Hold editorials to highest standard

By Jim Pumarlo

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. Why 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.

Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He
can be reached at pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions.