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One writer, but two different formats

February 19, 2006|By BOB MAGINNIS

I'm sorry if I confused anyone.

However, I seem to be doing a lot of that lately. Not long ago, one of the editors in the news department asked me to write a column explaining that I'm not in charge of the news department and that my job is very different than what reporters and editors do.

Now someone else has asked me to explain the difference between my personal column - the one with the picture that makes me look like Moses coming down from the mountain - and editorials, the unsigned pieces that appear on the left side of the editorial page on most weekdays.

First, some background. According to "The Press and America," Edwin Emery's history of journalism in the U.S., editorials as we know them today began to appear about 1800, replacing pamphlets and essays. Those editorials could be mighty rough, Emery wrote.

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"Nowhere else was there such violent criticism of government, and such pitiless discussion of officials usually treated with the utmost respect in other countries," Emery wrote.

Emery also notes that in the 1880s, after he purchased the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer launched an editorial crusade for reform of the tax system, civil service and punishment for those who bought votes on Election Day.

Pulitzer made his editorials more than one man's opinion by putting the entire weight of the paper behind them. They were the newspaper's institutional voice.

In his piece "Analytical Writing," collected by the National Archives of Canada (www.collectionscanada.ca/education/008-3090-e.html), journalist Michael Petrou of The Ottawa Citizen explains the difference between editorials - unsigned and signed - and personal columns.

Unsigned editorials are not signed, Petrou writes, to emphasize that "the collective argument that is being made on behalf of the newspaper."

Signed editorials, which The Herald-Mail does not usually run, appear in the editorial spot and put the weight of the newspaper behind the writer's opinion, in effect, endorsing it.

"Opinion columns, like editorials, express an opinion; but the opinion expressed belongs solely to the column's author, not to the newspaper or to the editorial board. In fact, it is quite common for an opinion column to argue against an opinion expressed in an editorial in the same newspaper," Petrou writes.

I wrote both editorials and personal columns. In 2000 I explained part of the process in a question-and-answer column:

How do you decide what to write editorials about?

The editorials usually follow news stories on an event. That way the reader gets an objective look at the event first, followed by the newspaper's opinion.

The Herald-Mail doesn't believe that its point of view is the only one that should be considered, but our editorials ought be good enough to get readers thinking about the issues.

Our editorials are written with these beliefs in mind:

That everyone has a right to be heard.

That the public's business should be done in public.

That citizens have a right to expect fair value for their tax dollars.

That the law should be obeyed, and

That bad laws should be changed at the earliest opportunity.

In 2003, I addressed the question of why editorials are unsigned.

Since reader letters must be signed, why not editorials?

It's a fair question. The short answer is because editorials are not my opinion, but the institutional position of the newspaper. They're usually written by me, but John League, The Herald-Mail's publisher, has the final word on the stand our editorials take.

Because I've been doing this job since 1985, I'm fairly certain what positions the publisher will support. When I'm not, I seek him out. We meet regularly to discuss local issues and happenings. The bottom line is that I am, in effect, the paper's speechwriter, putting its institutional positions into words.

Sometimes that means writing an editorial advocating a course I personally disagree with. In endorsing candidates, for example, my choices aren't always the ones that get the newspaper's backing.

My personal, signed columns are my opinion alone. No one should infer that if I write a column saying, for example, that the Hagerstown and Washington County governments should study a possible merger, that such is the newspaper's editorial position.

However, if you are offended or disagree with either an editorial or a signed column, please write to Editorial Page, The Herald-Mail, 100 Summit Ave., Hagerstown, Md., 21740, or e-mail to opinion@herald-mail.com. Our policy is that those letters go to the head of the line.

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