits are one in the same. Journalists (in most cases*) do not have special rights under state and federal Freedom of Information Acts. They have the same rights as anyone else.

Sunshine Week is an opportunity to explain all that to readers and viewers. Debra Gersh Hernandez, director of communications for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, sees a special role for opinion journalists. She has been the driving force behind Sunshine Week for years.

The coverage by news journalists is important to telling the story of access denied or about what the records revealed,” she said. “It’s the opinion writers and editors who can explain why it is important that people be able to get these records; that it’s not just about access for journalists; that real change for the better in the community can come from what they find; and why everyone has a role in protecting that.”

There is no convenient measure of how successful AOJ members have been at spreading the good word ofFOIA**. Anecdotally and informally, we are making a difference. Open government over time has entered the national dialogue and spread beyond opinion pages. Americans and public officials now widely recognize that good government requires openness.

This year, no single national issue dominates government transparency news. Instead, AOJ members might take advantage of the lull to look more closely at what is happening in their states and localities.

For example, Hernandez said she has heard about some states and communities using budget shortfalls to justify imposing or increasing fees to copy public documents. She also suggests pushing governments to adopt better eFOIA procedures by allowing people to file requests and receive documents online.

Hernandez wanted AOJ members to know that their hard work on FOIA issues is appreciated. She also reminds us that open government issues are not limited to one week.

If their paper is denied access, they should call officials out on it,” she said. “If a great series about a local issue is developed using public records, they should explain it. Mostly, I'd say, ‘Keep up the good work!’ ”

Sunshine Week Resources

Christian Trejbal is a member of the AOJ board and chairman of the open government committee.

Bland beyond belief?

Editorials have to risk offending someone

Published Saturday, March 2, 2013 8:00 pm by posted by John McClelland
Excerpted with permission from a
Dec. 30, 2012, column by Stuart Leavenworth, Sacramento Bee editorial-page editor

The editorial director of a news organization dedicated to producing "stories that hold those in power accountable," has said there should be fewer voices dedicated to that cause.

Mark Katches of the Center for Investigative Reporting, which includes California Watch and the Bay Citizen, was asked by the Nieman Journalism Labto make some predictions about the media for 2013.

One of Katches' predictions:

"Newspapers will start to taper off writing editorials. They'll find that they can be a leader in their communities by engaging audiences, moderating forums, holding events and curating roundtable discussion – while avoiding the pitfall of alienating a significant percentage of their audience by telling people what to think."

Sigh. There are so many things wrong....

[Leavenworth then rebuts, item-by-item.]

In an email, Katches said he wasn't advocating that newspapers drop their editorials, just that it was a trend that was likely to increase. But [he said it] would be a smart move for newspapers … to avoid losing readers.

Sorry, but there is no evidence that strong opinions are hurting newspaper readership.

[Leavenworth cites historical and recent examples, responds to an Editor & Publisher column and debunks the "old canard" that editorials undermine the credibility of … "an entirely separate operation – the newsroom."]

Would you want to read a newspaper that only sailed to the prevailing political winds...? A newspaper that is void of anything that might upset anybody would be bland beyond belief.

Editorial pages need to change, and many are changing. … But one thing that won't change is our core mission – advocating for the best interests of our state and our community.

The editorial voice

In print and online, it advocates for ... community

Published Saturday, March 2, 2013 8:00 pm by P-S Editorial Board (F. Fiske); AOJ posted by J.McClelland
editorial was published in The Post-Standard Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2013, reproduced by permission.

It started before Aristotle undefined writers practicing the fine art of persuasion. The ancient Greek’s guide to rhetoric and advocacy still instructs editorial writers in how to build a case, consider alternative arguments and counter them, use understatement, satire and exaggeration, and take account of readers’ emotions.

The editorials that appear in this space are unsigned essays representing the views of this newspaper. Responsibility rests with the editorial board. Its core members are Chairman Stephen A. Rogers, President Timothy R. Kennedy, Vice President of Content Michael J. Connor and Editorials/Opinions Lead Marie Morelli. The editorial process includes meetings with leaders and newsmakers, research, reporting, analysis and debate, putting our view into words, and opening the floor to a community debate.

Exciting change is in the air as our news operation retools to serve a growing digital audience. Editorials will continue online and in print Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. On other days, an opinion page will be part of a smaller print edition available at news outlets and via an electronic edition available to subscribers. On syracuse.com, the Editorials & opinion page will be updated often and will include your voices.

The future of news and commentary continues to unfold in Syracuse.

A couple of centuries ago, newspapers and their editorials were linked to political factions. That partisanship eventually gave way to a unique institutional voice speaking up for the public interest, an “honest broker” of ideas independent of government and politics, business and academia, the judiciary and law enforcement, special interests, cultural and civic groups. Editorials attempt to advocate for the whole community rather than itThe digitally focused newsroom offers new and intriguing opportunities for commentary in addition to advocacy writing undefined interactive blogs and forums, video, opportunities to link, aggregate and convene. The community conversation will evolve and become more inclusive as readership and viewership grow. We invite you to get in the game. Write a letter. Post a comment on Syracuse.com. Join the conversation. Make your own voice heard. Be an active part of your community.

s many worthy parts. They rail against injustice, malfeasance and chicanery. They comfort, appeal, congratulate and explain. They help you engage in civic life, act in your own interests, deepen your understanding of issues.

Aristotle was onto something. Amid much change, this much remains certain: Persuasive journalism and commentary will thrive in the new era. The Syracuse Media Group, like The Post-Standard, is committed to informing, entertaining and guiding citizens in Central New York and beyond. Our newsroom will continue to be an honest broker undefined reporting, updating, giving context to all the news, monitoring and convening community conversations, promoting the best interests of the public we serve.

Today, like never before, you can participate fully in this conversation. Join us.

(c) 2103 Syracuse Post-Standard; by permission; rights reserved.

A place for editorials in digital newsrooms

Published Saturday, March 2, 2013 8:00 pm by Fred Fiske and John McClelland

Early on in my 32 years in editorial writing, I became a True Believer. I remain convinced that communities benefit from, even need, the provocations of a nosey yet disinterested press advocate.

Because I am such an advocate for the editorial voice in daily journalism, it was a pleasure and an honor to serve as NCEW president, and to sit on Pulitzer juries judging columns and cartoons (well, that was actually pretty hard work!).

Advocacy journalism became a mission for me over the years. With support from NCEW-AOJ, I had a hand in organizing more than a dozen workshops for college editorial writers; we invited them to think in new ways about advocacy journalism.

Several months before I separated from The Post-Standard on Jan. 31, 2013, I wrote a long memo to my editors making the case for a continued and robust role for opinion in the new digital newsroom:

The editorial voice is unique in the community as an honest broker, disinterested observer and advocate.

Editorial journalism in Syracuse dates back to the 1830s. Competition continued through the 1990s between The Post-Standard and the Herald Journal, both Newhouse newspapers. The news staffs' rivalry undefined and surprising differences in political endorsements undefined kept things lively through the 2000 merger.

A community needs a gatekeeper for letters and commentary amid the din and cacophony of the Internet.

The editorial itself has a vital analytical and prescriptive role.

The decision to lay off more than 100 of us in a major pivot toward digital journalism was made. A generous severance package would get me to pension activation.

As Departure Day neared, with encouragement from Editorial Page Editor Marie Morelli, I settled on writing a “final editorial.” I summarized the case, adding references and citations from Aristotle, Joseph Pulitzer and S.I. Newhouse.

That editorial got spiked. It was too self-referential. If one departing staffer got to write an essay, others would want to do the same. Bittersweet parting notes would be a downer.

I was heartened by Marie’s accompanying assurance that there would still be editorials in the three-times-a-week print edition and online. I depersonalized my draft.

No objections to the philosophy but the tone needs to change. It’s too sad…,” wrote the new digital chief, Tim Kennedy. He was right. He offered some good suggestions to make the piece more upbeat about the future. And he added words of encouragement: “This is a piece that should be written.“

I took a crack at it as time ran out, and things fell into place undefined as they always tended to do, through the estimated 21,000 editorials and millions of words.The published editorial you see hereis the result of what so many editorials are: a collaborative process that combines the ideas of members of the editorial board, shaping the argument for maximum effect. I sent a copy to my friend Kenton Bird at the University of Idaho, for comparison purposes.

The end result was a clear improvement over my original. It still began and ended with good old Aristotle. It still made the case for editorials, and included a pledge to carry on.

Fred Fiske was president of the National Conference of Editorial Writers (now AOJ) in 2001, when Sept. 11 scratched the convention, "an eventful year," he recalls. He has a Harvard BA in history and literature and master's in journalism from Columbia University. Journalism work began in 1973 at the Bucks County (Pa.) Courier Times, then The Post-Standard in Syracuse in 1979. He began writing editorials in 1981, and was editorial page editor from 1983 until a 2000 merger.

He joined NCEW in 1982, served on various committees, the NCEW board and NCEW Foundation Board, traveled to Eastern Europe in 1990, chaired the Journalism Education Committee, edited The Masthead before rising through elected NCEW leadership roles.

Opinionizing's role, revisited

As newspapers shrink, how to preserve vital voices?

Published Saturday, March 2, 2013 8:00 pm by John McClelland

About a year ago, some newspapers announced they would no longer do editorial endorsements of candidates, and members of AOJ's discussion list -- and a lot of other people! -- had a lot to say about that. We published some of it in Masthead.

Recently, the list was buzzing with comment about more publishers' decisions to pull back here, drop out there....

We begin now an intermittent package of articles about this seemingly unending dilemma: How, indeed whether, in times of rapid technological and economic changes, to sustain or redefine newspapers' historically crucial opinion role in the public discussions that are so vital to a democracy.

Fred Fiske, former NCEW president, describes his saga of getting that last editorial before retirement just right, with promises for continuity into the digital age, and quoting Aristotle.

Stuart Leavenworth takes issue with an assertion that editorials not just will wane, but perhaps should.

More TK (to come, as they used to say in the back shop).

--JM 3/1/13

Three quotables

Published Saturday, March 2, 2013 8:00 pm by (F.Fiske selection; posted by J.McClelland)

From Aristotle’s “Rhetoric”

The most important things about which all men deliberate and deliberative orators harangue, are five in number, to wit: ways and means, war and peace, the defense of the country, imports and exports, legislations. …

It is absurd to hold that a man ought to be ashamed of being unable to defend himself with his limbs but not of being unable to defend himself with speech and reason, when the use of reason is more distinctive of a human being than the use of his limbs.“

Publisher Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), platform of the St. Louis Post Dispatch (1907)

“ … (A)lways fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.”

S.I. Newhouse (1895-1979)

Whatever political interest each newspaper publisher or editor has is based on what he thinks is best for the community in which he operates, and he expresses himself fully without submitting anything to me. …

Only a newspaper which is a sound business operation can be a truly free, independent editorial enterprise, able to do the best possible job for the community. …

Whatever contribution I may make will be primarily in the direction of supporting the internal integrity of these great publications and assuring the present local management full freedom to make their own thinking effective.”

NABJ names M. Johnson educator of year

Winner of AOJ Foundation's Bingham Fellowship gains new honor

Published Wednesday, April 17, 2013 by R. Prince & J. McClelland

AOJ's 2012 Bingham Fellowship winner picked up another national award mid-April 2013.

The Association of Opinion Journalists Foundation granted its Barry Bingham Fellowship in journalism education to Michelle Johnson, presenting the award at the September 2012 AOJ convention (photo: Ms. Johnson with Foundation president David Holwerk).

In April 2013, the National Association of Black Journalists named her its journalism educator of the year.

Columnists Day recalls Pyle

Published Thursday, April 18, 2013 by D.Lieber, R.Prince, J.McClelland

Columnists write opinion too. We all have things in common, so...

When the National Conference of Editorial Writers changed its name to Association of Opinion Journalists at the start of 2012, it also expanded the scope of its membership and professional interests.

Columnists have their own association, National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and many of their concerns are unique to writing or selling bylined commentary. But editorial page editors and often their colleagues make decisions about local use of columnists, and many AOJ members also have columns of their own, in print, online or both.

A member of AOJ's leadership shared a link to an NSNC explanation of National Columnists Day's origins and the choice of April 18 to honor the late, great, Ernie Pyle. Here it is:


--JM 2013-04-18

Kerry: credibility, budget are keys

Secretary of state briefs opinion journalism group

Published Friday, May 3, 2013 by Marjorie Arons-Barron

"Our credibility in one place affects our credibility in another,” Secretary of State John Kerry told about 20 members of the Association of Opinion Journalists in a briefing at the State Department.

Syria's use of sarin gas “is a red line for the President,” but we’re “not talking about boots on the ground,” Kerry said during the April 29 session. He indicated that the U.S. must work with others whose interests align with ours. So, too, with North Korea. China, which provides North Korea food, fuel and banking services, is the key to confronting Kim Jong-un's saber rattling. (That was a more nuanced response, not the reflexive muscle urged by Senators McCain and Graham, and it's what appears to be happening with Iran.)

In a 25-minute presentation, Kerry laid out an integrated view of American foreign policy, premised on the idea that “we can’t protect America with Seal teams, drones and deployment alone. We need to offer a more kinetic component of combating terrorism.” Besides, he later noted, “It is much cheaper to invest in diplomats than in troops.”

Return on the dollar spent

Building new democracy is difficult, but, to avoid extremism, a "minor" level of investment is essential. The budget of the State Department is a scant one percent of the federal budget, yet, Kerry contends, it yields a significant return on investment.

Stimulating American international trade is part of this mix. Every $200,000 in product that we export represents a job created in the United States, Kerry said. Eleven of our 15 largest trading partners in the world used to receive foreign aid from us. Now Japan and Europe are giving aid to others. Seen that way, he said, “Foreign policy really isn’t foreign policy at all but domestic policy carried into a connected world.”

Roots of revolutions

How connected? The varied events of the Arab Spring, he said, were set off by a Tunisian fruit vendor seeking fair placement of his fruit cart without being hassled by local police. Initially, the events had nothing to do with Islamism or ideology. Tunisia was just the first of several eruptions against governments failing to meet citizens’ needs, eruptions magnified by tensions between modernity and the status quo.

So, too, with Egypt, a generational revolution, fueled by tweets and text messages. When an election occurred, the oldest organization -the Muslim Brotherhood - stepped in, appealing to young people without jobs who were seeing no future. Leaders around the world rightly worry about the “tsunami of the disenfranchised.”

If we don’t want extremists exporting violence to various part of the world, we need to work with our allies to help transformation occur. If we don’t offer a better vision, he warned, extremism will move faster than democracy. 

Optimism abounds

Despite many serious worldwide challenges, Kerry is largely optimistic. "With winding down in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, we are less at risk with our forces than we’ve been in many years, " he said. The scores of agencies working with our embassies have blunted plots from abroad that the American people never did see.

Our nation is the indispensible country. We are looked to for leadership everywhere,” he said. The challenge, as always, is to get Congress and the American people to be willing to pay up front for foreign initiatives and to see them as related to our long-term domestic well-being.

I came away thinking Kerry's views are not original. He's well versed in the issues, knows the Obama priorities and is an able advocate. But his task is daunting. In the old days, even in the face of public hostility and indifference, there were leaders in the Congress capable of shaping bipartisan foreign policies. But most of them are gone, and those remaining are unwilling to spend their capital educating voters. We're a nation not known for taking the long view. Failure to do so today has higher costs than ever.

Marjorie Arons-Barron was a print and broadcast journalist, including 20 years as editorial director of WCVB-TV, Boston's ABC affiliate, and is now a blogger and communications consultant.

Afghans live longer, better

Growth in education, women's roles, health set global % pace, USAID tells editors

Published Saturday, May 4, 2013 by Miriam Pepper

The story of Afghanistan known by most Americans is of war and conflict. But the protracted American presence has brought more than boots on the ground. To USAID, the lesser known story is what’s happened as a result of U.S. and other international investments in health and education.

That story has life expectancy lengthening by 20 years, from 42 to 62, and vastly more accessible basic health care leading to dramatically lower maternal deaths and lower child mortality.

The stats:

  • In 2002, only 900,000 boys were in school and virtually no girls. Now approximately 8,000,000 students, more than a third of them girls.
  • Since the departure of the Taliban, the health care system has expanded dramatically, and life expectancy increased from 42 years in 2002 to over 62.
  • Child mortality rate decreased from 172 deaths per 100,000 to 97.
  • Maternal mortality ratio declined from 1,600 per 100,000 births to 327.
  • The number of primary health care facilities increased from 498 in 2002 to more than 1,970 in 2010.
  • 200,000 women and girls have been through high school or college. And many more women are now employed.

Alex Thierassistant to the administrator for the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs in the U.S. Agency for International Development, briefed 20 Association of Opinion Journalists members on April 29. He told a remarkable story that offers hope for the future as the military effort winds down: Afghanistan has made more progress on a percentage basis since 2000 than any country in the world.

(Of course, huge percentage gains do indicate just how grim things were at the start.)

The entire development budget for Afghanistan over the last decade equals the cost of four to six weeks of the military campaign, Thier said: “Continuing this investment will greatly diminish the likelihood of Afghanistan becoming fragile.”

Coming soon from USAID is a “Promote” campaign, pledging a $300 million investment over five years for Afghan women. It will focus on women in the economy, women entrepreneurs, access to credit for women, and women’s leadership development.

