Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Retired editor-publisher: Editorials matter, and here's why

Tim and Jeremy Waltner at Jeremy's newspaper, formerly Tim's
(Photo by Randy Dockendorf, Yankton Press & Dakotan)
This essay was prompted by the June 20 Rural Blog post about editorial pages and editorials.

By Tim Waltner

Why write an editorial?

Providing objective, fair and reliable information for our readers is at the heart of our mission as community journalists. Newspapers have a responsibility to provide residents of the communities they serve with facts, sharing information that people want and that people need. People need to have confidence that what they read in our publications is true, fair, balanced, accurate and reliable.

That is at the heart of our credibility and our responsibility to our community.

But I believe the soul of the newspaper is found on our editorial pages.

Newspapers have a responsibility to provide the communities they serve with a public forum. The newspaper should be a place where a community can talk to itself, where anyone can share an observation, a concern, a challenge or a compliment. Without that public dialogue, the citizens are deprived of an essential tool for participation in the affairs of the community. Not only do individuals suffer from the absence of public dialogue, so do the communities themselves.

The newspaper has a responsibility to lead by example by setting aside a portion of every issue for that dialogue. And the newspaper has a responsibility to lead by example with a local editorial regularly and consistently.

Contrary to what some may think, the primary purpose of an editorial is not to change people's minds or tell them how to think. Rather, an editorial should encourage people to think, offering context and perspective that helps them explore ideas in ways that they might not have considered.

Editorials should provoke thought.

They should offer perspective.

They should take a stand.

They should be bold.

They should include a call to action.

They can be affirming.

They can be critical.

They should be thoughtful.

They should be well written.

They should be relevant locally, although that doesn't mean the topics need to be exclusively local; regional, state, national and international issues have impact on local people and local people can have impact on regional, state, national and international issues.

Editorials help our readers connect with their communities. In addition, regular local columns and letters from readers help strengthen that connection.

 And here is a final observation that I fear is too often overlooked when talking about the value of editorials. The process is an important internal discipline for newspaper editors and publishers. The process asks the question: what matters the most to our community this week – or for the dailies – today?

We make that judgment when we decide what runs on our front page in every issue we publish. We should do that on the editorial page as well – regularly and consistently.

Suggesting that "there's nothing to editorialize" on implies there's nothing your community needs to talk about or think about.

I disagree with that premise.

Deciding on the topic and tone of an editorial requires taking stock of our communities in a way that's a bit different from deciding on which photo and story should lead on the front page. Rather, it’s identifying a topic for conversation that’s relevant and timely.

Not every editorial needs to be a blistering indictment. Editorials can also be affirming. Editorial can offer suggestions and solutions. Editorial can broach issues worthy of discussion.

Our editorials provide context, insight and reflect a commitment to thoughtful conversation rather than short rants and retorts on social media.

Our editorials help explain issues in a way that transcends the news coverage.

Our editorials clearly mark the difference between straight reporting and opinions.

Our editorials help lead community conversations that are essential to democracy.

The bottom line: we should make every effort to write thoughtful, clear and engaging editorials that encourage community conversations.

Our communities deserve them.

Our democracy requires them.

Tim L. Waltner began his career as a community journalist with the weekly Freeman Courier in South Dakota in the spring of 1973. The Courier had published a weekly editorial since 1960 and he continued that tradition. He purchased the weekly in 1984 and strengthened the opinion pages of the Courier. He stepped aside as publisher in 2016 and the new publisher - his son, Jeremy - continues to write both a personal column and an editorial every week. Although the elder Waltner officially retired in 2020, he continues to write a monthly column for the Courier’s opinion pages that also include other local columnists on a weekly basis. He coordinates the annual editorial critiques of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors.

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