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Can you tell us what to do?

February 23, 2001

Can you tell us what to do?



Four years ago, at the suggestion of Publisher John League, I put out the call for readers to serve on a citizens advisory board for Herald-Mail's editorial page.

Since 1997, the group has met monthly to talk over issues for the editorial page and suggest topics for my own personal columns, which appear on Thursdays and Sundays.

The group has hashed over everything from the allowable length of letters to the editor to which syndicated columnists we should run, and a lot of ground in between.

The members have also talked to a variety of local people in the news, including Washington County School Superintendent Herman Bartlett Jr., Harold Phillips, the Clear Spring man whose number-crunching was the starting point for the county's school-consolidation plan and all of the candidates who ran in last year's school board election.

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This group is blunt, but more important, those who participate regularly are smart and believe strongly that public discussion of the issues is the way for a community to make progress.

I say "those who participate regularly" because, over these past four years, some who joined have changed jobs, have moved out of the area or simply lost interest. I can't blame them; there's no pay and no fame involved. But if I'm going to get regular feedback on what we do on the editorial page, the group needs some new members.

That's especially true because those who've found it difficult to participate include some of our our younger members, like college students. These folks are -or should be - our next generation of readers. And if we're not getting feedback from them, how will we know what they want?

The same goes for young working parents, particularly working mothers. The Herald-Mail got quite a shock back in 1992 when we found out just how much we'd been ignoring the interests of such people. More recently, a member of the Lifestyle staff, which has done a fantastic job of remaking its section to appeal to those folks, told me that young parents don't have the time to read an editorial page that doesn't seem to have much to say to them.

So if you fall into these categories, or even if you don't, send me a letter of 250 words or less, describing why you'd like to be a part of this group. There are only two perks. One is getting to meet officials you might not otherwise get a chance to talk to.

The second is the refreshments - cookies, coffee cake, sodas, fresh vegetables and dip - served at the meetings, held on the second Thursday of the month at 6 p.m.

The seed for this advisory board came from a program called New Directions for News, run for The Herald-Mail in 1992 by Jean Gaddy Wilson, a veteran journalist.

That summer Wilson took the entire Herald-Mail newsroom out to the Sheraton (now the Four Points) for what turned out to be a major wake-up call.

Day 1 was spent showing us research and some videotape of focus groups talking about why newspapers in general were irrelevant to their lives.

Talk about a shock! For people in the profession, who love newspapers, who work all day to put out one newspaper, then go home and read another one or two, the idea that anyone could do without a newspaper seemed absurd.

We soon learned that there are many who could get along without us very well, in part because newspapers in general were not doing a good job of listening, especially to their female readers.

At the end of that first day each person was given a profile of an actual reader and assigned to come back to the Sheraton the next day as that person, to tell the story of their lives. Again, we found that, for many people - single mothers, for example - there wasn't enough in the paper that addressed their needs.

The third day was reserved for brainstorming. Out of that day came a new page for teens, a new business section called "Money" and a group of committees devoted to listening to readers.

The result? The Herald-Mail is a vastly different paper than it was in 1992. There are more people covering local news and if there's anything we haven't done to make the paper reader-friendly, we can't imagine what it would be.

Why can't we imagine such things? Because we're on the inside of the business and on most days, we're proud of what we do. There's a tendency to get complacent in such a situation and though I know that new members might disrupt the chemistry that exists now of the advisory board, I'd rather risk that than miss someone's blunt assessment of where the editorial page has gone wrong, or how it could do better.

Send your letters to: Editorial Page Advisory Board, c/o Bob Maginnis, The Herald-Mail, P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, Md., 21740.

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

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