To Thier, the greatest hope for Afghanistan lies with the increasingly educated and tech-savvy youth who see a path forward. He suggests that this youth contingent, along with better educated and employed women, and upgraded infrastructure should help keep Afghanistan from slipping backward after troops depart.

One can hope he’s a better prognosticator than others who are far more pessimistic.

Miriam Pepper is vice president for the editorial page of the Kansas City Star and vice president (president-elect) of AOJ.

Aid guru sees bright sides

Not by war, 'We're going to develop our way out of Afghanistan'

Published Monday, May 6, 2013 by Carolyn Lumsden (editor John McClelland)

Donald Steinberg, deputy administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development, is an optimistic fellow.

Steinberg sees a lot of good things happening, in part because President Obama is such an inspiration, in part because of technology and in part because of so many funding sources for development, including private Americans ($40 billion a year), remittances ($100 billion) and the private sector (a trillion).

In his April briefing to the State Department's AOJ guests, Steinberg said 600 million people have crossed the poverty line, and there's been a 40 percent decline in infant mortality, "the lowest in my lifetime." Google has put aside money for a poverty museum in the hopes that it will be the only place you can see poverty by 2035.

New technologies and sustained efforts are solving lots of problems; examples:

  • Berkeley students are making pumps that will take arsenic out of drinking water in Bangladesh.
  • A socially responsible app will one day tell consumers how much trafficked labor was used in Target goods.
  • Cellphones are being turned into medical diagnostic tools in remote places.
  • 13 of the 20 fastest growing countries are former A.I.D. nations.
  • Afghanistan has gone from no girls in school to 3,000.
  • Afghans' life expectancy has risen from 47 to 62 in 15 years.

Steinberg said: "We're not going to fight our way out of Afghanistan. We're going to develop our way out of Afghanistan."

The U.S. is reforming the way it does food aid, using some local food and vouchers and cutting back on shipping U.S.-grown food. He says it's an opportunity to "feed 2 to 4 million more people with the same amount of resources."

During questioning, Steinberg said his agency is doing more evaluation of projects, to see what works and what doesn't. It has 1,600 partnerships with the private sector.

He said genetically modified organisms are "a benefit in our mind" if they're properly tested. GMOs have produced drought-resistant seeds, provided greater nutrition in foods and made plants resistant to pests and diseases. He said care has to be given to avoid "unintended consequences," but "yes, we believe GMOs are our future."

Carolyn Lumsden is editorial page editor of the Hartford (Conn.) Courant, member of the AOJ Board, and organizer of this year's State Department briefings.

Africa expert exudes optimism

State Dept veteran tells AOJ opinion writers of progress

Published Tuesday, May 7, 2013 by Dan Simpson

Michael Pelletier, a veteran of 26 years in the Foreign Service, described himself as optimistic about developments in Africa. Half of the countries there were now under democratic rule. Seven of 10 of the economically fastest growing nations are in Africa. There is substantial technical advance. He perceived on the part of younger Africans a growing sense that "Governments work for us." The United States is seeking to spur the strengthening of political institutions in Africa.

Although the United States is paying more attention to Africa, it also continues to encourage the Africans to find "African solutions to African problems." During his April 29 briefing to members of the Association of Opinion Journalists, he cited the close attention that new Secretary of State John F. Kerry paid to the very important elections in Kenya.

Participants' questions sought to explore a somewhat less-optimistic view of African developments, including the aftermath of the Qadhafi overthrow, U.S. use of drones in Somalia and Mali, and the growing role of China. Pelletier defended what he saw as close coordination between the U.S. military (AFRICOM) and the State Department in Africa, saw no problem with AFRICOM being based in Germany and took a "there is room for all" approach to Chinese activities in Africa. Islamization he sees as a country-particular matter, not a general issue. He said he didn't know "who called whom" on the Susan Rice-Benghazi issue. 

  Dan Simpson is an associate editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade, writing daily editorials and a weekly column on international affairs, national politics or economics.

AOJ & Foundation to consider merger

Boards discuss uncertain future at spring meeting, alert members, seek nominees

Published Thursday, May 9, 2013 12:30 pm by C.Trejbal & ed. J. McClelland

At a joint meeting of the boards of the Association of Opinion Journalists and the AOJ Foundation, directors, trustees and executives decided to investigate a possible merger. They plan to engage the full membership in a conversation about the idea. Both boards agree, however, that this might be the best way to keep AOJ viable.

"AOJ is essentially insolvent," Foundation President David Holwerk of The Kettering Foundation said at the meeting on April 26 in Arlington, Va. The resources of the Foundation, if spent wisely, could fund AOJ for more than a decade, he predicted.

Holwerk and AOJ President Bob Davis of The Anniston (Ala.) Star sent a May 7 joint letter to all members that explains the situation. They hope to initiate a broad discussion (within hours, the members' online discussion list lit up with initial responses and conversation–ed.).

Discussing AOJ’s value, Director Carolyn Lumsden of The Hartford (Conn.) Courant said it is “a great place to get a quick study on issues ... [and] to share best practices and advice. This kind of organization, if it didn’t exist now, it would spring up. It’s really needed for people to share their best information.”

Foundation Trustee Marjorie Arons-Barron of Barron Assoc. Worldwide noted that AOJ is important to more than just its members. “The emphasis, whether we are talking about the information sharing, technology or the substantive issues, is to further civil discourse on issues of importance to the public,” she said. “It’s that emphasis on public service that informs what we do to develop ourselves professionally.”

Some of the discussion was speculation whether temporarily preserving AOJ would be the best use of the Foundation’s resources without a plan for long-term solvency.

After the discussion, the Foundation voted to allocate $5,000 to consult legal counsel and flesh out the implications of a merger. The research committee will try to finish its work by the end of the summer in hopes of possibly bringing a proposal to AOJ members for a vote at the national conventionin October.

After the joint meeting, the AOJ board met. Directors spent much of the meeting going over the budget and looking for ways to trim costs. Discussions are ongoing.

In other AOJ board activity:

  • The board received an update on the Oct. 13-15 national convention in Newport, R.I. (http://bit.ly/AOJConvention2013) Session topics are still being finalized, but they will split about 50-50 between those focused on craft and those focused on this year’s theme of water resources. The keynote speaker will be former New York Times President and CEO Janet Robinson.
  • Vice President Miriam Pepper of The Kansas City Star has been working with the University of Missouri to develop a database of letters that members could consult to identify "turf" more easily (with software similar to what academics use to help detect student plagiarism -ed.). They hope to launch soon.
  • Google has awarded AOJ a $10,000 monthly grant for advertising. A workgroup headed by Web Manager Thea Joselow will develop the ads and submit them to Google. They will appear alongside related Web search results.
  • AOJ’s 2013 Opinion Contest is accepting entries. Members and non-members may enter online at http://bit.ly/AOJContest2013. Note that the entry form may not be saved as work in progress. Gather all of your materials so that you can complete the form in one sitting. Deadline for entry is May 31.
  • Finally, the Leadership (nominating) Committee seeks candidates for the board*to serve a two-year term. Anyone interested should contact President Bob Davis.
Christian Trejbal is a member of the AOJ Board of Directors and is chairman of the open government committee. He is a freelance opinion writer based in Portland, Ore.

*AOJ bylawsspecify board membership and nomination process; leadership list

*"Turf" is letters-editor shorthand for spam-like fake grass-roots mail, less comparable to real reader mail than Astroturf is to real grass. This sort of form letter, often generated by special-interest groups, is a bane upon the field. It afflicts those who must cull, verify and reject or publish the glut of reader mail in the cyberworld, in addition to the real paper mail that still arrives at newspapers. One of the most useful activities of AOJ for these people and their leaders (and for untold readers!) is the members' discussion list and its long-established ability to alert other editors to this ...stuff. -JM

Community journalism is still 'funct'

Early career sense of connection lingers for professionals

Published Thursday, August 22, 2013 by Phineas Fiske (ed by J.McClelland)

Dave Holwerk’s recent e-mail seeking contributions of objects for the AOJ Foundation auction set me to thinking: What could I offer of interest to AOJ’s members and redolent of my retirement here on Cape Cod?

Across the room I spotted “Country Editor,” by Henry Beetle Hough, and its companions in the bookcase.

It was these books -- Hough’s narratives about life at the helm of The [Martha’s] Vineyard Gazette, just across Nantucket Sound -- that had persuaded me I wanted someday to be a country editor.

I came close: Jo and I nearly abandoned Newsday 20 years ago to buy the West County News, a tiny weekly in western Massachusetts. Venality intervened: We were convinced, by wiser heads, that it made no economic sense to sink our savings into a project that could pay us either a return on our investment, or a salary, but not both.

They were right, of course. And the West County News is now defunct.

Twenty or so years earlier, in the mid ‘60s, a group of coworkers had proposed buying the Provincetown [MA] Advocate, a weekly at the tip of Cape Cod, and installing me as the editor. We eventually decided it would cost too much: It came with the real estate it occupied, whose value far outstripped that of the paper, and so was beyond our reach.

We were right, of course. And the Provincetown Advocate is now defunct.

Not so the Vineyard Gazette, which remains as funct as they come.

I was prepared to sign off about here, with a resigned “Oh, well,” when the obvious struck me:

Much of what I had hoped to achieve, by being a country editor, I had in fact achieved in my first job at the now-defunct Manchester Herald, a small daily (circ. 12,000) in central Connecticut. I didn’t sell ads or set type, but I did find myself engaged in many sides of the life of the community, from town hall to Main Street, covering its present concerns and absorbing its past. I wrote about the ailing girl who desperately needed blood -- and gave some of my own. I reported, edited our rural correspondents, developed a column, wrote an occasional editorial. (And fell in love with editorial writing and the girl I would eventually marry.)

Manchester, Connecticut, became, somehow, my surrogate hometown.

But isn’t that the unique calling of a local newspaper of whatever magnitude or technological era -- to be engaged with its community, in all its needs, its triumphs, its tragedies?

Phineas Fiske wrote and edited editorials for Newsday for 25 years, retiring in 2004. He previously worked at The Washington Post, the Raleigh Times and the Manchester (CT) Evening Herald.

(Surely many of the old and not-so-old hands in AOJ have similarly nostalgic backgrounds, and many young journalists are having new versions of the joys and tribulations of community involvement. –JM)

'Real-time' (fast) editorials

Trend is to publish when ready to read, not when set for ink-on-paper

Published Friday, August 23, 2013 by J.McClelland

Not too long ago, daily newspaper editorial page people knew their work would appear only in print and only when the presses rolled. Then 1980s-90sshovelwaremeant the edited texts for a.m. papers would appear online sometime during the wee hours.

In recent years, opinion writing has become able to act like news reporting, appearing online as soon as it is ready, whatever “ready” means to editors or producers.

When the New York Times webcast its sharply worded editorial about mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner within hours of his statement, the “real-time” or almost-instant editorial became fodder for more conversation about whether, why, when, how….

The Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, did an extensive blog piece on the Weiner editorial and the fast-work trend.

Times editorial page editor and AOJ member Andy Rosenthal was quoted extensively in that blog, and he and several others had more to say on the AOJ members’ discussion list.

Common questions about relatively new things often are, “Is it working OK? Do you like doing it?”

Rosenthal said: “We've been happy with it. It's hard to do given people's schedules, and not every member of the board can produce an instant editorial, but enough of us can that it works. 

We've found for ourselves that it's most valuable to our readers when we do it into a really big story -- like Weiner, or Obama on race, or the NSA spying, etc. Other times, it doesn't make much difference. 

One interesting note: Social sites don't drive a huge amount of the traffic to nytimes.comin general or opinion in particular, but when we do a fast editorial on a big story, social is a huge driver of readers.”

Dick Hughes at the Salem (Ore.) Statesman-Journal, remembers just grabbing the ball from the techies: “I don't remember the year … probably in the mid-2000s. I'd been asking for an editorial blog and the online folks kept saying the software wasn't ready. While taking a shower one morning, I decided we'd have an editorial blog and it would be up and running by noon that day. It was.

We published summaries of what we planned to write about and whenever possible (i.e., we didn't forget), we published the draft editorials. Now that we're down to one person … in the editorial shop, I post the draft version that I send out to the editorial board for review. But I don't normally have time to post previews of what we're working on.”

Hughes said Pete Wasson in Wausau “might have been even earlier. I think I stole the idea from him.”

The Seattle Timesdid our first ‘breaking’ editorial July 2, 2008, when the Sonics basketball team was leaving Seattle for Oklahoma and have been doing them ever since when appropriate. Probably at least once every month or so,” said Kate Riley, editorial page editor there. “We also routinely publish next day print edits at about 4 p.m. daily since around 2008."

Tony Messenger, EPE at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said the timing decision varies, for choosing between posting editorials at about 4 p.m. on the day before print, vs. 6 a.m. or so on the day of print.

He added: “We go back and forth on a case by case basis. If social media is really active on the afternoon of a big story (or even a local legislative story), we'll often try to take advantage of that by posting in the afternoon when the piece is done and edited. But we don't do so every day.”

He inquired if anyone would share the results of systematically tracking the results of such decisions. “Anecdotally,” he said, “there are times when the early morning post, I think, works better, because we push it out when people are engaged on social media.”

Gary Crooks, associate editor of the Spokane Spokesman-Review, quoted Riley quoting Sullivan quoting Rosenthal: “This practice requires fast decision-making followed by fast writing, fact-checking and editing. We compress and speed up the process.”

Crooks added, “Sounds like every day here.”

Carolyn Lumsden, editorial page editor of the Hartford Courant, said: “We try to turn out editorials on really important breaking local news within hours -- certainly the same day. Hard to estimate how often, but feels like there's one every week lately.

We also try to append a note to editorials as they get changed, to explain why -- new information, etc. Don't always remember in the rush, however.”

At the Dallas Morning News, Keven Willey said immediate posting has occurred “for years.” She mentioned as recent examples the Supreme Court rulings on Voting Rights Act and gay marriage cases, Oklahoma tornados, airline mergers, a local hospital story that broke at 3 p.m. leading to an editorial online by 6, and the same-day comment on the DMN’s disclosure of presumed presidential candidate U.S. Sen.Ted Cruz’s dual citizenship.

She added, “Suffice it to say, these are becoming more and more commonplace.” 

Shovelware: often-derogatory term for digital content that is merely dumped or shoveled from a medium’s production system into its website, usually with no changes except automated reformatting via a template. Some variants of the definition:

  • websters-online-dictionary.org/definitions/shovelware?cx=... Shovelware is a derogatory computer jargon term that refers to software noted more for the quantity of what is included than for the quality or usefulness.
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shovelware In console gaming Shovelware is a derogatory computer jargon term that refers to software noted more for the quantity of what is included than for the quality or usefulness. The term ...
  • dictionary.reference.com/browse/shovelware Extra software dumped onto a CD-ROM or tape to fill up the remaining space on the medium after the software distribution ...
  • www.thefreedictionary.com 1. An article of commerce. 2. An immaterial asset or benefit, such as a service or personal accomplishment, regarded as an article of commerce.
  • whatis.techtarget.com/definition/shovelware Shovelware is content taken from any source and put on the Web as fast as possible with little regard for appearance and usability.

Online discussion list serves well

New standing webpage describes the members-only benefit and aids getting signed in

Published Saturday, August 24, 2013 by J.McClelland

Imagine being able to chat with your peers in editorial offices, or wherever they work in the cyberworld, in a friendly, mutually supportive, informative, useful and sometimes humorous setting that is not exposed to the trolls and flamers who lurk and intrude on the open Web.

The NCEW- and now AOJ discussion list has been doing that for members since about the turn of the century.

Social log-in deters trolls' comments

Editors find Facebook link reduces vitriol in responses to letters

Published Saturday, August 24, 2013 by B.McGoun ed by J.McClelland

(This is part of a package updating AOJ’s interest in ways to reduce the incivility and other evils that intrude into online comments by readers. It focuses on Facebook and letters, but other social media services have been used for commenter screening by some websites, and the issues apply to other sections of newspapers and electronic media sites as well.)

Facebook has had a civilizing influence on online comments about letters to the editor, in the view of those commenting in a recent on-line exchange*.

Two years ago, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, Gannett, switched all comments onto Facebook, after a test in four markets that showed, among other things, “increased civility in comment threads,” according to the Gannett blog

Other papers have done the same. Robert Price, editorial page editor of the Bakersfield Californian, was curious about the experience. “We post editorials, staff columns and most op-eds on our Facebook page but not letters to the editor,” he wrote in an inquiry to the AOJ members’ online discussion list.* 

We long ago decided not to allow story commenting on letters on our website because we felt ordinary folks shouldn't be subjected to abuse from anonymous harassers.

But posting letters on Facebook would force the trolls to identify themselves, sort of. Does anyone post letters Facebook? Why/why not?”

Several members replied.

We post letters on our website and allow Facebook comments. Much more civilized than the previous, anonymous comments,” wrote Karen Nolan, opinion page editor of The Reporter in Vacaville, Calif. “Also, it's nice for the writers to be able to respond to the comments or letters commenting on their letter, which they wouldn't be able to do in print.” 

Yes, we post them on Facebook, with the caveat that they are letters,” wrote Susan Parker, editorial page editor of The Daily Timesin Salisbury, Md. “We've never had a complaint, and rarely do they even draw comments, even on Facebook.

