How to put out a decent opinion page

During my 30 years as a newspaper journalist, one thing I was particularly proud of was my work putting out opinion pages.

Before I became an editor, I avidly read newspapers and took note of what worked and what didn’t work. One of my favorite activities was reading the Sunday Punch section of the Sunday combined edition of the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner.

It was a wonderful variety of opinion, trivia, and societal observations.

When I became an editor of a small daily newspaper, I set out to create a scaled down version. I showed it could be done, even at daily newspapers with circulations under 10,000, and it wasn’t hard.

The opinion pages that I inherited were invariably the same recipe of canned editorials and syndicated columns and cartoons.

It really didn’t take much effort to turn that around. On average, it took me the equivalent of a full work day, spread throughout the week, to put out a decent daily opinion page and a good quality Sunday section.

It starts with letters to the editor. Nothing beats a healthy letters to the editor section. So many newspapers put up barriers, but the two biggest are word limits and limits on how often a letter can appear from a particular writer.

My first editor job was at the Ukiah Daily Journal. It was publishing five or six letters a week when I arrived. The next was the Carlsbad Current-Argus. It was publishing about one letter a month. My final editor job was for the New Bern Sun Journal. It was publishing about one letter a day.

All three were publishing a full letters section every day, with a full page of letters, sometimes two, on Sundays.

Next was a good, hard-hitting local editorial. That’s where the bulk of my time was spent.

Then there was my weekly column, which was often written at the last minute.

Back to letters. The first thing to go would be limits on how often a letter writer could be published. Next, I relaxed the word limit. Over time, I formed the following letters policy:

There are no limits on word count or how often you can submit letters. However, priority is given to first-time and infrequent letter writers, short letters, and letters about local or statewide topics.

Next, over the course of a week, I would sort and sift the letters. The best ones were reserved for Sunday. Good letters that were longer became op-eds. The letters that were lowest priority would find a home in Monday editions.

Over time, the volume of letters increased to where I could publish a good selection every day, and Sundays would wind up having a great selection of thoughtful, interesting opinions.

Occasionally, letters would be more creative. Those would get bumped off the opinion page and wind up on the left rail of the cover of the Sunday section.

This recipe of plentiful letters, a local editorial, and local columns and op-eds, resulted in opinion pages that became a reason to pick up the paper. Reader surveys showed a stronger readership of the opinion section than there was for the sports section.

Randy Foster

December 23rd, 2018 by
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