Paid endorsement letters

Paid endorsements: treat carefully when requiring down payment for democracy

My hometown newspaper instituted a new policy requiring that readers “pay” for the First Amendment right to express, and explain why, who or what they support or oppose at the voting booth.

The newspaper is sadly is not the first and won’t be the last to begin charging readers for election endorsement letters. As a former editor, I appreciate the arguments presented for enacting the policy. It’s still disappointing, and I respectfully disagree.

To be certain, orchestrated letter-writing campaigns are part and parcel to every candidate’s election strategy. I distinctly remember, during my tenure as editor, the newspaper’s strong editorial campaign to unseat a slate of incumbents in a city council election. It prompted a flurry of letters. One memorable letter came from a candidate’s daughter. She likely was assisted in crafting the letter. We published it in the interest of fair play.

Before implementing a blanket policy of charging for “endorsement” letters in election campaigns, consider other circumstances – issues facing a “public vote” by an elected body:

  • *A school board decides whether to close an elementary school building, or eliminate an academic or extracurricular offering.
  • *A city council faces any number of votes on issues at the center of community conversation. Should the city establish a skateboard park? Should a big-box developer receive tax incentives? Who should be appointed to fill a vacancy on the City Council or Port Authority?
  • *A county board weighs in on a contentious feedlot ordinance.

Supporters and opponents line up on all of these issues. In many cases, organized campaigns lobby the elected officials, often incorporating a stream of letters to the editor. Should these “endorsement letters” also be allowed only on a “pay for play” basis?

Letters indeed carry repetitive themes during election season. It’s a time when editors and the public will become reacquainted with the Boy Scout Law. As an Eagle Scout myself, I still can recite the credo: “A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.”

I exaggerate a bit. But show me a candidate for elective office, and I’ll produce letters from supporters that extol values befitting of an upstanding scout.

On the other hand, the election season also generates some thought-provoking letters that generate worthwhile and beneficial dialogue.

So how can newspapers handle the churn of letters that may be less substantive but still show the endorsement of an individual, a voter? It’s easy to criticize a new policy. It’s more challenging to offer solutions. Here are some ideas:

  • *Limit the number of endorsement letters written by one individual.
  • *Edit letters liberally, especially as election day nears. For starters, it’s a good bet that the introductory and concluding paragraphs can be eliminated from many letters.
  • *To save space, group letters by candidate or issue and run them all under a banner headline.
  • *Reserve space in the print edition for the more substantive letters. Publish the others, especially those that simply repeat themes, on your website where space is unlimited.

I believe that community newspapers can still play a vital role in today’s fractured media landscape. Community newspapers, at their best, are stewards of their communities. The news columns are a blend of stories that people like to read and stories they should read. The advertising columns promote and grow local commerce. The editorial pages are a marketplace of ideas.

Letters are the lifeblood of a vibrant editorial page, especially during election season. Our democracy is invigorated by debating the strengths and weaknesses of candidates seeking elective office – the very individuals who will enact the myriad local, state and national laws that govern our everyday lives. Do we really want to limit this debate to “paid opinions” only?


community issues Newswriting

Here’s some help in reporting on suicides

High-profile deaths always grab headlines. Suicides especially draw attention as witnessed by the deaths of renowned fashion designer Kate Spade and chef Anthony Bourdain. The news was carried in big and small newspapers alike.

Yet, when suicide strikes in our own communities, many newspapers ignore the news. It’s time that all newsrooms have a thoughtful conversation on how to report suicide in a sensitive and forthright manner.

Even newspapers that reject the idea of reporting suicides accept that some circumstances demand an exception. Many newspapers adopt a policy to report suicides only if they involve public officials or if they occur in public settings. The rising incidence of suicides, unfortunately, demands a broader approach. Suicide is in no uncertain terms an epidemic.

A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that suicide rates have increased in all but one state during the past two decades with half of the states showing increases of more than 30 percent. Nearly 45,000 Americans age 10 or older died by suicide in 2016 – more than twice the number of homicides – making it the 10th-leading cause of death and one of three that is increasing. Among people ages 15 to 34, suicide was the second-leading cause of death in 2016. The rise in suicides in the United States crosses lines of age, gender, race and ethnicity.

There is no single approach, no right or wrong way to report suicides. Here are some things to consider when establishing guidelines:

  • –When do suicides warrant front-page coverage?
  • –How much detail should be included? Should the cause of death be identified?
  • –Should suicide ever be reported as the cause of death in an obituary versus in a separate story?
  • –What steps can be taken to ensure timely reporting?
  • –Should certain words or phrases be avoided in the reports?
  • –Should suicide reports be accompanied with hotlines where others can turn for help?

As with the development of any news policy, it’s important to broaden the conversation beyond the newsroom. Identify and talk with those individuals who may have valuable perspectives. Health-care professionals should be near the top of your list. Talk as well with school counselors, mental health advocates, clergy, law enforcement personnel and medical response teams. Ask to speak at a meeting of grief support groups.

Many communities have formal grief response teams that go into schools when a classmate has died. Connect with them, too. And don’t forget that your co-workers may be among the best resources. They and their families are community members, too.