I suspect many of the older writers are not even on Facebook, and some of the regular letter writers are online anyhow and take it as a matter of course.”

Another way to encourage civility is with a paywall, according to Larry Reisman, editorial page editor of the Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers in Florida. “Our comments are far more civilized now that all of our letters are paid content. Fewer, but better comments. Our website's Facebook page is loaded already, but it's a good idea.” 

My experience with the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times is that of a spirited and diverse community where a lot of people have strong opinions and are prepared to express them both in letters to the editor and in online comments on those letters. A recent letter supporting the state’s new voter ID law drew 37 comments. 

As for civility, even with Facebook some comments stretch the limits. One commenter suggested a supporter of the law might be “a secret KuKluxer” and another wondered if liberals were “deliberately stupid.” One exchange had both sides suggesting the other should leave the state.

Still, this represents an improvement over the pre-Facebook days, according to Editorial Page Editor Jim Buchanan. He wrote, “I'd say the civility, while not always that civil, is far better than the pre-Facebook era of anonymous posters.”

Bill McGoun is a retired editorial writer for The Palm Beach Post. His free-lance writing includes work as a contributing editor for the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times. He is the author of seven published books and holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Florida.

Remembering Kenneth Rystrom, Jr.

Published Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Kenneth F. Rystrom, Jr., 81, former editor of The Columbian (Vancouver, WA) editorial page and retired journalism professor, died in Eugene, Oregon, on August 4, 2013, from complications of a stroke six months earlier. Until shortly before his death he had lived in Florence, OR, to be near his children and grandchildren.

He was born in Bayard Nebraska to Kenneth Rystrom, Sr, and Zella Rystrom (ne’ Borland). Ken published his first newspaper on a toy printing press and received a reprimand from his kindergarten teacher for interviewing the girls for his paper. For a few years in the 1940s, he published the Chimney Rock Press, and learned to be a printer on the Bayard paper. He became an Eagle Scout. In 1954 he was graduated with a journalism degree and high honors from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, where he was named to the honorary Innocents Society, and edited The Daily Nebraskan. He was a Phi Beta Kappa, member of several honorary societies and of Kappa Sigma. He received his Master’s in Political Science from University of California, Berkeley, the following year and then served in Korea in the US Army.

He began his adult newspaper career in Vancouver, WA, in 1956, at The Columbian and became an editorial writer for the Des Moines Register and Tribune from 1960-64, moving back to Vancouver to lead The Columbian’s editorial page. He received numerous awards for his writing and founded an organization of learning and mutual support for editorial writers in Washington and Oregon. He joined the Mazamas, climbed all but one of the Cascade Mountains, and was an avid backpacker who always had his 1959 wooden mountaineering axe with him.

Rystrom served as president of the National Conference of Editorial Writers (now known as the Association of Opinion Journalists) in 1974 and was named a life member. He contributed a history of the organization to the website, and often wrote for The Masthead, the organization’s journal. At the suggestion of the NCEW board, he wrote four editions of “The Why, Who and How of the Editorial Page,” the first textbook specifically for editorial writers. He was in the process of finishing the fifth edition, a daunting task considering changes in the newspaper industry. Ken also wrote The Beach-Combers Guide to the Oregon Coast (1992).

Ken left the newspaper field for academe in 1977 and received his PhD in political science from the University of Southern California in 1983. He taught editorial writing and other journalism courses at University of Redlands (CA), and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg, VA, until his retirement in 1997.

He supported the Presbyterian Church wherever he lived, as a ruling elder and choir member. He was an active member of the American Amateur Press Association, publishing the Sea Watch Press, a successor to his original publication in Nebraska some seventy years earlier. In Florence, Rystrom joined SOLV and had a mile of the Oregon Coast beach to monitor. He was a longtime Kiwanian. And most special, he performed witah The Last Resort Players theater group where he enjoyed acting and being directed by his partner Patricia Romanov. 

While living in Florence, Oregon, Ken helped found the Heceta Head Coastal Conference.  It is now going to have its 9th conference. The Conference focuses on the ocean and marine life. His love of the coast inspired him to be active in the Ocean Shores Conservation Coalition.  He had his mile of Oregon coast which he monitored and published and distributed their newsletter. 

Dr. Rystrom is survived by a sister, Barbara Rystrom Pyle; daughters Anne McCoy, Margaret Rystrom and Vicki Rystrom; grandchildren Jason and Bruce Walker, Jennifer and Randall Rystrom, Samuel, Emily, Charles and Cora McCoy, and two great-grandchildren; his partner, Patricia Romanov, and former wife Sally Hall Petersen. 

Deep Background, Or Not?

State Dept. requests create dilemma for briefing attendees -- and AOJ; comments invited

Published Friday, August 30, 2013 by C.Lumsden ed J.McClelland

The spring State Department briefing is unique, as AOJ President Bob Davis has written: “We can't think of another government agency that offers our members this type of valuable access to key personnel.”

This year, though, that ringside seat to history got uncomfortable.

Twenty AOJ members heard from Secretary of State John Kerry and high-ranking officials on Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Russia, foreign aid and more.

One speaker, however, surprised the group by announcing that he was going on “deep background” for his entire talk. This was despite State’s agreement to keep as much of the briefing on the record as possible. Another official didn’t want his name used.

And later, State said the transcripts of the talks it provided should “not be posted online or in any publication.” This was also a surprise, especially since AOJ members had freely tweeted remarks.

Bob Davis protested these retrospective rule changes by letter, pointing out that “while we appreciate the inside knowledge from State Department officials, if served with background-only rules the information loses much of its value to editorial writers.” 

He also expressed dismay that Secretary Kerry wouldn’t take questions: “I'm sorry to report it puts the secretary in uncomfortable company; the only other speaker in recent memory who declined to take questions was Texas Gov. Rick Perry.”

This episode raises a few questions:

  1. Should AOJ refuse to participate in any deep-background briefings?  (Not to mention off-the-record ones? See definitions later on.)
  2. Or should AOJ go along on the grounds that they may yield enlightening information that speakers wouldn’t otherwise share?
  3. Should AOJ push for another way? I like John Bersia’s suggestion to hold background briefings, if State insists on having one or two, at the end of the day, so members have the option of participating or not.

Jonathan Gurwitz, who has organized many NCEW-AOJ State Department briefings, said the only entire session he could remember being off the record was with Richard Holbrooke, and “we conceded that one under duress. I think it was well worth it for our understanding of the political dynamics in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But, frankly, most of what he said could easily have been on the record.”

Gurwitz continued: “Maybe your deep background speaker this year was another Holbrooke. Maybe he talked at length about personalities and relationships in a way that, if made public, would compromise U.S. diplomacy. Those were the sensitive parts of Holbrooke's briefing, and represent most of the anecdotes when speakers have gone off the record. But government is in the business of trying to keep secrets, often for no good reason, and journalists shouldn't be complacent about pulling back the veil of secrecy.

He’s right, we shouldn’t be complacent. So should we say “no way” if speakers announce they’re going entirely on deep background?

Before the April briefing, I had written a State Department staffer to make clear that “briefings are on the record unless speakers make clear they want to go off. That’s fine, but we’d like to get them back on as soon as possible.”

The staffer replied that “all our briefings (including Secretary Kerry’s) are on-the-record. [One presenter] has indicated that he may request to go on background for some portions of his talk. He will clarify on Monday.” That presenter clarified at the briefing by announcing his talk was “deep background” and for the whole duration.

Later, there were questions about what he meant by “deep background.” A State spokeswoman emailed a detailed definition (http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/17191.htm):

The source cannot be quoted or identified in any manner, not even as ‘an unnamed source.’ The information is usually couched in such phrases as ‘it is understood that’ or ‘it has been learned.’ The information may be used to help present the story or to gain a better understanding of the subject, but the knowledge is that of the reporter, not the source. No information provided may be used in the story. The information is only for the reporter's background knowledge.”

(None of the presenters, by the way, went off the record, as Richard Holbrooke had. State defines that thusly: “Nothing of what the journalist is told may be used in the story. The information is meant only for the education of the reporter.”)

Was the briefing we got in April so valuable as to sacrifice the speaker’s name and information? Reaction was mixed: Some felt he didn’t say anything new, and others felt that “deep background” may have been the only way to get him to talk to us.

At next year’s State Department briefing, we may very well face this dilemma again. I’m looking forward to hearing members’ thoughts on this vexing issue.

Carolyn Lumsden, editorial page editor of the Hartford Courant, is co-chair, with John Bersia, of the AOJ’s international affairs committee.

Study: vile commenters do offend

Trolls cut moderate readers' participation; value of local focus restated in letters survey

Published Friday, August 30, 2013 by J.McClelland

Managing reader comments on opinion pieces “is similar to but distinct from [handling] letters to the editor,” according to one 2012 peer-reviewed academic study.

Herding reader comments into print” by Kathleen McElroy reviewed several pieces of earlier academic research, examined content of a sampling of published comments and interviewed journalists who chose the comments.

She found “a gatekeeping process shaping this hybrid site of public discourse.”

One part of her study said: “Journalists and other audience members view opinionated user-generated content like reader comments with distrust because they are ‘the domain of people who hold extreme and often unpalatable political views’,” and continued quoting an earlier study that found moderate readers avoiding exposure to ranters, thus leaving much of the discourse to the extremists.

The samples examined were from these publications (n=… is the number of items examined):

  • Larger-circulation publications (more than 100,000 daily):
    • Austin American-Statesman: From Our Readers, Sunday (n=43)
    • Buffalo News: Blogzerpts, Sunday Opinion (n=32)
    • New York Times: Metropolitan, Readers Comment, Sunday (n=39)
    • Washington Post: PostLocal, throughout the week (n=34)
  • Smaller-circulation publications (fewer than 100,00 daily):
    • Bluefield Daily Telegraph (West Virginia): News and views, Monday (n=65)
    • Meadville Tribune (Pennsylvania): Dot Comments, Thursday (n=30)
    • News Courier (Athens, Alabama): What’s happening on the News Courier’s
    • Facebook page, Wednesday (n=32)
    • Oakland Press (Pontiac, Michigan): What You’re Saying, daily (n=34)

McElroy touched on national issues in the comments, but focused one passage thus: “Otherwise local issues like city budgets and school funding were prominent topics, and local commenters dominated the features,” supporting a 2002 study’s assertion of “the importance of local relevance in regard to letters to the editor, especially in smaller communities.”

Yup, she told fellow academics some things working editors in AOJ have been saying. Even so, doesn’t it feel different to have been studied, eh? --JM

To download the entire 29-page study as a pdf: use http://research.allacademic.com/index.php and search for "herding reader comments."

John McClelland spent half a career in newspapers and half teaching journalism at Roosevelt University in Chicago. Kathleen McElroy is a third-year doctoral student at the University of Texas in Austin; she was an editor at the New York Times 1991-2011, with prior experience at Newsday and in Austin, Huntsville and Bryan-College Station.

Edit-page blog no longer 'like skydiving naked'

Dallas site's pioneer reflects on decade-plus; with link to tips; others' views

Published Wednesday, September 4, 2013 by J.McClelland

Gosh, are editorial-page blogs already more than a decade old? Yup.

Keven Ann Willey, blog-pioneering editorial page editor at the Dallas Morning News, has said starting an online interaction with readers back then felt like “skydiving naked.”

It’s not so intimidating now, she said recently, but reviewing old memos was an eye-opener. The newfangled “web log” was a hard sell back then. 

This summer, the Morning News celebrated the nation’s first edit-page blog’s 10th anniversary. 

Willey wrote in July 2013: “After all, the whole idea of a blog is the immediacy of communication to a broad audience. This meant empowering writers to post to the blog without editors peering over their shoulders.

You’d have thought we were proposing skydiving naked. In some ways, we were.

From the beginning, our blog had two main purposes: To explain, or make more transparent, the editorial board’s thought process. And to engage more directly with readers.”

Her blog said big changes have included heightened interactivity, as readers now can use the comments section instead of having to email the author. (more related documents)

Blog readership grew from 5,000 hits total the first day, July 20, 2003, until today when some single postings get several times that many page views. She said, “Our goal is to grow an engaged audience of readers with special emphasis on local.”

One theme of her recent comments is, “I no longer have to argue that blogging isn’t a passing fad. Or that it’s real journalism. Or that readers care.” 

Happy blog-iversary

Recent posts on the members-only AOJ discussion list about editorial page blogging congratulated Willey on the anniversary. Although some of the blogs go back several years, none of their producers claimed to have started sooner than Dallas.

They included this from one of the list’s most prolific commenters, Jay Jochnowitz at the Albany Times-Union. He said, “The blog, which is called The Observation Deck, started Sept. 1, 2009.”

As he was becoming editorial page editor in 2008, one of his missions was to get a blog going.

He said the Times Union’s earlier blog on state politics had rapidly grown into the paper’s top blog, “thanks more to some outstanding, tireless reporters than to me.”

Of Observation Deck, he said recently, “The blog remains a work in progress… We post the daily editorial(s), and developed a feature called ‘Webviews,’ usually three daily blurbs... We ‘repurpose’ those in print as a series of what you might call opinion briefs; readers can then go to the blog for the links.”

The blog once had longer staff pieces, which faded with staff cutbacks.

Jochnowitz said, “We have been able to maintain the Webviews feature for most of the year by engaging high school students enrolled in a newspapers-in-education program that the paper sponsors. The benefit for the students is to explore the web for well-reasoned opinion and to learn how to summarize sometimes complex issues in a couple of sentences.”

He said the regular commenters also tend to show up on other blogs on the paper’s site, “But when a big issue, such as gun control or abortion, comes along, the comments pour in, so I know we’re being read.”

The blog is moderated,  he said: “I do hold commenters to some clear standards when it comes to foul language and personal attacks. It took time but they’ve mostly gotten the message: Whatever the other blogs on or off the paper do, this one insists on civility.”

Another who started edit-board blogging in 2009 (June 8) is Greg Peck of the Janesville (Wisc.) Gazette. Emphasizing interactivity, the blog is called “My Opinion Matters.”

Others who responded to the closed list said their edit boards' blogs, of various vintages, are still evolving.


  • Other related resources: 
    • 2013 DMN Editorial
    • Willey's memos and tips from the start-up era and since:
    • Tips for edit bloggers (used in NCEW regional conferences)
    • Full fall 2003 Nieman Reports article
    • Entire DMN memo (image above right)
    • Ten myths and one truth about blogging
    • DMN memo reviewing blog's early months with tips
    • This link lets AOJ members log in for access to that members-only material. If it doesn't work, try pasting the URL below into your browser.
      • An AOJ member without a log-in to the AOJ website may request one from staff via a concise email to AOJ@pa-news.org.

(c) The author and her employer hold copyright to the materials accessed via this link. She has shared some of them with previous NCEW workshops and has granted AOJ members access for personal, educational and in-house use; attribution or acknowledgement in derivatives is optional and encouraged.

AOJ board & officer nominees-candidates 2013

Slate for election at convention and by advance absentee ballot

Published Thursday, September 5, 2013 4:00 pm by Nominees, ed J.McClelland

As usual, AOJ will elect three board members and a future president at the annual convention's business meeting.

The meeting is set for 4 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013, at the Hyatt Regency, 1 Goat Island, Newport, R.I.

The nominating committee's recommended candidates provided the statements below.

For secretary-treasurer, on "the ladder" for president,Carolyn Lumsden 

Carolyn Lumsden has been editorial page editor of the Hartford Courant since 2007. In her two decades with the Courant, she’s also served as op-ed editor and editorial writer.

She would bring previous board experience to the AOJ. She’s a former president of the (alas, no longer with us) Association of Opinion Page Editors and organized the AOPE’s 2003 conference at UConn. It included Gail Collins, Paul Gigot and Henry Kissinger. She also organized this spring’s State Department briefing for the AOJ.

Carolyn began her career as a copy editor with Random House. She has a bachelor’s from BU, a master’s in journalism from Stanford and a master’s in legal studies from Yale Law School (thanks to a Knight Foundation fellowship). She’s been honored with, among others, the national Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists for her writing.

The smartest thing Carolyn ever did was to marry Francesco Martini, an Italian with a sunny disposition and a house in Tuscany. Most every summer, they spend a magical few weeks there.

For directorJeff Charis-Carlson 

I've been running a one-person opinion shop for the Iowa City Press-Citizen since 2006. In that time, I've worked to facilitate civil-minded conversation about controversial topics in one of the most highly educated and opinionated communities in the nation.

At first, my job description was very clear: make sure our printed opinion section serves as a microcosm of the broader community. Online was important, but at the time it didn't really get everyone on the same page as powerfully as print did. It didn't force contrasting and divergent opinions to appear side-by-side in letters and columns. It didn't allow those opinions to intersect each other - at times almost burn against each other.

Technology has evolved and whatever power there was in being literally on the same page in print has gone virtual. The conversation has become immediate, the format has become interactive, and the potential audience for even a small-town newspaper has grown exponentially.

Yet the core of the job hasn't changed. Opinion journalists still can play an important role in facilitating local and national conversation. And the Association of Opinion Journalists needs to be ready to show them how to do just that in any format.

For director: Roy Maynard 

I'm Roy Maynard, editorial page editor at the Tyler Morning Telegraph. I've been with the TMT for more than 10 years now.

I'm also a teacher and coach for a high school cross-examination debate squad (we've sent students to Nationals for eight of the last 10 years). As my two vocations show, I'm very interested in argumentation.

