David Arkin's blog

Should editors write columns?

Editors are many things today: Strategic thinkers, planners, digital drivers and financial gurus. Should they also be columnists?

Yes, and those columns are incredibly beneficial for a host of reasons, but the best columns are diverse in their approach from week to week. Here are some examples.

1. Explaining the news: An editor’s piece that explains how the newspaper covers something, a change in a product or a new feature, all make for good editor columns. The key here is not to make the column just about every new feature you have rolled out but a good balance of new stuff and a window into the sausage-making of a newspaper. Your readers will be fascinated with how decisions are actually made, and your columns can help provide a glimpse into that process. If your newspaper has created a Reader Advisory Board, a column explaining the feedback and changes you are implementing based on reader feedback makes for great editor column material. The warning here is not to turn this into a self-serving promotional campaign for how great you and your newspaper are. When you mess up or could have done a better job, be upfront about it.

Alan Miller, editor of the Dispatch in Columbus, Ohio, has done a fine job since his newspaper was acquired by GateHouse Media on addressing changes at the paper in his weekly column.

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Here’s an example where he addressed issues in the pressroom. While Alan is not running the newspaper’s press operations, he understands the issues well enough to explain to readers the changes the paper is taking to get the product delivered earlier. He has become the paper’s voice. That’s a role an editor should play, and using a weekly column as a platform to communicate what’s happening at your paper and why, especially when readers are expecting changes, is an incredibly useful thing to do.

2. Personal touch: Writing about your family, experiences and emotions is a great way to connect with readers. Angie Muhs, editor of the State Journal Register in Springfield, Ill., wrote about a car accident she was involved in.

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She described how the crash helped her see how the news affects readers. This line is perfect: “I pretty much dropped the ball as a journalist. But I hope I did OK as a human.” The column connected with readers because anyone who has ever been involved in a serious car accident could relate to the emotions Angie experienced. And readers love knowing that the person making the content decisions for their hometown newspaper goes through many of the same emotions they do. You could stretch this beyond a car accident into challenges you face — that are common for many others — with raising kids, sending kids to college and retiring. Those experiences — just like Angie’s car accident — show the human side of being an editor. This approach becomes lame when the column is nothing but your personal experience every week and turns into a play-by-play of your weekend or a trip. But Angie uses a mix of subjects to reach out to readers.

3. Community connection: Writing about involvement in the community, through events you are taking part in or leadership activities you are helping drive, makes for great column material. Maybe that’s introducing folks who are helping improve your community through volunteering at an event or calling to attention how important an event or cause is in your town. When you write about these events, it shows your commitment to improving your community. This is a good example of that approach by Mark Baldwin, editor of the Rockford Register Star.

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His paper has been leading a transformation project in their community and he uses his column to drive the initiative forward.

4. Addressing issues: Editors should feel free to hold leaders and others accountable for their actions. Editor columns don’t have to be all sunshine and roses. Addressing wrongdoing and encouraging transparency in government or the desire to see a certain issue go in a specific direction (like local city council decisions), shows your interest in the future of your community and your desire to see results that will better your town.

Every editor should write a column. And they should do it weekly. It’s the best way to develop an ongoing relationship with readers. The consistency is important, as readers will anticipate reading your column every Thursday. It will become part of their routine, just like reading an advice column or doing the crossword puzzle, something they look forward to. Tip: If you get a question or complaint from a reader through an email, phone call or letter, jot it down and, if appropriate, address it in your weekly column. Having a running list will help provide a good flow of consistent columns.

The editor’s voice and that relationship with readers is so critical. I personally have seen the benefit of it. It creates an outreach for readers who previously didn’t have that connection or didn’t understand why you made a certain decision.

The best editor columns don’t just focus on a single thing, like writing every week about what’s happening at your newspaper. That eventually will become pretty boring for your audience. A mix is important. But you have to find your voice, and you have to determine what is needed in your market. For example, if your newspaper hasn’t had a voice in years, writing about what you are doing to improve the product may make more sense for the next few months than taking your elected leaders to task. You really have to consider what the market needs. The important thing is to be diverse, in some form, evolve your commentary and be the voice of your paper.

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