Opinion writing

Local editorials are the franchise of local newspapers

What’s the first word you associate with editorials? Editorials can serve a variety of roles.

They educate. What are the current rental codes and how would they be strengthened under a proposed ordinance before the city council? What’s the process, and the pros/cons, for annexing land to a city?

They enlighten. Newspapers might feel an obligation to write something about the annual city festival. What not write about the opportunity for the community to display itself to visitors and speak the impact of tourism on the local economy?

They entertain. An editorial might spin an April Fool’s yarn or something light-hearted for Valentine’s Day.

They challenge your personal beliefs, forcing you out of your comfort zone.

They reinforce your positions, leaving you saying, “Now that editorial makes sense.”

They frustrate. They anger. They might prompt laughter or tears.

A common element to the most effective editorials, however, is that they leave an impression or prompt a reaction. In contrast, nondescript editorials are easily forgotten.

Above all, however, editorials should be held to the highest standards of journalism. They must be accurate. They must be accountable.

And, I argue, especially in community journalism – those standards are ratcheted up another notch. For 22 years, I wrote editorials five days a week – the vast majority focusing on local issues.

Local news is the franchise of local newspapers. In similar vein, local editorials are the franchise of local newspapers. That often means offering commentary on topics that necessarily involve friends, neighbors and associates – individuals you see and do things with on a regular basis.

It’s straightforward to report on a proposal by the high school baseball coach to take his team on a spring training trip to warmer climes. It’s more challenging – and I submit more gratifying – to write an editorial that suggests an overemphasis on sports and the need for the school to stick to its core academic mission.

I don’t suggest the editorial won’t generate reaction from readers or prompt some friends to avoid you for a while. As difficult as it is, however, you must focus on the facts despite your closeness to the circumstances or the individuals involved.

I fondly remember my wife – always a staunch supporter of the newspaper’s right and responsibility to weigh in on the editorial page. I’d often use her as a sounding board for ideas and to preview an editorial. She’d also admit, on occasion, that it could be uncomfortable among our circle of friends.

I recall the time we were walking downtown about to cross paths with a local official who we had taken to task in our coverage. I could almost imagine her saying, “Can we turn around?”

But, as I would remind her, the subjects of our editorials ran the gamut. Democrats and Republicans, downtown and strip mall merchants, business and labor leaders, school administrators and coaches – they all received their editorial due. We’d never leave the house if we wanted to shy away from potential confrontations.

She recognized that, too, and was my biggest booster. She admired and respected the fact that we took strong stances on local issues as an institution in the community. She’d suggest ideas, too. As you sit down to write an editorial, keep that at the forefront: Strive for the same admiration and respect from your community, and you’ll have the foundation for a strong editorial.


The language of journalism

Grammar changes can erode meaning

International visitors are often amazed with the number of cereals available in American supermarkets.   Wikipedia lists almost 400 brands – and that’s counting Cheerios, for instance, as one brand, not the 20 different Cheerios varieties you can buy.

Do you really need to be able to choose types of Cheerios that range from oat cluster to apple cinnamon to banana nut to yogurt burst? Probably not, but each brings a little different taste.  We would lose something by doing away with all the different flavors and returning to just plain ol’ Cheerios.  Who’d want to lose all that taste nuance?

But what we wouldn’t do with flavors, we do with language.  The trend now is to level everything out.  Brank Bruni of The New York Times pointed out the latest casualty this week:  who.

Now you hear TV talking heads talking about the Alabama governor that resigned and the passenger that United removed from its flight.  We’ve forgotten the pronoun that acknowledges us as people, as human beings.

Bruni laments this trend in his column, and then offers an explanation that goes far beyond grammar:

How did we get here? Why is “who” on the ropes? One of my theories is that in this hypercasual culture of ours, we’re so petrified of sounding overly fussy that we’ve swerved all the way to overly crass.

And my fear is that there’s a metaphor here: something about the age of automation, about the disappearing line between humans and machines. The robots are coming. Maybe we’re killing off “who” to avoid the pain of having them demand — and get — it.

Whether or not that’s the reason, we are certainly watching our language change. And for those of us who object, we’re labeled with the ultimate pejorative:  prescriptivists.

We evil prescriptivists believe that language standards mean something.  For that, we’re labeled as linguistic purists. Or worse:  old-fashioned, traditionalist, grammar geeks and fuddy-duddies.

And how did we earn this scorn?  By saying that words mean things.  By holding that they is plural and should not refer to a singular noun. By rejecting dangling modifiers as the norm, with no concern for the reader. By standing firm against inserting – or leaving out – commas willy-nilly, disregarding the effect on a sentence’s meaning (it’s the Let’s eat Grandma vs. the Let’s eat, Grandma question).

We criticize the president for his misstatements of fact.  That’s because we believe that presidential statements should accurately reflect reality.  But grammar is not a dilettante’s playground – it’s a verbal representation of reality; when we drop time-honored standards, we’re saying that our language does not need to line up with the reality it represents.

We’d never want just one flavor of Cheerios.  They are different for a reason.  Just like who and that, and they and he or she.

Community Journalism Credibility

Distrust of national media may affect the credibility of local newspapers

Trust in “the mass media, such as newspapers, TV and radio” in polls taken by the Gallup Organization was at 32 percent last year, the lowest ever – and was significantly lower than the 40 percent recorded in 2015.

Rural newspapers have often presumed that such trends don’t affect them, because they’re in closer touch with smaller communities, where readers know the people at the paper. That is not as safe an assumption as it once was, based on some events, trends and issues we’ve reported lately in The Rural Blog.

For example, a Feb. 5-6 Emerson College poll of registered voters, weighted to reflect turnout in the 2016 election, found them evenly divided about the Trump administration’s truthfulness, but by 53 to 39 percent, they considered the news media untruthful.

The Pew Research Center found in early 2016 that there was little difference in the trust of local and national news outlets. About 22 percent of Americans said they trust local news outlets a lot, and 18 percent said that of national news sources. Recently, rural and community journalists have voiced concern that the attacks on “big media” are hurting “little media,” too.

One is Mark Smith, editor of the Davenport Times in Lincoln County, Washington, just west of Spokane, who was a minister for 14 years. He told columnist Sue Lani Madsen of The Spokesman-Review that the current atmosphere reminds him of the 1980s scandals involving televangelists, which “forced him to defend his profession at a local level,” Madsen wrote, quoting him: “There is the same sense now that if one media source is bad, they all are.”

Madsen wrote, “He believes he’ll weather the fake news and biased-media storm because he’s built relationships in the community to establish trust and credibility. . . . It’s tougher to build trust and credibility, to make that human connection, as the circle gets larger.” You can read the rest of our story on The Rural Blog at

At the state level, local newspapers still have influence, but in some states the anti-media political atmosphere is threatening them. Tom Larimer, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, wrote that he believed a rash of bills to limit government transparency was fueled by “anti-media sentiment in Washington, D.C.” Our blog item is at

 Attacks on traditional news media and the new dominance of sola media have left people in rural areas disconnected from the facts about national issues, the president of the Kentucky Press Association said at a Society of Professional Journalists forum in Lexington Feb. 23.

“You have people who do not trust anything outside of their own bubble, their own county, their own city,” said Ryan Craig, publisher of the Todd County Standard in Elkton, for nine years the state’s top small weekly.

Craig said he occasionally posts national news stories on Facebook and is asked how he knows they are true.

“I have to tell them … ‘You live in this very rural bubble, and the algorithms for Facebook that you keep popping on all the time have pretty well rules out what I consider balanced journalism that comes into your life.’ The only balanced journalism … they may get is a regional or statewide newspaper, or a local newspaper, and maybe something off the Nashville television stations.”

Craig said he hears people say they read his newspaper, President Trump’s Twitter feed and the Facebook pages of their Republican governor and congressman. “They consider that their news source,” he said. “The problem is, nobody’s asking the source if what they’re saying is even so.” The rest of our blog item about the event is at

Social media limit our exposure to different viewpoints and hurt democracy and journalism, Harvard University law professor and author Cass Sunstein says in his new book, #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media. You’ll hear more about the book; you can read our blog item about it at

Social media’s focus on national news has hurt mid-major newspapers. “There is so much more national and international news available to people, it has changed what people are interested in,” Tom Rosenstiel, director of the American Press Institute, told The Guardian. During the election, “I saw clear and distinct evidence that people were consuming more national news and less local.” We picked up the story at

In a speech at the University of Kentucky, Rosenstiel said news media need to adjust to the age of social media, but can do so without compromising their principles. The co-author of The Elements of Journalism showed how each element has been affected by the new environment and how journalists and their audiences can adapt. You can read our write-up at

One essential element of journalism is what Rosenstiel and co-author Bill Kovach call “the discipline of verification,” which social media lack. Traditional media can reinforce their journalistic brand and the public trust by explaining that, and showing audience how to spot “fake news” and discern facts from “alternative facts,” Danielle Ray of our staff wrote on The Rural Blog, at Read her informative blog item at

If you do or see stories that are relevant across rural areas, please send them to me at [email protected].


Ask an Expert Questions and Answers

The cost of Texas court records

Question: Are courts (criminal/civil/etc) bound by law to charge newspapers for printed copies of court documents? Our district court clerk says everyone–even the media–must pay a $1 per page for any  material printed for us. Is there a way around this?

Answer: Copying costs are set by statute, and they are more expensive for court records than for records of other government agencies.

Section 106.0611 of the Texas Government Code outlines the fees for copies of state district courts. For non-certified copies, the courts may collect “no more than $1” for each “page or part of a page.” (Tex. Gov’t Code Sec. 106.0611(15)).

You can ask the court to waive the fee, but you can also ask to look at the court record and take photos of the page with your phone. That’s free.

The court records fee structure is different than “government agencies” that are subject to the Public Information Act. Under that fee structure, set out in Rule 70.3 of the Administrative Code, standard copy fees are set at 10 cents per page.$ext.TacPage?sl=R&app=9&p_dir=&p_rloc=&p_tloc=&p_ploc=&pg=1&p_tac=&ti=1&pt=3&ch=70&rl=3