You’re a journalist. By nature, responding to the president’s most recent tweetstorm, or weighing in on immigration policy comes naturally, especially if part of your job is to fill your paper’s opinion page.
But does spending time on a national issue, when you have so many other pressing needs locally, make any sense?
Not often, according to Michael Smith, the executive editor of the Herald-Journal in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and the regional editor over North Carolina papers in Hendersonville, Gastonia and Shelby. Smith is the two-time reigning Best of GateHouse editorial writer of the year.
Smith’s opinion on the national-local battle was one of three important takeaways from a recent GateHouse Professional Development Series presentation he recently gave on keeping your opinion page as engaging as possible. Here are all three:
FOCUS LOCAL ENERGIES ON LOCAL ISSUES
Resources aren’t what they used to be in most newsrooms, especially when it comes to those for opinion pages. And while it’s easy to romanticize about the past, being practical in the future is a better strategy. Chances are you don’t have a ton of time to prepare your opinion pages, so think of what will give your readers the most value, Smith insisted.
“There’s a wealth of national commentary out there, not just on our pages through syndicated columnists, but at a bunch of other sites online, and on TV. There’s a host of opinion content out there about every national issue you can come up with. But nobody’s giving our readers about local and even state issues except us,” Smith said.
“So if we’re going to put some effort into writing editorials, I think it’s of little use to give people yet another opinion on a national issue. Let’s give them some local information, a local issue, that they’re not going to get anywhere else.”
USE COLUMNS IF YOU’RE GOING ALONE
Nothing puts a strain on an editor-publisher relationship like one speaking on behalf of the other — without knowing how that person feels about the issue.
Not sure whether something should be a column or an editorial? It’s probably a column.
Here’s an audio clip of Smith (via telephone) discussing how he decides how he chooses.
REMEMBER: LETTERS TRUMP EVERYTHING
Sorry about the play on words, but if someone sends a letter, you use it. Cut your own opinion out and hold it a day if necessary.
Smith said he’ll help someone who has an opinion, but doesn’t feel comfortable enough penning a letter on their own. He also said, the paper has dumped standing pieces like editorial cartoons when the occasion calls for it.
“Letters take top priority. Sometimes, before an election, we’ll pull everything else off the page, just to fill it with letters,” Smith said.
“The letters are the most important thing on that page.”