Sights and Sounds of a Newspaper’s Editorials
An editorial page editor describes ‘a wide-open, creative new world for journalists who want to make use of new media and relate to newspaper readers in new ways.’
There we were, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, toiling away in my family's living room: Our daughter's piano teacher was warming up to play Maurice Ravel's virtuosic "Jeux d'Eau" while her husband, in real life a classical guitarist, played recording engineer. As he placed mikes and adjusted recording levels, I turned off the phones and removed the dog.
A few takes later, everyone was pleased: We had the soundtrack for an online slide show of historical Minnesota photographs. The music would become a component of the Star Tribune editorial department's special, ongoing project on water quality in Minnesota.
A few months ago, that scene was still novel. No more. In September one of our editorial writers, accustomed to toting a reporter's notebook and pen, wielded a digital microphone as he interviewed a southern Minnesota farmer about conservation practices and pollution runoff—then waited for good late-afternoon light to photograph the farm. From his efforts we created slides to illustrate the farmer's recorded words, thereby enhancing another part of the water series, a segment on Mississippi River pollution.
And now the online innovations are really getting out of hand: Last week our op-ed editor, working on prototypes for a proposed audio satire project, asked me if I'd be part of a chorus singing the lyrics "Give me Nixon!" as backup to a baritone's rendering of a political, "updated" spiritual. Oh, and could we record that in my living room, too?
It's actually great, liberating fun—a wide-open, creative new world for journalists who want to make use of new media and relate to newspaper readers in new ways. Sure, we still put most of our efforts into our core work: choosing and editing op-ed commentaries and letters and developing persuasive editorials that we hope will change the world—or at least help get a local ordinance passed. But my staff and I are spending more and more time dreaming up new ways to interact with our readers, both in print and online.
Innovations: Time and Money
This is both exciting and daunting. The expanded possibilities for creating and presenting opinions are indeed wide open, from recording audio and video to devising new blogging and podcasting opportunities. Still, no newspaper I know of has extra money to toss around these days, let alone the kind of money it would take to hire additional staffers to realize all those possibilities. Yet innovations take time—time to imagine them and time to carry them out. They take skills—like editing audio, for example—that your typical print journalist might not (uh, probably doesn't) possess. Heaven knows, we were busy enough already!
(And now, even as I write this piece, my op-ed editor is asking me whether he can record my doorknob turning and my door opening and closing. I don't even ask why; I just nod.)
Luckily, new technology has helped us save staff time that we've used for new efforts. Letters to the editor, for example, used to arrive via snail mail or fax and had to be typed and/or scanned into our publishing system. Now most letters arrive as e-mails that can be quickly cut and pasted into the system. This saves so much time that we were able to shift letters' personnel to different work, including the writing of a new weekly column on political blogs.
For editorial writers, instant Internet access to news-related documents has saved incredible amounts of research time. When the Supreme Court ruled last June, for example, in the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld case on the treatment and trial of terror suspects, we were able to immediately download and analyze both the opinion itself and related documents, such as texts of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Conventions. The same speed applies to locating commission findings, Government Accountability Office conclusions, or a U.S. Surgeon General's report—and a lot of other documents we need.
New Web tools have also allowed us to offer readers new ways of responding to our work. Our online readers, for example, can now peruse an editorial then click and post a comment on it in a "talk" area of Startribune.com. Successive readers can then comment on the editorial itself or on fellow readers' posts, thereby creating a reader conversation. Offering this in addition to the letters-to-the-editor function isn't particularly time-consuming for us, and it gives readers a way to register immediate feedback and interact with one another. We've also created a feature called "Netlets," which are letters from readers that were submitted for newspaper publication but didn't make the cut; they're perfectly fine letters, but we have room for a dozen at most on a given day in the print publication, so we're putting the overflow online.
Ironically, technology can also slow things down. Individual editors and writers receive much more mail now that it comes principally via e-mail. I personally receive hundreds of e-mails a day, some critical to my work and some worse than useless. Yes, company filters reject or divert much of the spam, but I still get plenty of investment advice, prescription come-ons, and offers to check out Russian coeds. Add to that dozens of public relations releases, which I've programmed to plop into a PR folder; mass-mailed op-ed submissions, which I must delete or forward to the right editors; misdirected queries; shared/forwarded "wisdom;" list-serv missives from editorial colleagues from around the country—and just enough timely and/or important mail that I have to keep on my toes or risk missing a critical meeting notice or a query requiring action or a reply. It takes discipline and determination to deal with it quickly and effectively.
The most perplexing new wrinkle in the e-mail world is that some of our e-mailers expect not only a personal reply to an initial query or comment, which I'm happy to provide, but an ongoing, personal back-and-forth discussion on issues of the day as well. Some are bent on becoming pen pals on a regular basis. That I cannot do, or I'd get nothing else accomplished.
Managing e-mail is truly an art form and an acquired skill, one I'm getting better at as the snail mail dwindles. This is good because I need every minute for core priorities—like helping our political columnist figure out whether to create a blog or a podcast during the next legislative session.
Susan Albright is the editorial page editor of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.