Newsrooms often become preoccupied with reporting a news event, then fall short on attention to follow-up stories. Suicides can present an excellent opportunity for stories that address the causes of suicide, namely depression.

These can be worthwhile and educational stories. But newspapers must consider the impact on victims’ families and friends. No matter how the stories are pursued and presented, personal tragedy is the springboard for the coverage. Follow-up stories, no matter how well intentioned, will put a family back in the spotlight.

Responsive and responsible newspapers can do a great deal to help communities work through tragedies, but coverage must be done with sensitivity. Don’t automatically reject the idea of approaching families of the deceased. During my tenure at Red Wing, we connected with one family whose son took his life four years after losing his brother in a car accident, never recovering from his loss. It resulted in a front-page story and a remarkable series of events that resulted in the insertion of curriculum in eighth-grade health class addressing depression and the signs of suicide.

The sensitivity of suicide almost makes the subject taboo in general conversation, and it brings a feeling of guilt or embarrassment to mention in an obituary. That is unfortunate, because suicide truly is an epidemic as the statistics underscore.

A first step to addressing suicide is to acknowledge and talk about suicide in our communities. Newspapers are in the perfect positon to start and guide that conversation.

Suicides are the kind of news that should be reported if community newspapers truly are to be the recorder of local events – a living history of our home towns. They are necessary if community newspapers are to remain relevant and represent themselves as the source of local information.



Newswriting writing improvement

Stick to the basics: Present all sides of a story

Most reporters can likely relate to this scenario. Someone speaks up at a public meeting to unleash criticism about an individual or organization. Reporters have little difficulty presenting a balanced report – recording all sides of the story – if the accused is at the meeting.

But what happens if the individual is not present? And what if deadlines do not permit time to get the other side of the argument?

It’s the classic case of a “single source” story. These types of stories are no doubt the easiest to write, and they are the most likely to prompt calls of “foul play” from readers – for good reason.

Consider this editor’s note which prefaced a story.

Note: The following article pertains to a presentation which represented one side of a highly controversial topic. Representatives for the alternative position were not available to contest or counter statements made and statistics shared. As such, that perspective is not a component of this report.

Give the newspaper credit for acknowledging the shortcomings in its report, but say what?

The editor’s note – the newspaper’s lack of initiative in pursuing and presenting the other side of the story – is rather remarkable in today’s 24/7 communications landscape. Multiple avenues are available to get the opposing view from picking up the telephone to sending an email to checking out organization websites.

Blind-sided attacks are a common occurrence in reporting the news. Newsrooms, as the clearinghouse of information in your communities, are often in perfect position to anticipate the circumstances and double down your efforts to present all sides of a story.

A simple brainstorming session at a staff meeting can reveal additional opportunities for broader coverage. The more voices in a story, the more balanced a report. Coverage of public affairs affords ample opportunities for including multiple voices.

A school board is prepared to act on a recommendation to switch from half-day to all-day kindergarten; the packet of materials accompanying the agenda details the reasons. A preview of the meeting is a chance to provide “pro” and “con” arguments including interviews with a variety of individuals. Follow-up reports on a variety of board actions present similar opportunities.

Review other everyday coverage in your newspapers.

A community’s selection of a “citizen of the year” is an automatic feature story – usually a one-on-one sit-down with the honoree. Inject some flavor to the story by including comments from other individuals.

A big-box retailer comes into a town with great fanfare. A sidebar is appropriate to capture the sentiments of those who believe existing local retailers will be helped or hindered.

Most items in police blotters are sufficiently summarized in a few sentences. On occasion, take the time to quiz police on some incidents, and the circumstances can lead to an interesting story.

Tracking down all the voices – all the perspectives – of a story is just the first step, however. Two other points are important in the spirit of fairness.

No. 1, give the opposing voices equal prominence. Court proceedings are a great example. In other words, don’t put the prosecutor’s arguments on page one and bury the defense’s rebuttal on jump page. Readers’ attention is limited on the web, too; present the opposing viewpoints in the first few paragraphs.

No. 2, don’t be afraid to hold a story if it means delivering a more complete – and more fair – report. That’s especially the case with nondaily newspapers where it can be a few days to a week before readers receive the “other side.” In these cases, the web is a great friend. Newspapers can wait a few hours to pursue all the voices and still deliver a timely report.

Seeking and incorporating the many varied – yet pertinent – voices in a story is not always easy. It can take time and hard work – solid journalism that benefits the newspaper and readers alike.

FOI Privacy

Balancing the right to know with the right to privacy

Public records are the foundation for reporting a range of stories important to your readers.

Police reports reveal a string of continuing break-ins in a neighborhood. Minutes from a school board committee reveal discussions and eventual recommendation to close an elementary school. Letters sent from a state agency to landowners identify potential locations for off-site location of spent fuel from a nearby nuclear power plant.

All of these stories crossed my desk during my tenure as editor of the

Red Wing (Minn.) Republican Eagle. As you might suspect, none of the news sources willingly volunteered the information. We relied on open meeting and data practices laws to get the information. Our newsroom credo: The more roadblocks thrown our way to gain access to public information, the more aggressive we became in our efforts.

