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A local columnists club

January 29, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

A few days ago I posted this on Twitter:

Couldn’t a paper give the best letter-to-the-editor writers monthly columns, trading wide readership for good free local content?@tjbland

I included Terry Bland’s address there at the end because he’s the web editor of the South Bend Tribune, and I enjoyed conversations he held with readers a few years ago about the redesign of the paper’s website. Today he writes back on Twitter:

@KenSmith A good idea and something we’ve talked about. Would need to explore it more. Any specific ideas?

It’s nice to be invited, thanks, Terry. I will brainstorm here:

  1. Every week there are a few letters to the paper that are especially well-written. These local writers are skilled, passionate, informed, and civic-minded—great traits for a guest columnist.
  2. The paper can offer wide circulation, a substantial virtue, in exchange for good content. I believe many people would gladly accept the trade.
  3. The paper could, for example, invite the two or three of the best letter-writers each week a three-month run as a guest columnist, with the promise of publishing one column a month either in print or in a nicely-designed section of the website.
  4. The writers should be chosen for their ability to give their work a strong local tie. No need to duplicate the pieces in national magazines and papers.
  5. The paper would preserve the right to judge the quality of the content, and to copyedit, etc., but if the writing remained strong and civil, the pieces would be promised to appear.
  6. At the end of three months, the writer’s term would end. Perhaps the paper would invite a strong writer to have another term sometimes, who knows?
  7. Readers of the paper would understand that the guest writers are chosen for the strength of their writing—good storytelling, careful research, lively style, value of the content to the Tribune readership, and so forth.
  8. Readers would come to understand that the half-baked letters that are sometimes published, perhaps because of the need to provide balance, do not meet that standard, and those writers—of whatever political stripe—would never be invited to be guest columnists. No “Is too! Is not!” writing, no chanting of party lines. Information, reflection, care with language. The kinds of sentences that inquire rather than seek to defeat an opponent.
  9. Some readers would, as a result, aspire to submit better, more careful letters. Perhaps the quality of letter submissions—which ranges so greatly—would be improved.
  10. Certainly a person who is uncivil in the comments area of the paper would never be invited to be a guest columnist.
  11. The paper would have to decide if it has the nerve to make decisions based on quality rather than on balance. That commitment would have to be made public. There might be times when for a month or two more of the guest pieces are right-leaning or more are left-leaning. The paper would have to be prepared to justify that fact. The alternative would be to invite weaker writers to be guest columnists solely for the sake of the appearance of balance. Quality would be defeated by fear, in such a case. That would undermine the whole program and steal its chances for becoming a community treasure.
  12. Perhaps the paper would occasionally offer hour-long workshops for people who aspire to write letters good enough to secure an invitation to become a guest columnist, or workshops for the guest columnists in how to make great use of 600 words in the context of daily journalism. Or a developed web page might address the same topics, or even a video or two, or a collection of strong models or samples by fine columnists.
  13. If there were two or three columns a week by the guests, it would be possible to begin to claim this as a very distinctive feature of the paper, worthy of being mentioned in certain kinds of advertising, perhaps, and possibly a real selling point for print or online readers. Who knows? Perhaps there might be enough guest columnists for this to become a Monday through Friday feature that readers knew to look for. In addition, I would urge the paper to place all the columns, whether they first appeared in print or online, into a special section of the website that does not vanish behind the paywall but remains a tempting resource for readers in the months and even years ahead.
  14. Even if the program did not become a major element in the paper’s innovative response to the current challenges to the industry, it would still create quality content that extends the paper’s coverage of local matters. Whether the program become important or remained a small element of the publication, the coverage of our region would be improved.
  15. The cost would seem to be mainly the time devoted to editorial selection and copyediting of the writers.
  16. The experiment could draw to a close if its usefulness ended, without anyone having to fire someone.

So, Terry, thanks again for asking. That’s what comes to mind….

PS. As editor of IUSB’s Wolfson Press, I would be interested in publishing small paperback anthologies of the best of these pieces when enough had accumulated.

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