On my own page, I advocate civility and reasoned discussion of the issues of the day. I've helped with the AOJ's civility project for several years now, and I'd like to continue working on that.

I'm also interested in exploring, with the group, how we can keep being leaders of the conversations, in this new digital environment.

For director: Dale McFeaters 

I decided to go into newspapers when I was 5 or 6 and accompanied my reporter-father doing do a second-day story on a fire that destroyed the city's largest railroad station and its warehouses. I got to climb on fire engines, wear the chief's helmet and revel in the smoldering wreckage that so appeals to a boy. (No one was hurt.)

I edited my college paper, had a wonderful three years in the Peace Corps and returned to Pittsburgh for a job at the Press, where I did anniversaries, obits (an early introduction to the Balkans in an ethnic city), police shorts, rewrite (which I loved) and finally general assignment. I was sent to Scripps Howard's Washington bureau, where I have been ever since -- as regional reporter, labor writer (back when unions meant something), special assignments, features editor, assistant managing editor/news, managing editor and finally editorial writer.

I joined NCEW (AOJ) in 2005 when Kay Semion, she of blessed memory, was president and Kate Riley -- blessedly still  among us -- was my introductory angel. Frankly, over the years I have gotten far more out of the organization than I have contributed.

The economy has not been kind, but given the cascade of tripe that passes for opinion journalism, especially on the web, the need for our organization with its strong sense of mission and clear standards has never been greater. We have been handed a trust that we want to pass on, maybe a little dented, but fundamentally sound. The supply of dunderheads is unlimited; the supply of good people to expose them is up to us.

As my company says, "Give the people light . . ."

For director: Tony Messenger 

I love journalism. I believe in our business. I believe editorials matter and that we're as important as we've ever been.

A few weeks ago I got into a little Twitter argument with a national political reporter who alleged that few opinion pages have “juice” anymore. It was an ignorant comment from somebody who has no idea how much influence we have daily in our home communities. Perhaps, in a small way, I think the board of AOJ can help make sure that the rest of the business (including those dreaded bean-counters) knows how important we are.

I relish the conversations we have among ourselves, sharing best practices and daily struggles, and I'd be honored to be a stronger part of an organization that supports all of our work. I have been active in social media and digital advancements in the journalism field and hope my experience there can be helpful to others in the organization.

About me: I've been the editorial page editor at the Post-Dispatch since July 2012, having served as a member of the editorial board for a year and a half before that. I started work at the Post-Dispatch in March 2008 as a political columnist and legislative reporter in the Missouri Capitol bureau. Previously, I was editorial page editor at the Springfield News-Leader, and a metro columnist and city editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune. My career started in 1989 at a small weekly newspaper in Colorado (my home state), and I've also worked as a reporter, editor and publisher in South Dakota, Nebraska and Arizona.

Finally, I once used a quote from David Holwerk in a cover letter when applying for a job. I don't remember the quote but I got the job. Mostly, I included that so David will vote for me.

See you in Rhode Island.

 Absentee ballots:

Members who can't be present to vote at the Tuesday, October 15, business meeting may request an absentee ballot by e-mailing AOJ Manager Lisa Strohl at aoj@pa-news.org. Completed absentee ballots must be received at the AOJ Main Office no later than Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013,

Miriam Pepper of the Kansas City Star is vice-president and president-elect; Kate Riley of the Seattle Times is secretary-treasurer and vice-president-elect.

Pulitzer Prize leader seeks more entries

Letter encourages small-medium outlets, multimedia supplements

Published Thursday, September 19, 2013 by J.McClelland

The chairman of the Pulitzer Prize Board is actively seeking an increase from last year's 54 editorial-writing entries and encouraging smaller media to enter.

Paul Tash's letter to "Dear Colleagues" via AOJ's president, Bob Davis, has been shared in full with members of the AOJ members' online discussion list and now becomes available to AOJ members who log in to the the AOJ website. (direct link to letter, with link to tips for preparing entries)

Here are some of the highlights:

"For 97 years," Tash wrote, "the Pulitzer Prizes have recognized excellence in American editorial writing. … vividly expressing the institutional opinion of publications large and small … [on issues] from Main Street to the White House....

"[W]e want to renew our dedication to high-quality editorial writing and to seek broader participation in the category, especially among small and medium-size newspapers and news sites."

He tried to dispell common misconceptions, such as a crowded field or a preference for a concerted campaign that got results. Rather, he said, the board wants thoughtful, well-crafted writing that inspires public discourse.

"We’ve been refining our rules to make that distinction more emphatic than ever to entrants and to jurors," he wrote.

Small media, he said, "can zero in on important community issues, drawing on your local expertise and insight."

He said the primary judging emphasis remains on the quality of the writing, but multimedia or other journalistic tools can help persuade the audience.

Entries of 2013 work are due digitally by Jan. 25, 2014.

Hispanics lead just 5 metro ed-pages

Large minority has small role in mainstream newspaper opinion leadership

Published Friday, October 11, 2013 5:00 pm by John McClelland

Some of us on the AOJ members-only discussion list were appalled but not surprised when AOJ diversity chair Richard Prince said he had found only five persons of apparent Hispanic ancestry serving as opinion-page editors of substantial U.S. dailies.

He quoted one, Arnold Garcia. Prince wrote: “The Newspaper Association of America lists 1,382 daily newspapers in the United States. Arnold's comment: ‘Doesn’t say much for recruitment efforts, does it?’”

Media industries have been slow generally, since beginning to diversify purposefully in the (gulp!) 1960s. So now we wondered why so few of one of the most numerous and rapidly growing minorities are in key leadership roles in U.S. editorial floors. That’s too broad and deep an issue for this package, but we thought there would be good tales among the success stories. Perhaps a spark to discussion?

This started with a seemingly routine query related to the waning weeks of Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. But it struck a nerve. So we asked the five to share a bit of what their world is like, to run before the AOJ convention Oct. 13-15.

We suggested that they comment on highlights, lowlights, speed-bumps on the way to the EPE job, how cultural backgrounds affect this or other forms of journalism, and so on. These understandably busy people didn’t know us from Adam, but all responded well. Thanks. 

Myriam Marquez, Miami Herald:

Overseeing the Miami Herald Editorial Board for such a dynamic and evolving metropolitan area is a dream job with all the challenges that legacy news operations face: attracting readers when there are so many choices out there.

I am the first woman and Hispanic to run the board, which adds another pressure point in this multicultural community. We strive to gain readers’ trust at a time when their governmental and civic institutions are too often in disarray and public opinion is divided. It helped that I arrived at this job in my “home town” after working in the Herald newsroom as deputy metro editor almost eight years ago.

Before that, I spent 18 years on the editorial board of the Orlando Sentinel and my last year there as enterprise editor. Not many opinion writers go back into straight news, but it was a challenge I welcomed, using a different side of the brain to focus on breaking news and enterprise. The years on the editorial board paid off in helping reporters spot policy issues that could be turned into enterprise stories with heft.

Now back on the opinion side, I relish the opportunities to move swiftly on issues in the news, generating diverse opinions for our pages in print, online and for video.

The job has changed dramatically since I first started on an ed board, but the mission remains the same: To serve as the community’s sounding board and speak truth to power.

Arnold Garcia, Austin American-Statesman:

I’ve always considered myself fortunate that I didn’t know a lot of things. I didn’t know at the outset of my 40 plus years in this racket that minorities were few and not universally welcomed with open arms. I didn’t know that there were even fewer minorities writing editorials on daily newspapers of 100,000 plus circulation. 

I didn’t know that much of the business is learned from the experience of the old timers. As it turned out, some were generous with the lessons, and others reserved their mentoring for rookies who looked like them.

Because I didn’t know to expect help, I was pleased when it was offered but never disappointed when it wasn’t. I wasn’t a school-trained journalist, so I didn’t really learn “the rules.”

I learned by doing how to use, or work around, stereotypes to gather information. Minorities grow up knowing that “invisible people” – secretaries, janitors, clerks and other service people – are the ones who really know what’s going on and are only too happy to share their knowledge – especially with reporters who not only look like them but pay attention to them.

Minorities learn to test assumptions because wrong assumptions carry a heavy toll. And mostly, minorities learn to expect pushback when you express an opinion. 

What I didn’t know I had to find out -- and sometimes the hard way. It was in so many ways, perfect training for this job.

(Garcia later emailed that his retirement will occur later this year. After how long in the job? He replied, "I've been the piñata for 22 years.")

Arnold García Retiring as Opinion Editor in Austin http://bit.ly/16sUYmb

John Diaz, San Francisco Chronicle: 

I worry about the decline in diversity in newspapers generally, and on opinion pages specifically.

Our coverage and approach to issues is inherently broadened and enriched by our life experiences. My grandparents immigrated from Peru in the late 1920s, and their history, struggles and perseverance had a profound influence on me, even as I grew up in the relative comfort of the Bay Area suburbs.

I know these sensibilities shaped everything from my work ethic to my appreciation of cultural differences. It unquestionably plays into my view of everything from federal immigration reform to recently signed state legislation on domestic workers' rights. (My single-parent grandmother worked for years as a domestic).

Today, I remain active in the National Association of Hispanic Journalists partly out of my commitment to help nurture and inspire journalism students to bring a new generation of Latinos into the profession. Their perspective is going to be only more important with the nation's changing demographics.

Mariel Garza, Los Angeles Daily News 

I don’t think a great deal about my Latino-ness in relation to my work, or even my life. I am who I am -- and that’s a Californian whose family is connected -- still, in my case -- to Mexico.

It makes me more common than not on the streets of L.A. But it does seem to matter a great deal to other people  -- both in a negative and positive way. Though I definitely notice less of the positive and more of the negative in recent years.

When I was recruited  to the board of the L.A. Daily News as a writer and columnist in 2003, I know that my ethnicity was a factor. But it didn’t make me the “hispanic” writer.  I wrote mostly about local and state politics, which is what I wrote about as a reporter.

And often my columns would provoke letters. Sadly, there were many of the “go back to Mexico” variety, as in: “You’re wrong about this topic, and by the way, you should go back to where you came from,” or, “What you say doesn’t count because you’re probably just here because of affirmative action.”

It was a terrible revelation for me, as I had never been the subject of such naked discrimination. This is the 21st century in Southern California!

On the flip side, I know there are people who see a Mexican (and perhaps, female) name on the masthead as a positive thing, inspiration or progress.  It balances out.

Brian Calle, Orange County Register, by email:

For me, and my road to my position, I've been embraced every step of the way. Most people do not realize I am Hispanic until we get into a discussion about my last name or I tell a story about myself,  so I did not endure any bumps. When people find out that I have some Latin roots they tend to get more excited and intrigued, if anything. I'd say what's caused me the biggest bumps and stories is my age/youth. 

Some event-related sites: 

Focus on readers’ values’

AOJ workshop hears alternatives to yes-no approach

Published Sunday, October 13, 2013 by Phineas Fiske, ed J.McClelland

So you write some editorials on a pressing local issue, calling on the community to act, and what happens? Nothing. At least, all too often, that is the case, David Holwerk said of his 21 years of experience writing or overseeing newspaper editorials.

Now Holwerk is a resident scholar at the Kettering Foundation, directing his efforts in part at looking for ways to foster democracy by making civic discourse work -- a goal that the participants at the Sunday afternoon workshop at AOJ’s 2013 convention agreed mesh nicely with what writing editorials is all about.

So what do you do, to get that public discourse going? How do you deal with issues seemingly so polarizing that they leave the community unable to resolve them?

Holwerk and Kettering have some ideas:

Describe the issues in terms and ways that people care about -- not the way the officials and the experts tend to think and talk about them. Jargon does not connect with readers. Expressing things in the same words (and presumably ideas) that your readers use has a better chance of getting their attention and involvement.

Identifying something that citizens can actually do is more likely to involve them than simply restating the issues the community faces.

Then frame those issues so they aren’t in simple this-or-that terms. Intractable conflicts are likely to involve a clash of values: Identify those values so that citizens can understand what the community must sacrifice if one solution is adopted over another. That’s more likely to lead to common ground, to allow people to identify acceptable trade-offs.

Say, the state wants to build a new freeway. The experts pick a right of way that maximizes traffic efficiency. People in its path say it will demolish their homes and destroy their neighborhood. When “maximum efficiency” meets “demolish a home,” there’s no question about which concept is easier for the average reader to grasp.

But cast the experts’ choice in practical terms -- more time sitting in traffic, or more speeding cars cutting through residential neighborhoods, or worsening air quality -- and the trade-offs become more real.

Looking back on his own editorializing career, Holwerk said, he could see times when the approach that his work at Kettering now suggests were the more successful, even if he wasn’t consciously adopting them then.

Some issues aren’t susceptible to that kind of approach, he acknowledged. Sometimes, conflicting values may be so firmly held they can’t be reconciled. And sometimes, “fang and claw” editorials that demolish the opposition and its arguments are best.

But in general, Holwerk said, editorials work when their authors are writing about things people value.

Phineas Fiske wrote and edited editorials for Newsday for 25 years, retiring in 2004. He previously worked at The Washington Post, the Raleigh Times and the Manchester (CT) Evening Herald.

Boards: Merger might be hard

AOJ and Foundation leaders discuss financial future, other matters

Published Monday, October 14, 2013 by Chris Trejbal; ed J.McClelland

The boards of the Association of Opinion Journalists and the AOJ Foundation discussed AOJ's future at their meetings on Sunday, Oct. 13, in Newport, R.I. AOJ's financial situation remains troubled, and a merger of the two organization might prove more difficult than board members had hoped.

AOJ continues to run a deficit, despite cutting spending earlier this year. Without a turn-around, it will be insolvent in only a few years.

The two boards began investigating the possibility of a merger at their spring meetings in Washington, D.C. The Foundation has sufficient unrestricted assets to keep AOJ operational for several years, and a merger would eliminate some duplicate expenses such as those for professional management and auditing.

This summer, AOJ Vice President Miriam Pepper of the Kansas City Star sought advice from a Kansas City law firm. In a letter, the firm cautioned that the Internal Revenue Service might question a merger.

AOJ is a 501(c)(6) entity, the classification for business leagues. The Foundation is a 501(c)(3) entity, the classification for educational organizations. The rules for the two differ.

"The IRS is usually suspicious about these changes in operation," the firm wrote. It warned that the IRS is on the lookout for one type of organization masquerading as another, and if the existing membership were retained after a merger, it could "intensify the IRS's suspicions."

AOJ and Foundation leadership teams will continue to investigate the options and costs. One additional concern is that AOJ and the Foundation could spend a few thousand dollars on some sort of merger only to have the IRS reject it at the end of the process.

"This seemingly straightforward idea is not nearly so straightforward," Foundation President David Holwerk of The Kettering Foundation said.

Members of both boards also discussed what their missions should be going forward. The Foundation's unrestricted funds could keep AOJ afloat for no more than 10 years at current spending and revenue levels.

Some members noted that this could buy precious time to develop a plan for long-term viability. Others questioned whether this was the best use of the Foundation's resources.

Both boards hope members will share their views about the future of AOJ during the convention and afterward.

In other business:

  • Trustees: The Foundation board unanimously indicated that it would appoint David Haynes of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to serve as a trustee. Two more trustee seats will open at the end of the year when the terms of Marjorie Arons-Barron of Barron Assoc. Worldwide, Inc. and Neil Heinen of WISC-TV expire.
  • Minority Writers: The Foundation endowment for the Minority Writers Seminar is approaching $500,000. "This has been the holy grail for a long time," Heinen said.
  • Next convention: AOJ President Bob Davis of The Anniston Star reported on plans for the 2014 convention to be held in Mobile, Ala. The theme will be simply "opinion journalism," and the convention will focus on opinion craft.
  • Invitation: Foundation trustee Gene Policinski of the First Amendment Center offered to host the 2015 conference at the center in Nashville, Tenn. He suggested the theme could be "freedom of expression."
  • Shield law position: AOJ board member Chris Trejbal of Opinion in a Pinch (me, your reporter for this piece) updated the board on the federal shield law in the Senate. In the past, AOJ has endorsed federal shield laws, and the board directed me to draft a letter supporting the current bill for the board to review.

Chris Trejbal is a freelance editorial writer at Opinion in a Pinch (http://trejbal.net/opinion). He is a member of the AOJ board of directors and is the open government chairman. Contact him at ctrejbal@gmailand follow him on Twitter at @ctrejbal.

DC politics called 'act of war' on science

Science has a place in public policy debates, and opinion pages can help

Published Monday, October 14, 2013 by Chris Trejbal ed.J.McClelland

Science has falsely become viewed as no better than another special interest, according to science experts. Ideologues repeatedly deploy a standard playbook to undermine scientific data. Their attacks reduce the influence of facts and the rational search for truth in public policy debates, but opinion journalists can counter them. 

Association of Opinion Journalists members received a primer on science in public policy and opinion writing on Monday morning at the AOJ annual convention in Newport, R.I. The panel of science experts moderated by Cornelia Dean of the The New York Times featured:

  • Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen's energy program
  • Dave Gallo, director of special projects at Woods Hole National Oceanographic Institution
  • Andy Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Slocum started the discussion with the theme of the conference, "Water: a precious commodity." He explained that America's current energy system relies heavily on water. Burning fossil fuels to generate electricity requires a great deal of water to drive turbines. Meanwhile, the greenhouse gases that are released contribute to climate change, which is affecting the distribution of water around the world. Just getting some of the fossil fuels out of the ground uses a lot of water. Every sizeable frakking well consumes millions of gallons.

