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Editorial page changes: Is what we're doing enough?

April 11, 2007|by BOB MAGINNIS

It's been so long ago that I've forgotten what the subject of the forum was, but it was at Hagerstown Community College and we had lined up a distinguished panel of speakers.

The weather was nice, so audience members didn't have to slog through slush to hear the program. Yet there weren't many in the audience that night.

Afterwards, we stood outside and wondered what we had done wrong. Someone walking by overheard our conversation, stopped and said, "Well, you know this is the opening night for Little League, don't you?"

Not having children of ball-playing age then, I didn't know that. And so, given the choice of going to a forum or seeing their children or grandchildren march out onto the field under the lights in their brand new uniforms, well, you know the choice they made.

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I thought about that recently when I began to reflect on how distracted all of us have become. If we put on that same forum today, we might get more participants, but many of them might be text-messaging on their cell phones as they kept one ear on the proceedings.

Some are compelled to keep in touch because of business obligations and some do for the same reason that certain people can't stop flipping through the TV channels - the fear that they might miss something more interesting.

And so we don't give our full attention to many things and almost always keep a channel open so that something else might intrude into our consciousness.

For those of us in the news business, this presents some tough challenges. Readers - and viewers - expect to get news from multiple sources and to have it served up in multiple ways.

The Herald-Mail has recently begun shooting videos to accompany its stories and doing some audio interviews so that readers can not only read the column that results from that interview, but can hear what was actually said.

But is that enough for an editorial page to do in 2007? Is there something else that we could be doing to not only share our views, but to encourage a new crop of readers to join the debate?

What we're trying now is a combination of approaches. Readers may have noticed that we're adding more graphics and even photographs, which, except for mug shots of columnists, weren't used at all on editorial pages years ago.

To get more reader opinions, every Monday we ask readers a question on a local topic. They post their answers by going to "Opinion" at www.herald-mail.com. Then we publish an edited version of their replies the following Monday.

This is one of my favorite features because, after we changed the software so that each writer could view what had been written previously, during many weeks it became an online discussion, with readers reacting to and building on each other's comments.

The latest change we've undertaken is a new approach to column interviews that allows readers greater access to the process.

Here's how it has worked so far: A newsmaker such as Cynthia Perini, a local vice president of Sovereign Bank who recently was named one of Maryland's top 100 women, does a recorded interview that is posted on www.antpod.com.

Then, based on that interview, a column is written that runs in The Herald-Mail and is posted on the Web site. Finally, the interview subject answers readers' questions during an online chat.

Perini's chat is scheduled for Tuesday, April 17 at 1 p.m. To participate, go to The Herald-Mail Web site and click on "chat."

This multi-layered approach allows readers to hear the interview as it was conducted, then read the column and decide whether it captured the heart of what was said. Finally, readers can do their own interviews, so to speak, by participating in the live chat.

At this point, some people we'd like to interview have been reluctant to do so. We understand that, because this is something new and does require a commitment of up to two hours.

Our questions to readers: Is this a good process or is there some way to make it better? Are there local newsmakers you'd like to hear and get a chance to chat with?

Please share your thoughts by writing to Editorial Page Editor, The Herald-Mail, P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, MD 21741. If, however, you don't want them printed, please let us know. Thanks.

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

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