Recommendations on unsigned editorials, community opinion collaboration

At a fair in York, PA, York County Republican Committee Chairman Bob Wilson, right, talks with York Daily Record political beat reporter Ed Mahon while sitting next to the NewsVroom, YDR's mobile community newsroom. One function of community newsrooms can be collecting audio and video opinions from readers or local newsmakers. (York Daily Record)
At a fair in York, PA, York County Republican Committee Chairman Bob Wilson, right, talks with York Daily Record political beat reporter Ed Mahon while sitting next to the NewsVroom, YDR's mobile community newsroom. One function of community newsrooms can be collecting audio and video opinions from readers or local newsmakers. (York Daily Record)

A committee of Digital First Media journalists has been discussing a variety of issues relating to opinion journalism. The group recommends these guidelines to help DFM editors, editorial page editors, and other opinion journalists lead the discussion of important community issues. You can find links to the first two posts in this series at the bottom of the page.

Unsigned editorials

The opinion group sees value in continuing the practice of unsigned editorials for two important reasons:

  • Sometimes the author of an editorial doesn’t fully agree with the position being expressed but is truly speaking for the editorial board.
  • Editorials take a different voice than columns, cartoons, or blogs, which are signed opinions, and we think the institutional voice and position remain valuable parts of our mix of opinion content.

However, we value transparency and experimentation, so we encourage Digital First organizations to undertake any or all of the following practices:

  • If a newsroom would like to experiment with signed editorials, we encourage doing that and reporting to the rest of DFM on the community and staff reaction.
  • Either in onetime editorials, columns, videos or chats, or in standing boilerplate copy accompanying editorials, we encourage explaining more fully to the public what editorials are, how we decide on editorial positions, and who writes the editorials. This is especially important online, where many editorials are found by search or social links, rather than encountered on an editorial page. So digital content should always include some explanatory boilerplate.
  • While editorials are not signed, we should be open about identifying authors in the case of civil inquiries, social media discussions about editorials, and the like. Obviously, if an editorial prompts hostile reaction that could become dangerous, editors should use their judgment about whether it is better to protect the identity of the writer. If an angry reaction shows no danger signs, having the writer engage openly with the public might be an effective and safe response.
  • For major editorials, we might have the authors of editorials host live chats the day an editorial runs in print or in advance of writing the editorial. In these cases, the editorial itself would remain unsigned, but the writer would be identified openly in the chats.
  • If we try video editorials, it might be best to have the author read the editorial on camera (though it would also be fine to have one person who’s particularly effective and comfortable on camera who reads them all).

Multimedia opinion content

We encourage use of multimedia opinion content in a variety of ways:

  • On important local issues, DFM opinion sections should encourage submissions of video opinions and/or animations and/or graphical opinion content.
  • One function of community newsrooms (mobile or newsroom-based) should be to record brief opinion videos from the community for use in opinion and/or community sections.
  • DFM newsrooms should explore ways to use Google Voice to collect and share community opinions.
  • DFM should watch Richard Chin’s Newstoons ideaLab project (above) and explore whether this is a tool to use in other ways and locations.
  • DFM newsrooms should experiment with ways to use quizzes or interactive databases for opinion content. (For instance, we give candidates questionnaires about important community issues, then build an interactive asking voters their views on those issues and showing which candidates most closely match the voters’ views on those issues).
  • Newsrooms that have staffers with skills in multimedia tools such as Flash or HTML5 should encourage those staffers to develop interactive opinion content.

We should develop a program to train DFM journalists in using multimedia for opinion content. We will share stories of multimedia use on the Inside Thunderdome blog and by arranging how-we-did-it webinars featuring newsrooms experimenting with multimedia opinion content.

On community bloggers

Each DFM community blog network should seek to recruit local opinion bloggers. These would be people from the community who primarily blog their own opinions on news topics (local and state news would be our strongest interest and each newsroom would be free to decide whether to include or exclude blogs by local people primarily addressing national and world issues).

The opinion section of the news site should include a directory of those opinion blogs, with brief thumbnail descriptions, as well as headlines and links for recent posts.

The engagement editor and/or opinion editor should be in charge of recruiting such bloggers. If the person recruiting blogs is not the person managing the newsroom’s blog network, they should coordinate their efforts.

Opinion editors should consider bloggers’ content for print op-ed contributions, particularly when the bloggers differ with editorial positions or take up issues not addressed in editorials. Opinion editors should consider regular or ad hoc curations of community opinion content, using tools such as Storify.

In recruiting opinion bloggers, we should seek a variety of viewpoints, but we are under no obligation to recruit bloggers whose hateful or extremist views are offensive.

We should encourage and require transparency by such bloggers, including disclosure of the blogger’s identity and affiliations. We don’t recommend affiliating with opinion bloggers who are not openly and truthfully identified. If an editor decides circumstances warrant affiliating with such a blog, the editor should be certain to know the identity and any affiliations.

Collaboration tools and partnerships

We encourage DFM editors to experiment with collaboration tools such as Google Drive, MixedInk, and wikis to explore their value to generate community opinion content. Steve Buttry and the regional engagement editors are available to help with such experiments. We also encourage experiments with Localocracy or other third-party partnerships that might improve community opinion engagement.

Anyone undertaking a wiki-like experiment should study the LA Times’ 2005 “wikitorial” experience.

These recommendations are the result of meetings by the following Digital First Media journalists (and advisory board members): 

  • Tony Adamis, managing editor of The Daily Freeman in Kingston, N.Y.
  • Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and a member of the DFM Advisory Board
  • Mike Burbach, editor and editorial page editor of the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minn.
  • Steve Buttry, Digital First Media digital transformation editor
  • Alicia Caldwell, Denver Post editorial writer
  • Angi Carter, Thunderdome curator (and New Haven Register community engagement editor when the group started our work)
  • Laura Cochran, Thunderdome features editor
  • Jeff Edelstein, Trentonian columnist
  • Mariel Garza, Los Angeles News Group opinion editor
  • Robert Gehrke, Salt Lake Tribune politics and government reporter and blogger
  • Phil Heron, Delaware County Daily Times editor
  • Mandy Jenkins, Thunderdome interactives editor
  • Barbara Marshman, San Jose Mercury News editorial page editor
  • Rick Mills, editor of The Morning Sun in Mt. Pleasant, Mich.
  • Katy Murphy, Oakland Tribune education reporter and blogger
  • Karen Nolan, opinion editor at The Reporter, Vacaville, Calif.
  • Chris O’Brien, San Jose Mercury News columnist (before he moved to the Los Angeles Times)
  • George Pyle, Salt Lake Tribune editorial writer
  • Martin Reynolds, Bay Area News Group senior editor, engagement
  • Jay Rosen, New York University journalism professor and a member of the DFM Advisory Board
  • Robyn Tomlin, Thunderdome editor
  • Troy Turner, Thunderdome news editor (and editor of the Farmington Daily Times in New Mexico when this group started its work)

Other posts in this series

With guidance from this DFM group, we will blog after the first of the year on community editorial boards and livestreamed opinion discussions. The group is also continuing our discussion of opinion journalism issues. If you’re a DFM journalist who would like to join the group, contact Steve Buttry.

Steve Buttry

By Steve Buttry

Steve Buttry is Digital Transformation Editor for Digital First Media. He oversees our efforts to transform newsroom operations and culture to more effectively pursue our digital goals. His duties include responsibility for social media and community engagement. He has visited most DFM newsrooms personally, leading workshops and coaching editors and other journalists in following the Digital First approach.

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