Gallo pointed out that the earth's oceans control climate by moving heat and humidity around the planet, but very little is known about them. Humanity has explored only about 4 or 5 percent of the oceans, he said, and asked: "How can we be effective if we don't even know what's out there?"

Rosenberg turned to the broader question of science in public policy debate. He suggested that most people want to know what the real evidence is, not hear reassurances from the government or a corporation. For many issues, there is an underlying set of scientific facts and consensus that people need to know to participate in an informed discussion. Instead, science is not given its due. "We're treating science as a special interest in the national debate," he said. 

Slocum argued that the political environment is even worse than that, especially when it comes to climate change. "What you have in Washington, D.C. is an act of war against that scientific consensus," he said. He added that more than half of the members of Congress are on the record as not believing that climate change is real or that it is human-caused. "The fact that facts are no longer central to political conversations is outrageous," he said. Panelists said vested interests routinely attack the scientific studies, attack the scientists, and produce dubious opposing studies. 

Rosenberg offered some hope for the future. He sees a generational shift underway among science students who want to know how they can have a greater impact. They want to do research, but they also want it to matter.

During Q&A, AOJ member Susan Albright of MinnPost asked if opinion journalists have some culpability for the misinformation because they often print letters and op-eds that are not grounded in science. Rosenberg was forgiving. He noted that op-ed pages cannot and should not become peer-reviewed journals. Rather, he cautioned against giving too much ground in the name of presenting all sides of a story. "You can always find someone who disagrees. I'm not sure that's always very informative," he said. Giving equal play to the rare dissenter gives the impression that there is more debate in the scientific community than there really is. AOJ member 

Tony Messenger of the St. Loiuis Post-Dispatch then asked who our audience should be when writing about science-related public policy issues. The public? Politicians? Someone else? Opinion journalists should focus on the silent middle, Rosenberg said. The people at the extremes of contentious debates are the loudest, but there are many people in who simply want to be informed.  "There's no shortage of outlets," he said, "for people who just want to flip to the articles that agree with their preconceived notions."

Gallo shared the view that the public at large, not elites, are the most important audience. The more we know, the better our decisions will be. "Who can disagree with that?" he asked.

Chris Trejbal is a freelance editorial writer at Opinion in a Pinch (http://trejbal.net/opinion). He is a member of the AOJ board of directors and is the open government chairman. Contact him at ctrejbal@gmailand follow him on Twitter at @ctrejbal.

Tony Messenger, editorial page editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, elected to the AOJ board on Oct. 15, used this panel as the springboard to a provocative column: "In today’s political climate, no conversation reaches critical mass until war is declared.

"War on Guns. War on Women. War on Coal. War on Freedom. "The nomenclature is effective. It angers or inspires, unifies or disgusts. "On Monday, we were on Goat Island, within cannon-shot across Narragansett Bay from Fort Adams, which first saw battle in the War of 1812.  ... “ 'There is a war on science,' said Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. '... First one to declare [PR] war wins.' " (c)2013, quoted by permission.

AOJ member Bill McGoun quoted this and other convention speakers in a water-worries-apply-here-too editorial in the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times:


Robinson: Embrace new media

Ex NYT CEO tells Opinion Journalists we need quality journalism on any platform

Published Monday, October 14, 2013 1:00 am by John McClelland

Do not “define yourself by the means of distribution,” but rather embrace new ways to delivering quality journalism to differently perceptive audiences, a past master of that process urges.

Janet Robinson was CEO of the New York Times Co. during some of the years (2004-2011) when it was reinventing itself as a news and media organization, not a newspaper with some digital stuff. She told the opening dinner of the Association of Opinion Journalists’ 2013 convention, “The best investment you can make is in serious, quality, journalism.”

Writers, editors, management and owners must recognize that in the new digital world, consumers are in charge of what they read-hear-view on increasingly wireless devices, she said. Ages 18 to 80 are all adapting to new media, and they recognize quality and weaknesses in the product. She said, “They understand accuracy … and error … and the great effect journalism can have.”

Not pollyannish, she referred to the “stunning rise in new forms of journalism … if you can call it that” in media like much of the blogosphere. Mobile digital media life is “the new norm,” she asserted, “and we must embrace it.” Speed, brevity, analytics, multiple platform coupling and such are essential now. But she insisted that, despite the negativism of some online pundits, there is and always will be a need for quality journalism – real reporting, careful editing, thoughtful commentary.

Organizational change, getting away from the print-people vs digital-people mentality, affected everyone in the Times Co., and was “beyond difficult,” but vital.

Even after arguing strongly for multimedia services, she predicted newspapers on paper will be around for a long time, partly because of serendipity, “being introduced to things you didn’t even know you were looking for.”

Good work needs good display. “Your CFO may not appreciate this, but I encourage you to fight for your news hole,” she said, citing examples of journalism that provoked critical changes in law or society. Ultimately, she asserted, that brings revenue to the bottom line.

The financial crisis in print becomes an opportunity to reinvest, to merge journalistic values with hi-tech skills, she said: “It is now your job to recruit [the talent] and use the new tool sets in quality journalism.”

Plain talk in water science

Complex issues and terms coexist badly with political inertia

Published Monday, October 14, 2013 11:55 pm by John McClelland

Part of the art of journalism about science is getting experts to use terms we laypersons and our audiences can handle. The four high-end academics offered up by the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting did that for the most part in their AOJ convention panel, “Demystifying Aquatic Science for Opinion Journalists.” 

“Cyanotoxins,” for example, are the harmful products of blue-green algae blooms in water. The algae multiply when they get nutrients, so cutting the phosphorus (in cleansers and other products) helped reduce the problem in the Great Lakes in the 1960s and 70s. (video 1 minute) http://youtu.be/kAHuh_CPhz0

But algae fed by dirty water running off the land have produced “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico and along many coastlines, panelist Arthur Gold said. He used plain words and a world map showing big chunks of coastal water that is “hypoxic” with too little oxygen for life. The U.S. and China have some of the worst. 

“Carcinogenic” and “tri-halo-methanes” refer to unintended consequences of chlorinated drinking water: “Chlorine was a godsend” when it dramatically reduced water-borne illness, he said. But it and related “halogen” elements react with organic matter in the water to make chloroform and cancer-causing compounds.

Climate change commitment” was the unfamiliar phrase of common words that Amanda Lynch used to baffle and then engage the crowd. It’s the amount of climate change (temperature increase) that would occur no matter what people do, because of processes already under way. She predicted before the next century:

  • Temperatures up, by 2.5 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • More drought.
  • More days of killer heat at 100 degrees or more.
  • More rain and less snow (affecting spring melt.)
  • Snow only at higher elevations (some species will retreat upward).
  • More frequent intense precipitation. “A a second severe storm right after the first can over-tax our emergency services,” she said.
  • Sea levels rising slowly, but making storm surges far worse faster.
  • Turmoil in coastal areas.

Storm surges clobbered the coast last year. Sandy was quite unusual because of its size, and the fact that it turned differently than such storms usually do, said Isaac Ginis. Ginis said intense hurricanes are likely to be more frequent and wetter, drawing energy from warmer seas. He talked the group through a detailed but very preliminary analysis of why sea level is higher on the U.S. east coast than at mid-Atlantic. About the cause of one similar mystery,  greater tidal change at Norfolk, Va., he said, "We don't know."

A passionate plea for pushing to develop a coherent national – not just federal, but cooperative – water policy was the main point for Gerald Galloway. He cited fruitless conferences, inconsistent legislation, unfunded mandates and a “silo effect” in Congress as impediments to the work 10 federal agencies begged for in 2002. 

He said much of the vast Mississippi River basin suffered major flooding one rainy year because of disjointed legislation and management of huge reservoirs upstream on the Missouri River. Then when the Mississippi was getting too low for essential barge traffic, managers were prevented from diverting plentiful water from the Missouri by prior piecemeal legislation and non-policy. “What’s keeping the United States from developing a policy? It’s political,” he asserted. 

Then, sensing the local focus of much of this audience’s work, he urged them to ask, “How would a national water policy help your area?” The institute set up part of its website for the AOJ presentation, and predicted that pdf files of the four scientists' slide shows would become available there on or soon after Oct. 15.


Art Gold is professor and chair of Natural Resources Science at the University of Rhode Island. His research includes coastal watershed science, nutrient modeling, and groundwater quality, and he has advised the United Nations and others.
Amanda Lynch is director of the Environmental Change Initiative and a professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at Brown University. She has published over 100 articles, policy briefs, book chapters and books in climate science and policy.
Isaac Ginis is a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography. Ginis has an international reputation as a leading expert in numerical modeling and forecasting of air-sea interaction during hurricanes.
Gerald E. Galloway is a professor of engineering in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and an affiliate professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park, where his focus is on water resources policy, resilience, and disaster risk.
For detailed speaker biographieshttp://metcalfinstitute.org/training/aoj2013speakerbios/ 

AOJ member Bill McGoun quoted this and other convention speakers in a water-worries-apply-here-too editorial in the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times: http://www.citizen-times.com/article/20131028/OPINION01/310280013/Water-issues-coming-forefront-around-world

Short-staffed? Coping tips!

Imaginative expedients, even same article 43 times, can provide unexpected rewards

Published Monday, October 14, 2013 11:00 pm by Phineas Fiske; ed. J.McClelland

So your editorial page staff has been cut. Maybe there’s only one of you left. What do you do now to adjust to this unhappy reality without undermining journalistic standards, and your own (and your readers’) expectations? 

That issue rose quickly to the surface at the first Monday morning workshop at the 2013 AOJ convention, titled “What’s working; handling challenges, ideas we can share.” 

Moderating the discussion, AOJ Foundation president David Holwerk cited a list of questions offered by the Kettering Foundation, where Holwerk is now a resident scholar, to be asked when you have to deal (or have dealt) with a challenge:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. What did you do?
  3. What was the result?
  4. What have you learned? 

Jay Jochnowitz said the Albany Times Union dealt with shrinking editorial page staff (from four to one) by pulling in employees from other parts of the paper to help fill the gap, as an ad hoc solution to the problem. The publisher was pleased with the result. What he learned from that, Jochnowitz said, tongue perhaps somewhat in cheek, was “Don’t make it work, if you want to find a better solution.” At least, don’t make it work too well. But there have to be ways to adjust. 

David Haynes of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Jochnowitz both said they’ve find that making opinion-page space available to local writers generates useful submissions. Haynes finds that opportunity eagerly sought by readers. 

Jochnowitz keeps a 300-word hole open daily for reader submissions, and sometimes uses longer (and better-written) letters to the editor as community op eds. But, he acknowledges, advocacy organizations that might take advantage of the space aren’t used to writing short. 

Miriam Pepper of the Kansas City Star uses free-lance editorial writers and retirees to help fill the gap. Bill McGoun, formerly of The Palm Beach Post and now freelancing opinion about three times a week at Asheville, said good readership has resulted from a short editorial feature that assigns a letter grade, like a report card, to local actions or institutions. 

Bob Davis of the Anniston Star finds that editorials dealing with very specific local issue get readers’ attention, more than more broadly focused pieces -- and with repetition, those short editorials get the attention of the officials involved with the issue as well. (For more on repetition, watch Chuck Stokes' 2-minute Holwerk video.) 

Carolyn Lumsden of the Hartford Courant said a series of photos of unkempt public places served to show graphically what the city needed to do to clean up. 

Paul Choiniere of The (New London) Day said photos of poor conditions at a local school resulted in remediation by the school board. 

Tony Messenger of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch found varying editorial length helpful: One long editorial might replace two of middling length. And very short, less analytical editorials, accompanied by graphics, can save writers’ time as well. A bonus: Readers, it turned out, liked the short editorials. And they encouraged a welcome flexibility and variety in the way the editorial page is laid out. 

Some of the comments went to Holwerk-Kettering’s third and fourth points: “What was the result? What have you learned?” 

Sometimes, confronting a challenge like staff reductions can result in new approaches and useful changes that you might never have thought about otherwise.

Phineas Fiske wrote and edited editorials for Newsday for 25 years, retiring in 2004. He previously worked at The Washington Post, the Raleigh Times and the Manchester (CT) Evening Herald.

Digital nuts and bolts

Workshop addresses continuing issues of staffing, commentary-trolls and more

Published Tuesday, October 15, 2013 by P.Fiske; ed.J.McClelland

With newspaper circulation declining and editorial page resources growing scarcer, many papers are looking to recapture audiences -- and to continue serving the needs of their communities -- by turning to electronic media. 

The tools are there: Blogging, tweeting and Facebook offer promising tools to bring discussion of local issues to a larger public. But the path can have challenges and pitfalls, as panelists observed at a Monday morning workshop on “Digital and other strategies for success,” moderated by AOJ web manager Thea Joselow. 

Jamie McIntyre, now an anchor for NPR’s All Things Considered, had covered the military for CNN. After leaving the network, he tried blogging on national defense issues. He said he had in mind blogging on Jamie McIntyre's Line of Departure a couple of hours a day. It didn’t work out that way, but became more than a full-time job and didn’t pay enough to justify the time. To keep up, he said, “I had to write about things before I had a chance to think about them -- which is not my nature.”

Joanne Bamberger, editor in chief of The Broad Side and founder of the now supplanted political blog Pundit Mom, said she agreed: We want to encourage a balanced discussion, she said, but we’re always working to keep drawing an audience. So the blogging route is not easy to follow and still provide the thoughtful issues discussion that editorial writers seek. Let alone adding it to an already busy schedule. Then there’s the problem with over-the-top responders -- the uninformed, unrelated and just plain abusive. Do you manage the comments? If so, it takes time. If not, the discussion can rapidly go bad. 

McIntyre pointed out that Popular Science magazine dropped the comment section from its Web presence because opposing views were dominating it, and leaving readers confused. 

Bamberger said people sometimes react to headlines, without even reading through an article. So what do you do to draw an audience and still generate thoughtful discussion? Miriam Pepper of the Kansas City Star said the paper reacted to problem of gutter comments by requiring a Facebook log-in to take part. One result was fewer, if more moderate, posts. (Others have reported similar results.) 

Bamberger suggested casting headlines in terms that attract an audience, with key search terms featured. Inviting in local bloggers, seeing what their interests are and building on them. And, personal experience stories can be particularly compelling, even if simply presented, just somebody talking to the camera.

Phineas Fiske wrote and edited editorials for Newsday for 25 years, retiring in 2004. He previously worked at The Washington Post, the Raleigh Times and the Manchester (CT) Evening Herald.

Scientists need to tell truth well

Oceans abound with mysteries, marvels -- and problems, deepwater researcher shows

Published Tuesday, October 15, 2013 3:00 am by text Jay Jochnowitz; video Chuck Stokes; ed.J.McClelland

What oceanographer Dave Gallo preaches is summed up in three borrowed words: “Truth Well Told.” It’s a mantra he’d like more scientists to get.

Scientists are good at finding things out, explained Gallo, Monday’s luncheon speaker at the AOJ 2013 conference in Newport, R.I. But, he said, they’re “not so good” at talking to the public about what they know. Yet that’s an essential task if they’re to communicate the damage that’s happening to the world’s water, and why it matters. “There’s no controversy here,” Gallo said. “We’ve changed the nature and chemistry of the oceans.” Gallo, director of special projects at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, offered a simple way of putting the oceans and water in general into context:

Though water covers 70 percent of the Earth an average of 2 miles deep, it’s really just like a thin coat of paint on the planet. If the Earth were the size of a basketball, all its water would be represented by a ping-pong ball, and the amount of available fresh water (mainly not including what’s locked up in ice) would be a pinhead. Most of humanity lives near water, he noted, and history has shown that past societal collapses were often linked to a change in the supply of water, such as diminished rainfall. 

The damage of human activity shows up, Gallo said, in things like bits of plastic commonly found in the stomachs of fish even far out to sea, and chemicals of everyday human life undefined oil, fertilizers, herbicides undefined turning up in the oceans. (deep-dive video 2 mins) (jet crash & deepsea life video 1 min) (*more on Cousteau and anthropogenic)

He offered, too, an image of the world from space at night, showing not just the electric lights of industrialized nations but lights all over Africa that were mainly wood fires. The brightest lights, though, were from flares of gas being burned off on vast oil fields. All the pollutants ultimately find their way to water, he said, and are slowly changing the oceans’ properties like its pH (the measure of acidity) and carbon dioxide content. The changes may appear small (EPA chart) but Gallo said they can have profound effects on the ability of species to survive. 

Part of the challenge for scientists is in communicating how dangerous even small change is undefined telling those scientific truths well. “We have to show what it means.” It’s not all grim stuff for Gallo, who has been involved in searches for the Titanic, the Bismark, and the Air France jet that crashed in the Atlantic in 2009. The latter search involved trying to locate the jet’s black boxes, an undertaking he likened to looking for a pair of shoeboxes in the Rocky Mountains. 

The oceans, he noted, feature the world’s deepest valleys and highest mountains, underwater lakes, rivers and even waterfalls of different salinity, and strange life that exists in its deepest regions, like the creatures that thrive around 700-degree geysers erupting along the Atlantic floor. He treated the audience to a videoof an octopus with an astounding ability to camouflage itself.   Only about 5 percent of this frontier has been explored, he said, and we actually spend more on outer space about 10 times as much than on understanding a resource that is of more immediate importance to humans’ survival. 