At the same time, newsrooms should not report public records with reckless abandon. As with any right, newspapers have an accompanying responsibility.

Consider our front-page report of a 7-week-old boy who was revived after suffering cardiac arrest. The “heroes” included the foster parents along with the Red Wing police lieutenant and other emergency personnel who responded – all whom we identified.

One name was purposely absent from the story – the name of the child, who was under foster care. We also didn’t publish the child’s name in the ambulance runs printed on a separate page.

In this case, we decided the potential hurt to the natural parent outweighed the public’s right to know the identity of the infant. We made the decision after speaking with personnel at the county social services.

This was one of those rare cases where we withheld information.

Our reticence stemmed from the fear that one or more of the child’s parents might be living in the area. Identifying the child, who was born with medical problems, would raise the obvious question among acquaintances of the family: Why was the boy not in his parents’ home?

The county welfare director confirmed our suspicion. In nearly all cases foster children are placed with families in the home county. That was true here as well; one of the youth’s natural parents lived in our home county.

In the final analysis, we asked ourselves whether we still had a compelling story without identifying the child. As the welfare director said, “It was a great story. The crew did a terrific job.”

Editors and reporters should remain vigilant in monitoring public information and the needs of readers. As with this instance, decisions to publish should be based on the merits of each case.

Flexibility is the best posture. Editors should try to blend policies to best serve community needs. But public information should be sacred ground to newspapers. It should be to readers as well.

If editors bow to readers’ wishes – and they were able to eliminate publication of news at the ease of a phone call – imagine the vast incompleteness of reports. An entire newspaper’s content would become suspect.

Readers often ask why newspapers stand firm on access to and publication of these records. It’s much like the proverbial “if you give an inch, they’ll take a mile.” If the press agrees to one concession, all too often an individual or agency will try to stretch the rules. Soon laws are enacted with additional restrictions on what once was routinely public data.

Newspapers should stand firm on the premise that readers are best served by a full menu rather than a selective serving of public data. Your argument is strongest if you deliver prompt and accurate reports.

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.


Newspaper management

The importance of an editorial calendar

It’s standard procedure at newspapers to chronicle the year. Headlines typically include the passing of noteworthy individuals; the success, or maybe failure, of a civic project; milestones in sports achievements, election results or key community benchmarks.

Convene a brainstorming session with your newsroom – better yet, with a cross-section of employees from your entire “newspaper family” – and you’ll quickly have a list of noteworthy headlines. You may well be surprised at the scope of stories.

That prompts the question: Are you ready for 2017? All newsrooms should prepare an editorial calendar and review it regularly. Many of the things you cover are the same year in and year out. Use the opportunity to explore new approaches for coverage.

Think across the spectrum of your community. Here are three areas.

Public affairs always demands attention. There are the regular meetings of city councils, county boards and school boards plus the numerous commissions and task forces. Do you preview the important agenda items? Do you go beyond the votes and report the impact of the actions in real and understandable terms? Think beyond the meetings as you examine how to broaden your coverage. The mayor presents a state of the city speech. Government bodies spend weeks, even months, reviewing and adopting budgets. Capital improvement projects are previewed.

Also, brainstorm stories that may warrant special coverage. Has a longtime elected official announced that this will be his or her last term of service? Are single issues dominating a government body? Did the election produce new voting blocs?

Sports present a regular staple of stories: the preview, the rigors of the regular season, the playoffs. Team performance can present challenges and opportunities. How do you keep readers interested if a team suffers through a losing season, possibly not even winning a game? In contrast, what kinds of stories can be pursued if a team is headed for a championship season, maybe even going undefeated?

Also, brainstorm stories that may warrant special coverage. Is an athlete on the verge of achieving a scoring milestone? Might a coach notch a noteworthy victory? Is this the last season for a school in a sports conference due to league realignment?

Civic clubs are the fabric of communities. The number of groups and their range of contributions mean editors are routinely approached with requests for coverage. The “asks” range from the Lions Club annual brat feed fund-raiser to volunteer of the year recognition to a candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters. It’s impossible to produce a story and photo for each event. Communicate with organizations early and discuss the two elements of publicity – promotion and actual coverage. An even better idea is to produce a simple set of guidelines that can be distributed to publicity chairs.

Also, brainstorm stories that may warrant special coverage. Is a club celebrating a significant anniversary? Is a local club officer rising through the ranks in the affiliated state or national organization? Is there a special fund-raiser or other project planned that has extra significance to the community?

Planning a calendar can be overwhelming. These are but three areas in your entire range of news. So take a slow approach. Explore and outline your editorial calendar for the tried and true elements of news.

Then identify one new area where you’d like to bolster coverage. Announce it in a column, and set up a process for soliciting feedback from your community. Lay out a plan of action and present it to readers.

Every newsroom is stretched for time and resources as you strive to produce stories that people like to read and stories that people should read. Any additional time you give to planning your calendar is a win-win-win scenario for your newspaper, your readers and your community.