By: Tony Case Are readers paying less attention to them? SPJ panel offers advice on how to increase reader interest sp.
IF IT'S TRUE that newspaper readers increasingly avoid editorial pages, the reason might be that editorials often are "bland," "boring" and "pompous." That's the word from Baltimore Sun editorial writer Sara Engram, who spoke during a panel discussion called "Editorialists ? The Last Dinosaurs?" at the Society of Professional Journalists convention last month. Newspapers must revitalize their editorial pages to "make them part of the community conversation," she said, and to compete with popular television and radio personalities such as conservative Rush Limbaugh, who serve up their opinions daily to rapt audiences. Mentioning the title of the panel, Engram said it is ironic that there is some question about the role of editorialists at a time when there is unprecedented demand for and availability of opinion. "I think Americans are really hungry for opinions and analysis," she said. "I think if we can make our writing more lively and have definite opinions, we can go a long way toward correcting the image of a page that really seems to many people to be a dinosaur." Jack Versteeg, an editorial writer at the Palm Beach Post, West Palm Beach, Fla., suggested that good editorial writers must be good reporters. "Don't just read the stories in your newspaper and think you know what happened," he advised. "You will be surprised to find how often stories in your newspaper are wrong, incomplete or just short on facts." Versteeg blasted newspapers that forbid their editorial staffs from breaking news stories. The Post's editorial writers, like its reporters, have beats and sources, he said, and editorialists have been known to report stories first ? sometimes to the displeasure of reporters who believe that they should have been contacted. Versteeg said keeping editorials local contributes to the community conversation and allows newspapers to make real changes. It doesn't behoove him to dwell on Washington or Haiti because "Bill Clinton is not reading what I write about Washington or Haiti," he said. Engram agreed that "too many editorial pages don't take the opportunity to make a difference and to really address the hot topics in the community." She complained that too often editorials waffle, saying, "This on the one hand, that on the other hand, and this bears watching." (Once, a Sun computer programmer with a sense of humor enabled editorial page staffers to write "This bears watching" with a single keystroke. "We tried never to use it," Engram said.) Editorials that avoid taking stands, are afraid to offend, state the obvious or lecture are "useless," Versteeg said, adding that editorials that repeat opinions will get through to the public consciousness. "Don't state your opinion once, say you're on the record and assume that people remember what you said. They don't," he advised. "Say it again; be a pain." He also urged editorial writers to stay ahead of the news. "Don't wait for meetings to happen, then say what should have happened," he said. "Don't criticize what they did unless you told them what to do first." Both of the speakers agreed that editorials should not be signed. Versteeg said that because he doesn't agree with many of the editorials that he writes, it would be wrong for him to align himself with those opinions. Engram said, "We are speaking for something beyond ourselves. "When I write an editorial, I'm not speaking for Sara Engram, I'm speaking for the Baltimore Sun." Writing as the voice of an institution as opposed to an individual lends more credibility to commentary and sets the editorial page apart from talk shows and syndicated columns, which are personality-driven, she added. Engram sometimes receives calls accusing her of bias after she writes a particularly charged editorial, to which she replies, "Hey, that's my job. "If I'm not biased, if you don't detect a strong opinion in my editorial, then I don't really earn my paycheck that day," she said.