Our ability to deal with accidents, he said, is shockingly low: In the BP oil spill, it took months to assemble the far-flung equipment and experts needed to help address the disaster. What the oil will do to the environment still isn’t known. And nothing has been done to create a more rapid response. “The scary thing is,” he said, “if it happened today, we’d be in the same boat.”

Jay Jochnowitz is Editorial Page Editor of the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union.

* unusual terms in the videos: 

"anthropogenic" = "caused by humans"http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/anthropogenic?s=t

"Jacques Cousteau" WW2 French navy, pioneer underwater explorer, co-developer of Aqua-Lung (SCUBA), promoter of deep-sea research, film-maker, author, TV host...http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Cousteau

Bay-saver cruise opens AOJ eyes

Narragansett group cites progress on water quality, continuing risks of pollution and rising sea

Published Wednesday, October 16, 2013 by article Bill McGoun; photos & edit J.McClelland

Under a clear blue October sky, Narragansett Bay sparkled. Nearly every mooring contained a workboat or magnificent yacht. Sailboats raced and ship’s boats ferried passengers to and from two cruise ships anchored offshore.

Newport is posh – more so when viewed from the water, as nearly a score of AOJ members did. Large homes – one on its own island – said “very wealthy,” and even the smallest are beyond the dreams of most journalists. But we were not there just to admire the bay. 

We were there to learn how an organization named Save the Bay works to keep the waters as pristine as possible. It owns and crews the boat we were on, most often for school tours. This* Save the Bay was founded in 1970 to oppose energy facilities along the bay. Since then, it has branched out into other water-quality issues. 

“Save The Bay’s history is one of accomplishment,” the group says on its website. “Once choked by raw sewage and dying a slow death from industrial toxins, the bay is now making a comeback. There is still room for vast improvement, but more people than ever before are able to swim, fish, sail and enjoy the waters of Narragansett Bay.”

Staffers led by Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy and policy, and a state environmental official pointed out various significant sites as we cruised around the bay. Besides opposing the energy facilities -- a nuclear facility at Rome Point and a liquefied natural gas plant on Prudence Island -- Save the Bay has campaigned successfully for a cleanup of the Providence sewage treatment plant and for open-space bonds. Its efforts led to reduced pollution from the Brayton Point power plant. 

Much of its work involves raising consciousness and mobilizing public opinion in favor of measures to make the bay cleaner and to cope with rising sea levels. (link to activity map

Over the roar of the boat’s diesel engines, Hamblett expanded upon the website’s message that “Children and adults throughout this region have learned the tremendous value the bay brings to our economy, our environment and our quality of life.” Judging from what we saw, the message got through to the decision-makers.

Bill McGoun is a retired editorial writer for The Palm Beach Post. He does free-lance writing, including work as a contributing editor for the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times. He is the author of seven books and holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Florida.

Water issues intersect energy issues

Published Wednesday, October 16, 2013 by Bill McGoun; ed.J.McClelland

Water issues have not been as polarized as many other issues in this era of confrontation, but frequently the right questions are not being asked, according to the panelists on America‘s Water Issues. 

Those advances that are being made are due to economic forces rather than regulation, the panel told AOJ conferees in Newport Oct. 15.

Electricity generation is 41 percent of U.S. water use, more than even agriculture, according to Angela Ledford Anderson of the Union of Concerned Scientists. In some cases, she said, generation plants have had to cut back because the water available was either too little or too hot.(chart)

If the use of water is to be reduced, questions of water quantity must be included in regulatory decisions about power plants, she said. But, she asserted, “Changes only matter if they actually make a difference.”

Paul Faeth of the Institute for Public Research at the Center for Naval Analyses said that, while energy and water issues are being linked, energy and climate issues are not. Limiting water and limiting greenhouse gas emissions go hand in hand, he said, but they are not discussed that way.

One problem is that water and energy decisions are made at different levels of government. Anderson said water is managed locally and energy at the state level.

Power generation is transitioning away from coal and toward natural gas, which not only uses less water but also has air-quality benefits, Anderson said: the U.S. is “replacing reliance on coal with reliance on natural gas.”

Faeth echoed that point and made a surprising one. “Natural gas is really a clean fuel,“ he said. “Fracking is driving down gas prices.” One result is that water use in electrical generation will decline, though the decline would be greater with efficiency and a carbon policy.

Robert Marquis, director of the Swansea Water District in Massachusetts, also said that underground fracking to produce oil and natural gase uses relatively little water compared to cooling power plants.

(Anderson said a carbon tax would provide the money necessary to institute water-saving measures.)

Marquis related a horror story about bureaucratic roadblocks in his district’s efforts to build a desalinization plant. It took litigation, newspaper publicity and, finally, repeated interventions by a powerful Massachusetts politician, to overcome all the hurdles.

One difficulty is that desalinization plants “conflict with Massachusetts water policy … Water supply [not just zoning] is used to control growth.” This, Marquis said, is bad public policy.

He argued that the Swansea plant, the largest publicly-owned desalinization facility in the Northeast, “should be a model.” Among other things, he said, desalinization limits ground-water use, filters used pharmaceuticals from water and heads off battles between communities and river basins for water.

We have lots of choices,” Anderson said in summing up her presentation. “We have the technology available. We just have to make the right choices.” 

Bill McGoun is a retired editorial writer for The Palm Beach Post. He does free-lance writing, including work as a contributing editor for the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times. He is the author of seven books and holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Florida.

Water & climate change a top threat for future wars

Drought, flood, mass migration pose threats to world stability, challenges to U.S. forces, ex-admiral says

Published Friday, October 18, 2013 8:00 pm by John McClelland

Climate change, especially as related to water, could be the top threat of future wars, one expert contends. Water shortages, flooding and other results of climate change and population growth could lead to serious armed conflict and other turmoil in the world, presenting new challenges for the U.S. military and the country.

Vice Admiral (Retired) Lee Gunn made that point repeatedly during his Oct. 15 talk to the AOJ convention. Gunn, president of the Institute for Public Research at the CNA Corp., focused on the implications of climate change and sea-level rise – and not just for the armed forces. 

A lot of his work, he said, is studies of situations that affect the defense forces’ readiness to help with disasters, the U.S. role as an energy leader, and access to fuel for defense work. He outlined four types of things that affect national security:

  • Economic strength
  • Geopolitical stability
  • Military capability
  • Environmental sustainability

When any of those is seriously out of whack, the risk of conflict rises. “Climate change is a threat multiplier,” he said. 

Any condition that inherently poses a potential challenge to U.S. security becomes far more likely to erupt when large numbers of people are thirsty, starving, inundated or otherwise severely distressed. 

He gave several examples. Here’s one: Meltdown of the icecap on the Himilayas and nearby mountains, or snow-water in the Tibetan heights, could disrupt the steady flow of water in major rivers on which Pakistan, India, much of China and much of the rest of southern Asia depend. The three of those countries that have nuclear weapons have been in recurring conflicts over their borders. What happens if millions of their people lose their access to water for much of the year?  

Another: How many knew of the climate-migration fence? Very few did, even in this generally well-informed crowd. India is preparing such a border barrier to block refugees fleeing Bangladesh, which is a densely populated, poverty-laden country on ground so low that ocean storms do immense damage. 

Another: After one typhoon in the Gulf of Bengal clobbered the low-lying mainland, a U.S. amphibious task force that happened to be sailing home turned aside to deliver a lot of the relief, with its air-cushion watercraft and helicopters and water-desalting gear. What if it had not been there? 

More: The runway of the busy U.S. airbase on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia “is just over three feet above the water, and there’s no place higher to go.” 

Yet another: Among the presumed causes of the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East were food shortages and soaring prices, worsened in part by water shortages and in part by diversion of U.S. corn to making ethanol to stretch gasoline. 

Gunn was not the convention’s only speaker to make some of these points. (link to one scary version

Previous cultures have collapsed or fled – vanished in some cases – when their water sources failed. Some ancient nomadic or semi-nomadic societies just picked up and relocated when seas rose onto their land. He said, “In the past, people were nomads, so they could pick up and move. Now, we are heavily invested on the coasts.” 

Gunn contended that the U.S. now has “the best-educated, best trained, best equipped, best motivated, and most combat experienced military the world has ever seen.” And yet, is it or the country prepared to deal effectively with new challenges and in new ways? 

Are we preparing not to refight a previous war but rather to deal with the turmoil that will result from burgeoning populations, limited food supplies and other stresses exacerbated by related disruptions in climate and water? 

Preparation costs time, effort and money, Gunn told the opinion writers, producers and editors; and yet it must be done, he said: “I urge you to sing that song.”

(John McClelland’s  24-year newspaper career got punctuated by two years of active duty as an army officer, including a tour on the general staff of the support command serving most U.S. forces in South Korea, and by seven years of reserve duty including two training division general staff tours. He taught journalism at Roosevelt University, Chicago, 1989 until recent nearly-full retirement.)

AOJ member Bill McGoun quoted this and other convention speakers in a water-worries-apply-here-too editorial in the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times:http://www.citizen-times.com/article/20131028/OPINION01/310280013/Water-issues-coming-forefront-around-world (Updated 10/29/2013)

Vanessa Shelton wins Bingham Fellowship

If learning sports begins in grade school, why not media literacy and some related skills?

Published Friday, October 18, 2013 by J.McClelland

Vanessa Shelton won the Barry Bingham Sr. Fellowship for 2013. It includes convention expenses and $1,000 to continue helping young future journalists of color. Here is the text of AOJ Foundation president Lois Kazakoff’s presentation:

Each year, the Association of Opinion Journalists honors an educator for his or her work in bringing up the next generation of journalists. It is vital that the voices in American media represent the diverse community that is America; and so it is the particular goal of the association to honor those who are working to encourage young journalists of color to join our professional ranks. 

This year's recipient of the Barry Bingham Sr. Fellowship supports that mission but rejects the idea of just tapping promising college students or young professionals. She starts earlier -- much earlier. If we begin nurturing athletic, artistic and musical talents in elementary school, then why would we not introduce the skills of reporting, interviewing and storytelling at that young age too? 

Our recipient knows how important it is for young people to find their voice and then articulate the hopes, dreams and needs of their community. She also recognizes that her job is also to instill media literacy undefined to pass on an appreciation of journalism's role in our communities and make the link with civic responsibility undefined in all her students, regardless of their ultimate path in life. 

To that end, she has worked since 1998 with underprivileged students through the Iowa Summer Journalism Academies, which she founded. The academies have exposed 1,200 elementary school students to journalism and through it, opened a portal to personal responsibility, civic engagement and academic literacy. 

She also is the executive director of the Quill and Scroll, the international high school journalism society, the director for the past decade of the University of Iowa Summer Journalism Workshops, and for 20 years an adviser to the University of Iowa chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists. 

One of her students, whom she helped launch on a career in sports broadcast journalism and then recruited to teach, noted that her trust in his abilities as a teacher, even at a very young age, has made all the difference in his personal and professional life. A colleague wrote, "I have personally observed the powerful impact, and lasting respect, of this wide-ranging outreach to all students of every hue. It is this aura that both thrills and inspires me to continue teaching each summer in the Iowa Summer Journalism Workshops." 

It is with great pleasure and that the Association of Opinion Journalists names Dr. Vanessa Shelton of the University of Iowa as the Barry Bingham Sr. Fellow this year.

Behind Arab Spring, World Water Wars?

Experts also see great risk of armed conflict among nuke-holding India, Pakistan -- and China

Published Friday, October 18, 2013 8:00 pm by Lois Kazakoff; ed.J.McClelland

Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan, Iraq, Ethiopia and Syria are in the news today as civil war tears their civil societies apart. Yet the bigger story may be that all these countries are suffering from long and unrelenting droughts.

Drought is one of the main drivers of the Syrian civil war,” said Paul Sullivan, a professor at the National Defense University.

David Dumke of the University of Central Florida, Sullivan and Timothy Hoyt of the U.S. Naval War College, spoke Oct. 14, 2013, at the Association of Opinion Journalists’ annual convention in Newport, R.I. 

The Middle East and North Africa are the most water-stressed regions in the world. “Water security in this region should be a concern to us,” Sullivan said. Battles over the world’s most precious commodity are playing out now. The fights will only become more intense as population, industry and agricultural activities increase. Food costs are skyrocketing and water-intensive electricity production systems are experiencing rolling brownouts. 

These are the complexities underlying the hostilities in Syria and other areas. 

Remedies to drought undefined increased water efficiency, conservation, re-use undefined are not, as Sullivan put it, these nations’ forte. “The countries have to cut back on their use of water, reuse water, rethink how they are using their water for agriculture,” he said.

Hoyt noted that China, India and Pakistan are three of the five most populous countries in the world. Pakistan has added 50 million to its population in a decade and is on track to surpass the population of the United States. 

“This is already an unstable part of the world,” he said. “Each of these countries has internal tensions linked to the distribution of water. All three have nuclear weapons.” Pakistan’s political structure reinforces both water inequities and the poor and inefficient use of what water the country does have. Yet Pakistan seems incapable of political reform, Hoyt said. (video: more from Hoyt 2 mins

Dumke saw the future as better negotiated and longer term water treaties. Hoyt suggested that the United States rethink its foreign aid approach: “Helping Pakistan with its [leaky, inefficient irrigation] canals would help out a lot.” Sullivan said the United States should emphasize development in its foreign aid: “Focusing so much on governance and democratization and other woolly issues that are hard to get a hold on is not useful. … The solutions are there -- it all boils down to leadership.”

Lois Kazakoff is the deputy editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. She is the president of the AOJ Foundation. lkazakoff@sfchronicle.com@lkazakoff

Bailey gets Pulliam for 'brownfield' study

Connecticut journalist and urban planner to use SPJ fellowship to seek toxic-dump solutions

Published Monday, October 21, 2013 by SPJ HQ; ed.J.McClelland

Hugh Bailey, an assistant editorial page editor for the Connecticut Post, has been awarded the Eugene C. Pulliam Fellowship for Editorial Writing.

The award can be used to cover the cost of study, research and travel. The fellowship results in editorials and other writings, including books. Bailey will use the fellowship to study ways that small cities in the Northeast and elsewhere have overcome legacy problems with abandoned industrial sites. 

These “brownfields” dot the landscape in countless places in the U.S. and abroad, and they are a major impediment to economic development undefined a problem Bailey has already begun exploring on behalf of readers. “The point of this project would be to inspire real change at a policy level,” Bailey wrote in his fellowship application. “There must be clear, demonstrable steps cities can take within the constraints under which they are forced to operate.” 

The judges found the passion he already has shown for the topic appealing, along with his fresh approach and determination to finding solutions. “When people think of toxic legacies, they usually think of Superfund sites,” said Todd Gillman, chairman of the judging panel and Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News. “This brownfields problem is often overlooked, and too easily ignored beyond the afflicted communities.” 

Gillman was joined on the judges’ panel by Sandy Shea, the 2012 Pulliam fellow, Fred Brown, a former SPJ president and longtime Denver Post columnist, and Bob Davis, associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star and president of the Association of Opinion Journalists. 

“The national dialogue typically focuses on big cities,” said Shea, who has used her 2012 fellowship to study poverty. “This is a really intriguing way to elevate the conversation about small and midsized cities.” Bailey plans to explore ways that cities in the U.S. and abroad have overcome a legacy of industrial blight. “He’s looking for solutions, and not just bringing a problem to light,” Brown said. 

Bailey’s background in planning also impressed the judges. He carved time during his newspapering career to earn a Master of Urban Planning from New York University in 2008. That allows him to bring something of an academic edge to the fellowship project, even as it reflects his deep interest in the problem. 

“He’s really dedicated to the subject,” Davis said. 

Bailey received the award at the Association of Opinion Journalists convention in Newport, R.I., on Oct. 15.

About SPJ: Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. www.spj.org.

Neil Heinen honored

Broadcaster, NCEW-AOJ-Foundation leader surprised at receiving life membership

Published Monday, October 21, 2013 by J.McClelland

Neil Heinen, editorial director of WISC-TV in Madison, former NCEW president, former chairman of the NCEW Foundation, a leader of the Speaker's Bureau, frequent participant in NCEW and AOJ events, received the life member award at the AOJ 2013 convention.

Here he is with his wife, Nancy, and his framed certificate.

He also has had the distinction for several years of being one of the country's few broadcast editorialists, as distinguished from broadcasters who do televised commentary. 

Heinen said in a later email: “I was indeed honored ... and totally blown away. I had no clue.  I joined NCEW/AOJ ... the year after WISC TV started doing editorials. I've been doing them ever since, five a week for 21 and-a-half years.” He has attended every NCEW/AOJ convention, except one, since 1993. He served as Broadcast Committee chair, Futures Committee chair, Board member, and then president in 2007. He has served on the board and as president of the NCEW/AOJ Foundation.

Here are passages from the citation: "For more than 20 years, Neil Heinen has been the courageous, insightful and award-winning editorial director of WISC-TV in Madison, Wisconsin. He has served AOJ/NCEW with passion and devotion since March 1992. 

"Neil diligently worked his way up the leadership ladder. In 2007 he was president of the National Conference of Editorial Writers and from 2010 – 2011, he was president of the NCEW Foundation. Because of his dedication, he volunteered to remain on the Board of Directors until the end of 2013. 

