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Your suggestions for this page

January 07, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

Last week I asked readers about New Year's resolutions. Not the usual ones, like resolving to eat less and exercise more, but about things that they'd like us to do on the editorial page in 2004 - or features we should banish altogether.

The deadline for entries was 5 p.m. Monday and we've gotten some interesting ones, including a number from William Spigler, who got around the 50-word limit by submitting multiple entries.

Good for him. I'd rather have the input than not, although some of his and other suggestions dealt with the news operation rather than the editorial page. I'll list them, but I can't really do anything but pass them on, since I'm not in charge of that department.

Steve Bell of Hagerstown suggested we have a point-counterpoint feature, in which people involved in a local issue (or who just have strong opinions) each get 500 words to tell their story. Then readers would be asked to vote in a poll.

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Add more writers who aren't professional columnists, Bell said, and hold local elected officials more accountable by creating a report card of issues.

For example, Bell said, if County Commissioner Jane Doe promised to get another 5 percent for the School Board budget, she'd be graded on how well she followed through.

Jacqueline Fischer of Clear Spring, who is on the Washington County School Board, said The Herald-Mail should promote volunteerism. Feature a weekly article on a community group, she said, and describe how it would use volunteers.

Tom Janus of Hagerstown, a candidate for the School Board, suggested that the page post a question every day, accompanied by the results of the previous day's question.

Janus also suggested having all letters deemed not suitable for publication reviewed by The Herald-Mail's editorial page advisory committee.

Most letters not published are either libelous, book-length, or contain accounts of the facts that we can't verify. If, for example, someone writes that they were cheated by a local business, it would be very difficult to verify that, absent a finding to that effect by the court or a state consumer protection office.

Spigler's suggestions include:

Ending newspaper editors' practice of explaining their philosophy and work practices in Sunday columns.

"If that were important to readers, we would ask for it," he wrote.

Follow up on the Fort Ritchie story, Spigler said. Go for "new news" instead of follow-ups on old news stories, Spigler said, and resolve to become the "voice of the area."

Stop emphasizing the differences between the Hagerstown and Washington County governments and try seeing the area as "Greater Hagerstown," which he called a bustling, dynamic unit.

De-emphasize Chambersburg/Waynesboro/Martinsburg news, Spigler said, adding that "they have their own papers."

Finally, Spigler said, do more coverage of the Baltimore Ravens and the Maryland Terrapins sports teams.

However, my favorite letter, and the winner of the $25 prize, came from Hagerstown's Helen Willis.

Willis suggests an expanded reader letter section one day per week.

Willis also suggested that once a month, The Herald-Mail invite readers to comment on national or local topics, but not always the obvious ones.

"Maybe even have your women writers comment on what it is like to be a woman these days or your male writers commenting on what it is like being a man these days." she wrote.

Other possible topics she suggested included: What it's like to own a pet, to take care of someone who's elderly or to run a business. What do people like about their jobs, or a favorite place they patronize? What's good about living in this community, or not so good? And what topics does the media go overboard on?

For a large part of this year, we're going to re-think the things we do on the editorial page. Change is going to come, but only after we look at what other papers have done and what the research indicates people like. We'll test any new features with survey groups to get reactions before we roll them out.

But to add any new features, we will have to eliminate something. That something probably will be those reader letters that go way beyond our suggested 250-word limit. We've talked about this in the past, but it's hard to tell someone who believes that their cause will prevail if only they explain it in great detail that the chances are that people won't get through the darned thing.

In truth, a 1990 study done by the Poynter Institute, using equipment that actually tracked how readers' eyes moved on the page, indicated that only a quarter of the text of most stories draws readers' attention.

That means letter-writers had better grab readers' attention quickly, because other research done by the Readership Institute shows that most readers prefer a variety of topics, as opposed to one long piece on a single issue.

Even if you didn't enter the contest, please feel free to send suggestions to the addresses listed at the bottom of this page. We need your constructive criticism to make this page better.

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