A dozen new voices in Herald-Mail's ear

September 11, 1997

Five years ago this summer, the staff of The Herald-Mail went through an experience that was both scary and invigorating at the same time, kind of like the first ride one on of those new mega-monster roller coasters, except that we got to keep our feet on the ground most of the time.

It was called New Directions for News, and was run by veteran newswoman Jean Gaddy Wilson, who spent a couple of days at the Hagerstown Sheraton Inn shocking us into the realization that we were putting out newspapers that featured things that we liked, without thinking a whole lot about what readers wanted.

The changes that have occurred in the last five years have been sweeping. We began to do articles for and about groups like single-parent families and people who've only recently learned to speak and read English. Newsroom groups met with 300 Tri-state teens and put together a weekly teen page that not only features news of interest to young readers, but young writers as well. Other groups worked to revamp the church page and we created a new section - Money - for the Sunday paper.


As a continuation of this effort, earlier this summer we asked for volunteers from all over our circulation area to serve on a 12-member editorial page advisory committee. This past Thursday we met for the first time.

Why an advisory committee? Because when you're inside the newspaper business for a while, you tend to lose a reader's perspective on what's interesting, and maybe on what's important. Five years ago we learned that we need to listen to more than our own thoughts on those things.

Our group is as diverse as we could make it, in age, profession and geographic distribution. They were not shy about sharing their thoughts, and I hope to pass many of them along in this space as our monthly meetings continue.

Our guest for this first session was Gloria George, Herald-Mail's executive editor, who's in charge of everything that appears in the paper except the editorial pages and advertisements. Among other things, she explained the differing roles of the news and editorial departments by talking about election coverage. The news department does not care who wins elections, she said, only that the results are reported correctly and on deadline. The editorial department, however, is allowed to have opinions on who should win a particular race.

The group also discussed what drives the editorial pages. In most cases, we told them, it's the news coverage. Writing editorials on topics that haven't been the subject of news stories is possible, but if an editorial is a reader's first source of information on a topic, it has to carry a lot more fact than opinion. It's much better, I feel, if the reader gets the first word from an objective news story.

Other topics we discussed, and which might be the spark for future editorial page projects, included:

- the need to educate local citizens on the relationship between the creation of good jobs and education. Earlier this year I wrote on the dual problems this area faces when industries don't locate here because they've looked at statistics showing a relatively low number of people with four-year degrees here, which means that all the parents (like me) who want our children to be college-educated face the possibility that our kids may have to go elsewhere to find a job when they graduate.

- a suggestion for a local political column which would provide insight in who our elected officials are and what they've done in the past - good and bad - more than two weeks prior to an election.

- an idea for a periodic series that would let readers know how their tax dollars are spent in specific instances. How much does it cost, for example, to train one person to get them off the welfare rolls?

- the dilemma faced by members of Generation X, who are ready for careers, but who find that most spots in the working world are occupied, in large part, by the Baby Boomers, who are not yet ready to retire.

What we're asking this panel to do is to give us ideas on a number of subjects, including: issues we should editorialize about, editorial page policies (length of letters, etc.), topics for point-counterpoint articles and whether the syndicated columnists we have now are interesting and relevant.

If you'd like to share some ideas with them, or with us, we invite you to send questions, comments and ideas to Editorial Advisory Committee, in care of Bob Maginnis, The Herald-Mail, P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, Md., 21741.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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