"Neil has been a strong supporter and active participant of Foundation programs, such as the annual State Department and Minority Writers Seminars. He has served on numerous committees and has done a yeoman’s job of creatively working with other Association of Opinion Journalists leaders to expand our membership so it reflects today’s rapidly changing world of opinion writing. Throughout the years, Neil has often taken it upon himself to reach out to various media groups and educational institutions to help preserve, promote, and increase the broadcast editorial writing business. 

"Neil has become an editorial force in Wisconsin and is one of the most respected journalists in the state. Since 2004 he has served as editor of Madison Magazine where he also writes a monthly column with his wife Nancy, on food, places, and people. He is the popular host of For the Record, a weekly public affairs program on Madison’s CBS-TV affiliate. In his free time, he serves on the faculty of the Kettering Foundation and Edgewood College, and is also on the board of We the People Wisconsin. 

"Neil’s many honors include the Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award and the Robert H. Wills Freedom of Information Award. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin. "Neil is a cherished member of the Association of Opinion Journalists. His colleagues have come to appreciate his many talents, his warm and friendly personality, his frequent travel stories and his leadership skills. Because of his loyalty and generous service, AOJ is pleased to bestow its highest honor of Life Membership on Neil Heinen."

Under AOJ's bylaws, life members are nominated by the Professional Committee, which consists of all past presidents, and submitted for approval to the AOJ board.

Senator decries damage to oceans

Whitehouse cites new study of rapid destruction, blasts WSJ pattern of editorial denials

Published Monday, October 21, 2013 by (ed. J.McClelland)

U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island made his speech to the AOJ 2013 convention remotely because he had been called back to DC to vote on an end to the federal shutdown. 

He recorded his speech on an iPad in his office because the Senate recording studio was closed in the government shutdown. The transmission to Newport did not work correctly, so Jim Ludes, executive director of the Pell Center at Salve Regina University, sent AOJ this 11-minute video. I

n it, Whitehouse cited a recent scientific report that stressful changes on the oceans are more serious, and getting worse faster, than previously predicted. He also retraced a history of Wall Street Journal editorials on acid rain and holes in the ozone layer, saying, "Today we are seeing that same polluters' playbook play out on carbon emission" and global warming. 

In a remark similar to those of other speakers at the convention, he said the playbooks tend to follow three fronts: attack the science, say it' all politics, and complain about the cost. Changes in sea levels. temperature and acidity are not projections or modeling, he said, "They are [actual] measurements." Journalism can inspire change, he said, as it helps people understand the effects of real threats on people.

Editors differ on 'fact-challenged' letters

What's fact? opinion? how to spot error? Omit, bounce, edit, rebut in a note, rebut later, let it go...?

Published Friday, November 15, 2013 11:28 am by Jay Jochnowitz; ed J.McClelland

The letter to the editor reads just fine until the Thomas Jefferson quote that perfectly makes the writer’s points … maybe too perfectly. A big red flag goes up in your head. Is it a bona-fide Founding Father quote? At the authoritative Monticello web site, which tracks “spurious quotes,” there it is: Jefferson never wrote that.

But what do you do with the letter? 

If you run it, do you edit out the inaccuracy? Or include it and leave it up to other readers to point out the error – and possibly accuse you of slacking off on the fact-checking? Do you run an editor’s note with it and preserve your own credibility, but potentially embarrass the letter writer, who probably didn’t knowingly include this mistake?

The Los Angeles Times recently disclosed that it does not publish letters from people who say there is no sign that humans are influencing climate change. LA Times letters editor Paul Thornton, citing broad scientific consensus on the issue, explained: “Simply put, I do my best to keep errors of fact off the letters page; when one does run, a correction is published. Saying ‘there's no sign humans have caused climate change’ is not stating an opinion, it's asserting a factual inaccuracy.”

Popular Science, stating that the anti-science nature of so many online comments on so many topics was destructive and antithetical to its mission, recently announced that it would no longer allow comments on articles on its web site.

Robert Price, editorial page editor of The Bakersfield Californian, noted both those developments in a column on the awarding of the Nobel prize to three American scientists; he also lamented: “Eventually this rejection of legitimate science filters down into public policy.”

Most of us in the letter-vetting business surely have had to confront fact-challenged letters of one kind or another. The birthers. The inside job on 9/11. The weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The full-retirement-for-life for serving in Congress. Many more.

Does it help or harm the discussion to allow these views space in mainstream media?

My policy:

At the Albany Times-Union, we don’t knowingly allow anything into print that’s false, even in letters. If the error is fixable, we suggest changes to the letter writer, or offer the opportunity to do further research and resubmit the piece.

Once in a while, I do allow such comments on our blog if the error is one that I’ve been seeing widely (mis)quoted, and I’ll explain that it’s wrong in kind of a mini Snopesor Factcheck.orgsynopsis. But after doing that once on a topic, I usually reject further comments that repeat the error. Fundamentally, I agree with the LA Times policy, especially when it comes to print.

Wider debate:

However, as a recent AOJ members-only online discussion showed, that position is by no means universal.

Those who agree with the policy say there is a clear difference between differing opinions on climate change – such as what, if anything, people and governments can or should do about it –and putting forward bad facts.

We would print letters saying that the evidence isn't convincing, or criticizing another writer for making his case with too great a degree of certitude,” wrote Jackman Wilson, editorial page editor of The Register Guardin Eugene, Ore. “We'd be especially accommodating of such letters if they were in response to things we'd written ourselves."

Still, Wilson added, “To a considerable degree, we rely on the self-correcting nature of the dialogue in the letters columns -- if someone makes an outrageous claim, three people will write letters blowing the whistle. This aspect of the letters columns seems to me to be of increasing value in a time when so much discussion is conducted in the echo chambers of the Internet.”

Larry Reisman, editorial page editor at Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers, agrees, saying that while a letter questioning Barack Obama’s birthplace would be nixed, debates about global warming, abortion, or creationism are all part of “robust community debate.”

Kate Riley of the Seattle Times recalled that the problem of a fake fact occurred at her paper in a letter on a genetically-modified-organism labeling proposal that was on the November ballot in Washington. The writer asserted that GMO foods caused the decline of bee populations, which is not a proven fact. TheTimes caught the error and kept it out of print, but an intern inadvertently posted the letter on the paper’s letters blog. The paper's site ran a correction.

We like a robust discussion in letters columns too, but like Larry, we do not run letters asserting well settled topics,” Reilly wrote. “We don’t run letters about Obama’s birthplace, holocaust denial, vaccines causing autism. And we have a high bar for letters about climate change, including requirements for footnoting studies that are referred to. Pure ideology doesn’t cut it on that topic any more.”

But not everyone feels bad or suspect facts should be entirely kept out of print.

Steve Matrazzo, of The Dundalk Eaglein Dundalk, Md., wrote: “My own practice has been to publish -- when the letter is on a salient topic, reflects a widely-held (false) view and is sufficiently literate (not always the case) -- but also rebut in a note immediately following. I view doing so as more effectively informing readers than simply ignoring the letters and the views they represent.”

Clear, vigorous debate vs possible humiliation?

Linda Seebach, a retired editorial writer for the Rocky Mountain Newswho continues to work as a letters editor for Scripps Treasure Coast papers, disagreed with that approach. She said: “There are more effective ways of informing readers than publicly humiliating writers whose letters to the paper express, in good faith, views that are – as [Matrazzo] concedes – ‘widely held.’

Editorials and columns can do that, stating and rebutting the views the editorial writer believes are factually incorrect, without involving any individual who happens to hold them.”

The LA Times policy on climate change specifically is defensible, “up to a point,” Seebach added: “…however, there certainly remains much controversy about the climate evidence and its policy implications and that controversy should not be kept off the letters page. But that only illuminates the difficulty of drawing a bright line between fact and opinion; often, the position of the line is exactly what the disagreement is about.”

For example, an editor who runs a letter citing the Bible as his authority in challenging evolution would be “foolhardy” to add a note stating “your letter is factually inaccurate (Even though it is),” Seebach wrote.

Matrazzo doesn’t see the posting of a letter with an editorial note pointing out a fallacy as humiliation or trashing, but of informing. Letter writers, he noted, have voluntarily joined the public debate.

As such, the fact that a false statement is made in ‘good faith’ does not make it immune to rebuttal, and such rebuttal is appropriately made in immediate conjunction with the false statement undefined not at some spatial or temporal distance which allows the false assertion to stand implicitly, if temporarily, unchallenged.”

It’s especially worth doing, he suggests, precisely in cases where an erroneous fact is in broad circulation: “…the widespread acceptance of certain demonstrable falsehoods is precisely why they need to be addressed directly, by journalists who have a platform undefined and a professional obligation undefined to inform the public.”

As for the idea that publicly correcting readers this way is humiliating and could discourage people from writing, Matrazzo argues, “If anything, it might scare off writers who know they'd be trying to advance false claims.

"However, in my experience, it doesn't even do that. The well of false claims is effectively bottomless. All the more reason for journalists to stand firmly for facts."

Jay Jochnowitz is editorial page editor of the Albany (N.Y.) Times-Union and a member of the AOJ board of directors.

AOJ joins White House photo-limits protest

Published Friday, November 22, 2013 by ed J.McClelland

Here is the text of the news organizations' Nov. 21 letter to the White House staff. The AOJ executive board supported it and president Miriam Pepper circulated it on the AOJ members' discussion list.

Jay Carney
Press Secretary
The White House

Dear Mr. Carney:

We write to protest the limits on access currently barring photographers who cover the White House. We hope this letter will serve as the first step in removing these restrictions and, therefore, we also request a meeting with you to discuss this critical issue further.

Journalists are routinely being denied the right to photograph or videotape the President while he is performing his official duties. As surely as if they were placing a hand over a journalist’s camera lens, officials in this administration are blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the Executive Branch of government.

To be clear, we are talking about Presidential activities of a fundamentally public nature. To be equally clear, we are not talking about open access to the residence or to areas restricted, for example, for national security purposes.

The apparent reason for closing certain events to photographers is that these events have been deemed “private.” That rationale, however, is undermined when the White House contemporaneously releases its own photograph of a so-called private event through social media. The restrictions imposed by the White House on photographers covering these events, followed by the routine release by the White House of photographs made by government employees of these same events, is an arbitrary restraint and unwarranted interference on legitimate newsgathering activities. You are, in effect, replacing independent photojournalism with visual press releases.

All of the following events, with the exception of the McCain-Graham meeting, were reported as “read-outs” by the White House with “official” White House photo(s) attached. They illustrate the troubling breadth of the restrictions placed upon newsgathering by the White House to record governmental activity of undisputed and wide public interest:

  • On July 10, 2013, the President met with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
  • • On July 11, 2013, the President met with the Co-Chairs of the U.S. - China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
  • • On July 29, 2013, the President met with former Secretary of State Clinton (White House photo also distributed via Twitter).
  • • On July 30, 2013, the President and Vice President met with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.
  • On August 26, 2013, the President met with African-American Faith Leaders.
  • • On September 2, 2013, the President met with Senators McCain and Graham.
  • On October. 11, 2013, the President and family members met with Pakistani human rights activist Malala Yousafzai, a person of great public interest. While certain of these events may appear “private” in nature, the decision of the White House to release its own contemporaneous photograph(s) suggests that the White House believes these events are, in fact, newsworthy and not private.

The right of journalists to gather the news is most critical when covering government officials acting in their official capacities. Previous administrations have recognized this, and have granted press access to visually cover precisely these types of events, thus creating government transparency. It is clear that the restrictions imposed by your office on photographers undercut the President’s stated desire to continue and broaden that tradition. To exclude the press from these functions is a major break from how previous administrations have worked with the press.

Moreover, these restrictions raise constitutional concerns. As the Supreme Court has stated, the First Amendment protects “the public and the press from abridgment of their rights of access to information about the operation of their government,” Richmond Newspapers Inc. v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555, 584 (1980). The fact that there is no access whatsoever only heightens those concerns. As one court has noted in considering a similar restriction: “The total exclusion of television representatives from White House pool coverage denies the public and the press their limited right of access, guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States." Cable News Network, Inc. v. American Broadcasting Companies, Inc., et al. 518 F.Supp. 1238, 1245 (N.D. GA 1981).

The organizations and individuals signing this letter strongly believe that imposing limits on press access, as your office has done, represents a troubling precedent with a direct and adverse impact on the public’s ability to independently monitor and see what its government is doing.

We consider this a most serious matter and urge you to provide appropriate access for independent photojournalists to all public governmental events in which the President participates.

Again, we see this letter as the first step toward restoring full press access to these events. Accordingly, we request an immediate meeting with you in order to resolve this very serious situation. We ask that you contact Steve Thomma, President of the White House Correspondents’ Association, and Sam Feist, current television pool chair, to set up the meeting.

Thank you.

ABC News • Agence France-Presse • American Society of News Editors • American Society of Media Photographers • Associated Press • Associated Press Media Editors • Associated Press Photo Managers • Association of Alternative Newsmedia • Association of Opinion Journalists • Bloomberg News • CBS News • CNN • Dow Jones & Company, Inc. • Fox News Channel • Gannett Co., Inc. • Getty Images • Lee Enterprises, Incorporated • The McClatchy Company • McClatchy-Tribune Information Services • National Press Club • National Press Photographers Association • NBC News • New England First Amendment Coalition • News Media Coalition • Newspaper Association of America • The New York Times Company • Online News Association • Professional Photographers of America • Radio Television Digital News Association • Regional Reporters Association • The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press • Reuters • Society of Professional Journalists • Tribune Company • The Washington Post • White House Correspondents’ Association • White House News Photographers Association • Yahoo! Inc.

Is it the message, or the messenger?

Online talk about old white guys opinionizing erupts into debate about performance

Published Thursday, December 12, 2013 10:00 pm by Steve Matrazzo; ed J.McClelland
(c) 2013
Dundalk Eagle

This week’s By the People section leads off with a letter from a reader, Scott McWilliams, who took issue with my Nov. 28 column. He managed to find the most complimentary possible way of disagreeing with my commentary, and he raised a thought-provoking point:

I find it interesting when journalists feel entitled to offer an opinion ... even though they have never done [the things on which they’re opining].”

It’s a familiar notion; don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes, etc. The same thing can look very different to people viewing it from different perspectives, with different interests and histories.

The brief subsequent exchange I had with Mr. McWilliams was stimulating, and it squared nicely with a few other matters that crossed my view in roughly the same time window.

Are old guys the problem?

One was the Dec. 3 item on Gawker.com, “What’s Wrong With America’s Newspaper Opinion Columnists in One Chart,” by Sarah Hedgecock. In it, she noted that columnists, especially those writing for high-profile outlets, tend to have certain demographic traits:

Why are newspaper opinion columnists so consistently baffled by the politics, technologies, and social mores of the 21st century? [W]e’ve figured out the answer: They’re old as hell .... [I]f you’re staffing your back pages with almost all veterans, you’re missing out on a wide swath of important perspectives.”

(Cue the Logan’s Run references ....)

She reported that the average age of columnists for major publications and syndication services hovers around 60, and went on to note that columnists skew strongly male and white as well. She offered a valid argument that such demographic uniformity carries with it a certain unhealthy uniformity of perspective. After all, the only shoes in which those columnists have walked a mile are their own, right?

Responses sharp & divided

The piece generated considerable reaction, with many Gawker commenters agreeing with Hedgecock’s assessment, but others pointing out that journalists generally work for years to earn the privilege of writing a column. Thus, it was noted, the ranks of columnists are bound to skew old, and are likely to remain tilted toward white males until the [fortunately] growing numbers of women and minorities come into seniority in greater numbers.

One opined that demographics aren’t the real problem, noting that “they are all writers. Writers in general are pretty detached from reality.” Ouch.

Other outlets, too, had plenty to say. Chris O’Shea of New York-based online outlet Fishbowl NY noted that: “older people have this thing called experience. This is why they get columns. Sure, some .... are out of touch. But guess what? There are a lot of idiot twentysomethings too .... No one wants a world where only old guys pen columns. But they certainly don’t want a world where only Gawker-aged writers do either.”

Not surprisingly, the topic made its way into discussions within the Association of Opinion Journalists (formerly the National Conference of Editorial Writers), a professional group of which I am a member.

There was, of course, widespread recognition of diversity as a worthwhile goal, but Gary Crooks of The Spokesman-Reviewin Spokane, Wash., raised the question of just what constitutes diversity:

One characteristic being overlooked is income level. Columnists are middle-class on up. How many are poor? How many know what that’s like? There isn’t economic diversity. So does that mean there is a hole in coverage/perspective? That seems to be the argument when it comes to other characteristics. [The Gawker piece] wouldn’t touch this. It would give us more diversity within the same economic class.”

Is the gap age, class, or what?

Joanne Bamberger, editor-publisher of The Broad Side, a current events-commentary site focusing on female writers, added:

Economic diversity is such a big topic that is often ignored …. I’ve gotten my head handed to me for daring to suggest that those of us who had to work our way through college – or didn’t go to college – have a different perspective on certain issues.”

Philadelphia Inquirer editorial page editor Harold Jackson, who told me he used to bring his son to Dundalk for baseball camp – “many moons ago” – crystallized the matter well:

Opinions result from experience; experiences matter.”

