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Wanted: Constructive criticism for the editorial page

June 27, 2007

Odds and ends from a columnist's notebook:

Once a month, for the past 10 years, I've gotten a timely reminder that I'm not as smart as I think I am.

The message has been delivered by a group of citizens who are members of the Editorial Advisory Committee.

Over the years, members have come and gone, some because of changes in their jobs and family lives, others because they've left the area to go to college, and in one case, to law school.

We began with a dozen members, but it's a rare meeting now that draws more than five or six. I still get good advice, but John Colson, who could be one of my toughest critics while being a thoughtful member, too, passed away recently. In short, the group needs some new talent.

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What sort of talent? Our goal is to reach and inform those who have to make time to read the newspaper.

The person who says they can "take it or leave it" is the one we need to tell us how to make it compelling to read the paper, look at our Web site or listen to our podcasts.

In short, what we need are some high school or college students, some working parents and some who have strong ideas on what we should be doing on the editorial page - and how.

Why should you make time in your busy schedule for such a thing? There are several reasons.

The group periodically meets with local newsmakers and elected officials. We have talked to Superintendent of Schools Elizabeth Morgan, Washington County Hospital CEO James Hamill and state Sen. Don Munson, R-Washington.

These meetings take about an hour and give those who attend a chance to ask questions that they might not otherwise get answered, at least not face-to-face.

The group has also met candidates for office - in particular, the Washington County School Board - and their comments have become the basis for several of my columns.

Group members also have made suggestions about stories they feel should be covered, but because the news department and the editorial page are separate divisions, the only one I can order to look into something is me.

The other "perk" members get is refreshments - sodas, water, salad-bar stuff and assorted cookies and cake.

We know we need such input because of something that happened back in 1992.

The summer of that year, the staff of The Herald-Mail went through an experience that was both scary and invigorating at the same time, kind of like the first ride on one of those new mega-monster roller coasters.

It was called New Directions for News, and was run by veteran newswoman Jean Gaddy Wilson, who spent a couple of days with us at the Hagerstown Sheraton Inn.

Using a variety of techniques, she shocked us into the realization that we were putting out newspapers that featured things that we liked, without thinking a whole lot about what readers wanted.

Many changes occurred as a result. We began to do articles for and about groups such as single-parent families and people who had only recently learned to speak and read English.

Newsroom groups met with 300 Tri-state teens and put together a weekly teen page that not only features news of interest to young readers, but young writers as well.

In short, we learned to be better listeners to the people who buy our product. The advisory committee is a continuation of that effort.

One of the things we feared at first about such a group was that over time it would become a cheering section rather than offering the tough constructive criticism we need. That never happened, for which I'm thankful.

If you're not sure and would like to attend a meeting, drop me a line anyway.

The group meets on the second Wednesday of each month at 6 p.m. at The Herald-Mail building. I do need to know you're coming ahead of time, because our security procedures require us to have an advance list of those who will be in the building at night.

Send me an e-mail at bobm@herald-mail.com, and put "committee" in the subject line. Or write by mail to Bob Maginnis, The Herald-Mail, P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown MD 21740. I'll get back to you as soon as possible.

A note to other letter-writers: If you're replying to someone's letter, please include the person's name and the date on which their letter appeared.

That makes it easier for us to look it up and ensure that you have the date and name correct.

If you're interested in audio versions of some of my recent interviews, you may listen to them by going to www.antpod.com and clicking on "Bob's Pod." Suggestions for future interview subjects would be most welcome.

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

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