The separation of opinion and news at the newspaper

January 22, 2006|By BOB MAGINNIS

About three times a week, I have a telephone conversation that goes something like this:

Caller: "Hello, is this the editor?"

Me: "I'm one of the editors. Which one did you need?"

Caller: "The one who's in charge of the paper. Is that you?"

Me: "No, but if you'll tell me what you need, I'll try to get you to the right person."

At that point, the caller tells me that he or she has a complaint about a news story, an obituary or a notice that's already run. Or maybe it hasn't run yet and the caller is wondering when it will. I then find out who is in charge of that area and direct the caller there or pass along the phone number.

I don't mind doing that. Getting readers in touch with those who can help is part of my job. But one of the other editors recently suggested that I write something that clarifies what I do here - and what I don't - as editor of the Opinion pages.


Here's my day: I begin by reading e-mails, then putting those that are letters to the editor into a file where a colleague who helps me with page layout can access them.

If there's a problem with a letter, e-mailed or otherwise, I contact the writer and discuss how we can make the letter publishable. Some readers don't believe this, but I have no time to decide whether or not I like the sentiment being expressed. If it's not libelous or book-length, we'll try to use it, although e-mail has brought in many more letters than we can print in a timely manner.

Then, I look at the editorial page layout, choose a cartoon, and read the letters and the syndicated column. Then, I begin work on the editorials, which usually takes several hours of writing and research.

If I'm writing something based on a local story, I show a finished copy to the reporter who wrote the story to make sure I haven't misunderstood anything. But reporters don't suggest editorial topics and I don't tell them what stories to write.

Some callers ask me to "have a reporter check into this." I can't do that because there's a wall of separation between the editorial page and the news pages. Readers need to know that reporters are objectively reporting the facts, not gathering material for an opinion article.

To assure that readers get objective stories, reporters are told to keep their personal opinions out of their work. As Opinion page editor, I'm free to express my opinion in what I write, although if there is something personal that might affect my writing, I share that with readers. That's why I wrote a column disclosing the fact that my son had been hired as a teacher in the local school system.

Sometimes, I talk to reporters about what they're covering, but as a colleague, not a supervisor. The news department would not appreciate - or tolerate - me doing anything else.

I do pass along news tips, which usually come from people who have known me for a long time and are reluctant to trust anyone they don't know. But whether those tips get turned into stories isn't up to me.

That job belongs to Liz Thompson, The Herald-Mail's city editor. She meets with reporters on a regular basis, keeps track of what they're working on and decides which stories need to run on a particular day.

As former local news editor of The Daily Mail, I know what a tough job it is. And although I enjoyed it, I don't want to do it again. So if it has to do with the editorial page, please call me, but if it's a news story, Liz is the editor to contact.

Have questions? Bob Maginnis will do an hour-long online chat Tuesday, Jan. 24, at 1 p.m. at

Bob Maginnis is the editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion pages. He may be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 7622, or by e-mail at

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