It’s certainly true, and it seems to dovetail with the recent release of White-Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making, by Nicholas Carnes, published by the University of Chicago Press and noting the consequences of a government virtually devoid of people who have any significant working-class experience.

[A] background in business or law is the norm and the average member [of Congress] has spent less than two percent of his or her adult life in a working-class job,” the book’s web page noted.

It might also seem to line up with the perspective of an editor/columnist who spent 20 years as a blue-collar worker before entering journalism.

I consider my background to be a critical asset, giving me a perspective and a frame of reference that I wouldn’t otherwise have. But undefined I don’t see it as a “qualification” that makes me any more or less fit to write commentary than anyone else.

Insight matters, regardless

In the end, the essence of this job is not mere opinion, but insight undefined giving information, analysis and perspective on a topic, and doing so with at least some measure of eloquence. The ability to do that is not subject to any demographic measure.

Either I can deliver the goods undefined providing insight and provoking thought undefined or I can’t. Simple as that.

And the measure of it will always be on the page undefined not in my c.v.

Freelancer Abigail R. Esman ultimately hit the nail on the head:

The whole demographics issue remains a total straw man. Good opinion writing comes from people with intelligent, informed and carefully-measured insights into the issues, and the ability to craft their ideas in clear, articulate, and undefined gasp undefined well-constructed sentences. Period.”

(By the way, I got a good laugh out of Eagle associate editor Bill Gates [not the Microsoft plutocrat Gates] when he asked what “c.v.” means; it stands for “curriculum vitae,” which is a Latin term for ... résumé.)


[And –30– is traditional newspaper code for "end of article." One version of its roots says it meant typesetters would insert a 30-em-dash (big bold line) between items in a tray full of dull-gray metal type. Ed.] 

Stephen Matrazzo is editor of the Dundalk Eagle .

(Adapted with permission from a column (C) 2013 The Dundalk Eagle, Dundalk, MD, December 2013; republication prohibited; the orginal is out from the paywall for public reading at http://www.dundalkeagle.com/component/content/article/26-front-page/48093-is-it-about-the-message-or-the-messenger

Celebrate a century of sunlight

Open-government idea preceded Brandeis' 1913 piece, still resonates

Published Tuesday, December 31, 2013 by Chris Trejbal; ed.J.McClelland

Lights play an important role in winter holidays and life. Celebrants burn Yule logs or place stars atop trees, and people light candles to hold back the darkness during these long nights. Perhaps, then, it was no coincidence that a century of “sunlight” was born at this time of year.

On Dec. 20, 1913, Harper's Weekly published "What Publicity Can Do" by Louis Brandeis. In it, he painted an image of transparency that still captures the imagination. "Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman,” he wrote.

Brandeis was concerned about a worrisome concentration of wealth and power in the hands of his era’s banks and industries. Parallels to the last few years require no elaboration.

Americans soon realized that his idea of sunlight could be applied more broadly. Government also functions best under public scrutiny. The chummy club of good ol’ boys who met behind closed doors and emerged only with conclusions would soon fade from the norm. Transparency and accountability became the new paradigm for government.

Today we might call Brandeis’ metaphor a meme, an infectious idea that flourishes. Journalists and other government watchdogs often quote him. We mark Sunshine Week in the spring. Organizations like the Sunlight Foundation and Sunshine in Government Initiative fight for the people’s right to know what government does. All 50 states have sunshine laws, as does the federal government, not least the Freedom of Information Act.

In recent years, though, sunlight is on the defensive against government agencies and lawmakers who fear disclosure and seek to allow greater secrecy.

When a writer for National Review Online asked the National Park Service for public records related to closing George Washington’s Mount Vernon home during the recent federal government shutdown, she hit a wall. The Department of the Interior, of which the Park Service is a branch, ran a black marker over the most interesting passages. It “redacted” them in the parlance of open government.

Interior justified its secrecy because “public dissemination of this information would have a chilling effect on the agency’s deliberative process; it would expose the agency’s decision-making process in such a way as to discourage candid discussion within the agency.”

That, of course, is the whole point of government sunlight. If officials are embarrassed to let the public know how they reach decisions, they should reconsider whether they are making the right ones.

Brandeis was not the first to suggest shining light on secrets. In 1884, Woodrow Wilson, who would appoint Brandeis to the Supreme Court in 1916, wrote, "Light is the only thing that can sweeten our political atmosphere – light thrown upon every detail of administration in the departments; light diffused through every passage of policy; light blazed full upon every feature of legislation; light that can penetrate every recess or corner in which any intrigue might hide; light that will open to view the innermost chambers of government, drive away all darkness from the treasury vaults.”

He missed only the warm appeal of the sun. Three decades later Brandeis’ sunlight metaphor captured a place in our collective psyche [with the postwar rise in sunshine-, public-records-, and other open-government laws], even if many people today do not even know who authored it.

Brandeis led a tremendously accomplished life and sits in the pantheon of great American jurists. At this centennial, he deserves special recognition for an idea that endures and still shapes the way we think about the relationship between government and the people.

Christian Trejbal writes for Opinion in a Pinch and is open government chairman for the Association of Opinion Journalists.

Opinion-Journalism Contest 


This award recognizes the achievements of two opinion journalists during a year. Entries may include editorials, columns and/or op-ed pieces. Judging will be based on clarity, strength of writing, creativity and impact on public policy and quality of life. One journalist in each circulation division will be recognized with a $200 check and an engraved award. 


This award recognizes the achievements of editorial or opinion staffs during a year. Entries may include full editorial page or op-ed page layouts, editorials, columns and/or op-ed pieces. Judging will be based on clarity, strength of writing, creativity, and the general impact of the pages. Up to five newspapers (regardless of circulation division) will be recognized with an engraved award.

Contest FAQs 

  • Do I need to be a member of AOJ to enter?
    • No. As the contest rules state, both contests are open to anyone who is eligible for active membership in the Association of Opinion Journalists (formerly the National Conference of Editorial Writers). That includes any professional opinion writer or editor, and any student or educator whose focus includes opinion journalism. Click here for membership information.
  • I want to enter the Opinion Journalist of the Year category. What type of samples should I enter?
    • Samples for this category should include your best columns or editorials, whether in print, online, audio or video.
  • I want to enter the Top Opinion Pages category. What type of samples should I enter?
    • Editorial pages and editorial sections are the best samples, but anything that reflects a single day's content or focus -- including op/ed packages and online supporting content, such as blog items, videos or interactive features -- can also be submitted.
  • How should I submit my sample? 
    • You are required to submit a set of samples as listed in the contest rules. These samples should be uploaded as pdfs or Word documents. Instructions for submitting in 2014 are pending.
  • Once I upload my entries and make my payment, can I go back and edit my entries?
    • No. With this entry site, you are not able to save your entry form and/or edit the entry once it is submitted.
  • When will the winners be announced?
    • The winners in each category will be publicly announced at the AOJ/NCEW Annual Convention.

The Rules

    • This contest is open to anyone who iseligiblefor active membership in the Association of Opinion Journalists. For membership requirements, please visit www.opinionjournalists.org. Membership in AOJ is not required to enter this contest.
    • To be announced in 2014.
  • FEES:
    • The entry fee for current AOJ members is $20 per entry. The entry fee for non-members is $35 per entry. Entry fees are non-refundable.
    • This contest has two circulation/audience divisions: Under 100,000 and 100,000 or more. One Opinion Journalist of the Year will be named in each division. Up to five awards will be given for Top Opinion Pages, regardless of circulation/audience division. Online journalists and sydicated columnists should enter under the Opinion Journalist of the Year/100,000+ category.


All entries must consist of the following:

  • One sample from Jan. 1 - March 31, 2012
  • One sample from April 1 - June 30, 2012 
  • One sample from July 1 - Sept. 30, 2012
  • One sample from Oct. 1 - Dec. 31, 2012
  • Up to three wild-card samples from any time during the 2012 calendar year.
  • A cover letter which includes a statement of eligibility, the specific impacts of the samples, and any additional information that may be helpful for the judges.

Judging for each submission will be based equally on clarity, strength of writing, creativity and impact.

Winners will be publicly announced at the AOJ Annual Convention. Each winner will be notified individually and invited to attend the convention and awards ceremony. Judges reserve the right to modify the awards presented, based on the number of entries received.

(The entry schedule for each year will be announced; awards are presented at the AOJ convention (Symposium, 2014...)

Facts and FAQs about 2013 Convention

You can register in one of two ways.

  1. Fill out the form in the registratin packet and mail it in with your payment.You may write one check, made payable to AOJ, for all your meals and activities, and those of your spouse/guest. Make sure to keep a copy for your files. The registration form and payment must be received no later than Friday, September 20, 2013
  2. Visit www.opinionjournalists.org/conventionand fill out the online form. You will only be able to pay with a credit card. Make sure to save the confirmation email and receipt for your records.

The registration fee is waived...

... If you register by August 30, 2013, or if you are a lifetime or retired member of AOJ. Please fill out the registration form and submit with your payment for meals and activites.

Spouses and guests may join you at convention.

However, spouses and guests must pay for all convention fees, except for guests officially invited with waiver by AOJ. Attendance of all guests must be cleared with an officer of AOJ. While attending, guests must observe AOJ’s general restriction against soliciting business or lobbying for special interests.

Hotel reservations can be made directly through the Hyatt Newport Hotel & Spa.

To make your hotel reservations, or for information about accommodations, please call the Hyatt Regency Newport Hotel & Spa directly at 1-888-421-1442 and indicate your affiliation with the Association of Opinion Journalists. The special AOJ Convention rate is $189 (plus a $10 resort fee) a night. The deadline for hotel reservations is September 11, 2013.


If you are flying into Providence, shuttle service from the TF Green Airport to the hotel can be arranged through Cozy Cab Shuttle. Reservations are required. It is approximately a 30-minute drive and the cost is about $26.75 per person. Shuttles leave the airport every two hours between at 8:00 a.m. and midnight. Shuttle service can also be arranged for a return trip to the airport. Contact Cozy Cab Shuttle atwww.cozytrans.comor 401-846-2500 for more information.


  • Please remind me again... When and where is this year's convention?
    • The 2013 AOJ/NCEW Convention will be held at the Hyatt Newport Hotel & Spa in Newport, R.I.. The convention begins with an Opening Reception and Dinner on Sunday, October 13 and concludes with the Closing Banquet on Tuesday, October 15.
  • I'm not sure I can get away. Why should I attend this year's convention?
    • You won't want to miss this year's convention, which is shaping up to be informative on a wide range of topics. Aside from meeting up with fellow AOJ members, you will hear from former New York Times CEO Janet Robinson, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, and Nalval War College President Rear Admiral Walter E. Carter, Jr. In addition, panel discussions will cover topics such as new media, water and security and aquatic science. For a detailed schedule, click here.
  • I need to cancel my convention registration. Can I get a refund?
    • Refunds will be made in full for registration fees and meal tickets, provided notice of cancellation is received at AOJ Headquarters no later than Friday, September 20, 2013. Tickets purchased as part of a package cannot be individually refunded. No refunds will be provided at the registration desk.
  • I purchased the Meal/Activity Package, but missed one of the meals. Can I get a refund?
    • Unfortunately, the hotel required meal counts prior to convention, so the staff can adequately prepare. Since the hotel bills AOJ according to that count, AOJ is not able to make any refunds after September 20.
  • I made my hotel reservations, but didn't get the $189 a night rate.
    • For the best rate and benefits, you should make your reservations directly through the Hyatt Newport by the September 11 hotel deadline. When you make your reservations, please be sure to tell them you are with the Association of Opinion Journalists, and the room rate should be $189 a night. However, the $189 a night room rate and the other concessions promised by the hotel cannot be guaranteed if you choose to make your reservations through any other website or agency, or after the September 11 hotel deadline. You can make your reservations online here.
  • I cannot attend the general meeting on Saturday. How can I vote in the board elections?
    • You can contact AOJ headquarters at aoj@pa-news.organd request an absentee ballot. All absentee ballots must be received back at headquarters no later than Tuesday, October 1, 2013. (14 days prior to the board elections on October 15). If you will be attending convention, but cannot attend the meeting, absentee ballots may be picked up at the registration table and must be returned to the registration table no later than Noon on Tuesday, October 15.

QUESTIONS? If you have any questions or concerns about convention regsitration and payment, please contact AOJ Headquarters at 717-703-3015 or send an email to aoj@pa-news.org.

2013 Convention Schedule

Schedule, speakers and panelists are subject to change.


  • 10:30 a.m: Mansion Tour - Bus departs from Hyatt Regency Newport Hotel
  • 3:00 p.m. –Registration table open
  • 3:30 p.m. –Optional Workshop
    • David Holwerk, The Kettering Foundation Opinion Journalism and Citizens: Another Lens, a New Focus
  • 4:45 p.m.: Mansion Tour - Bus returns to Hyatt Regency Newport Hotel
  • 6:00 p.m. –Reception at Hyatt Regency Newport
  • 7:00 p.m. –Dinner at Hyatt Regency Newport
    • Janet Robinson,former CEO, The New York Times Bullish on the Future of Journalism
      • Introduced by Bob Davis, The Anniston Star,and AOJ President
  • 9:00 p.m. –Hospitality Suite


  • Time TBD:Family/Guest Tour: Touro Synagogue, a National Historic Trust Site (Plan for approximatly a 2 hour tour.)
  • 7:30 a.m. – Breakfast at Hyatt Regency Newport
  • 8:15 a.m. – The Eggs, Nuts and Bolts of Our Craft, Part 1
    • General Discussion: What's working; handling challenges; fresh ideas we can all share
      • Moderated by David Holwerk, The Kettering Foundation
  • 9:15 a.m. – Science and Public Policy
    • Panelists: Cornelia Dean, The New York Times, moderator; Andy Rosenberg, Center for Science and Democracy, Union of Concerned Scientists; Arthur Gold, College of Environment and Life Sciences, The University of Rhode Island; Tyson Slocum, Energy Program, Public Citizen; Dave Gallo, Woods Hole, National Oceanographic Institution.
  • 10:45 a.m. –Break
  • 11:00 a.m. – The Eggs, Nuts and Bolts of Our Craft, Part 2
    • Focused Discussion: Digital and other strategies for success Panelists: Thea Joselow, Association of Opinion Journalists, moderator; Jamie McIntyre, "All Things Considered," NPR, and Philip Merrill College of Journalism; Soraya Darabi, digital strategist (former manager, digital partnerships and social media, The New York Times)
  • 12:00: Lighthouse Harbor Cruise: Bus departs from Hyatt Regency Newport hotel
  • 12:15 a.m. –Break
  • 12:30 p.m. –Luncheon at Hyatt Regency Newport
    • U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI The State of Our Oceans
      • Introduced by Jim Ludes, Salve Regina University
  • Time TBD:Family/Guest Tour: Harbor Cruise (Plan for approximatly a 2-3 hour tour.)
  • 2:15 p.m. – Water and Security
    • Panelists: David Dumke, Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd Program for Strategic Research and Studies, University of Central Florida, moderator; Paul Sullivan, National Defense University; Katherine Bliss, Water Working Group, Center for Strategic and International Studies; Naval War College (unspecified).
  • 3:15 p.m.: Lighthouse Harbor Cruise: Bus returns to Hyatt Regency Newport Hotel
  • 3:45 p.m. –Break
  • 4:00 p.m. – Seminar
    • "Demystifying Aquatic Science for Opinion Journalists"Presented by Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting, The University of Rhode Island
  • 5:45 p.m. –Free Evening
  • 9:00 p.m. –Hospitality Suite


  • 8:00 a.m. –Breakfast at Hyatt Regency Newport
  • Time TBD:Family/Guest Tour: National Museum of American Illustration (Plan for approximatly a 2-3 hour tour.)
  • 9:00 a.m. – America’s Water Issues
    • Panelists: James Ludes, Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, Salve Regina University, moderator; Angela Ledford Anderson, Climate and Energy Program, Union of Concerned Scientists; Matt Hite, Environment, Technology and Regulatory Affairs, U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Robert Marquis, Swansea Water District; Paul Faeth, Energy, Water and Climate, The CNA Corporation.
  • 10:30 a.m. –Break
  • 11:00 a.m. –Keynote remarks and luncheon
    • Vice Adm. (ret.) Lee Gunn, President, Institute for Public Research, The CNA Corporation National Security Implications of Climate Change and Sea-Level Rise
      • Introduced by John C. Bersia, University of Central Florida, WUCF/PBS and 2013 Convention Chair
  • 11:45 a.m. –Luncheon at Hyatt Regency Newport
  • 12:45 p.m. –Break
  • 1:00 p.m. – Broaden Your Horizons
    • Hands-on learning experiences/discussions for opinion journalists on issues such as climate-change adaptation and the effects of sea-level rise, which are of concern in many parts of country. Trip is guided by experts from Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting, The University of Rhode Island.
  • 4:00 p.m. –AOJ Business Meeting
  • 5:30 p.m. –Break
  • 6:30 p.m.: Bus depart for Salve Regina University
  • 7:00 p.m. –Dinner at Salve Regina University
    • AOJ Awards Ceremony
    • Rear Admiral Walter E. "Ted" Carter, Jr.,President, Naval War College
      • Introduced by Froma Harrop, The Providence Journal/Creators Syndicate, and AOJ Immediate Past Presdient
  • 9:00 p.m. –Hospitality Suite

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