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Paper seeks members for advisory board

June 02, 1997

Not long after I began work at The Herald-Mail 24 years ago, I went to a flea market held on the lawn the Funkstown Legion, and bought a book entitled "The Book of Knowledge and Universal Educator." Written in the early 1900s, it had sections on everything from mining to the stock market.

But what impressed me most was the article on newspapering. Mechanically, at least, the process of putting out a newspaper hadn't been altered a great deal in six decades, since the book's illustrations of a 1900-era pressroom showed the same type of linotype machines and hot-lead-plate presses we were still using in the early 1970s.

Much has changed since then. I'm typing this column on The Herald-Mail's third newsroom computer system, and instead of telling someone in the shop how to lay out the page you're reading, my layout is done right on the screen. I didn't think so when it was first installed, but it's faster, cleaner and more efficient than the old way of doing things.

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Now Publisher John League wants my operation to undergo a different kind or retooling. Instead of relying on random phone calls and chance comments for feedback, League wants us to actively seek input from a board of interested citizens.

The board would work much like the one he set up when he was the paper's executive editor: A group of citizens would agree to read the paper (in this case, the editorial pages) with a critical eye, then provide feedback to the editors.

Such a group, League said, "would help us define the issues that are important, respond to the opinion columns and letters and bring issues to our attention."

Would such a group really be able to affect The Herald-Mail's operations?

Yes it would. League's newsroom advisory group suggested that Washington County's economic development be compared to one in a community of similar size. The result was a large package of articles on how this area compares to Staunton, Va.

How would it work?

We're asking for 10 citizens to respond to our appeal for members by July 1 by writing us a letter of 250 words or less, telling us why they'd like to be part of this group. We need at least that many, because League's experience suggests that no one will be able to make every meeting, and that some will drop out for various reasons.

We're asking of a commitment of at least a year, or 12 meetings. After that, we'll evaluate the idea and if everyone agrees that our intuition about what the community wants is so good we don't need any citizen input, we'll disband. That's unlikely, however, since I'm usually surprised by what the public likes and dislikes.

That's because, as a wise woman by the name of Jean Gaddy Wilson pointed out during a 1992 seminar, I'm a newspaper person who grew up in a family that subscribed to three newspapers. I enjoy the time I spend reading a newspaper and consider it time well-spent.

But it would be extremely arrogant for me to believe that everyone feels that way. To put it another way, just because I love chocolate bars, I can't assume that everyone has the same sort of sweet tooth that I do. And as it relates to newspaper sales, maybe what the public wants is not a chocolate bar, but a low-fat corn muffin. We won't know until we ask.

When and where will the group meet?

We won't know that until we get everyone together, but it would help if you could express a preference in your letter, and tell us those times when it would be impossible for you to get together. League said his previous group liked meeting at The Herald-Mail building, in part because it made it easier to bring in employee guests, and to do specialized tours when one was needed to understand why this or that is done.

We'd like to get a mix of people from all parts of the community, with an emphasis on those people who don't normally have contact with newspaper editors. Most elected officials have strong opinions about the newspaper, but they're about as far from being typical readers as we are.

If you're interested, please send that 250-word letter by July 1 to Editorial Page Editor, The Herald-Mail, 100 Summit Ave., Hagerstown, Md., 21740. We hope to have this thing up and running by August.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail Opinion page.

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