Consider a community editorial board

A committee of Digital First Media journalists has been discussing a variety of issues relating to opinion journalism. This post is part of a series of recommendations to help DFM editors, editorial page editors, and other opinion journalists lead the discussion of important community issues. You can find links to earlier recommendations at the end of this post.

We encourage creation of community editorial boards. Through occasional in-person meetings and frequent digital or telephone communications, editors should seek advice from the boards about positions to take on community issues. Editors are welcome to ask for votes from community editorial boards, but final decisions on editorial positions should be made by an internal editorial board.

We should strive to form community editorial boards that reflect the diversity of the community in terms of demographics, involvements and outlooks. In recruiting and working with community editorial boards, we should make clear that our emphasis will be community issues and that our emphasis in considering state, national and world issues will be the impact on the community.

We encourage offering editorial board members their own blogs, or a group blog, for voicing their personal opinions. Community editorial board members should disclose their involvements in community affairs and should not advocate opinions on issues where they have personal involvements. They may, however, provide information when other board members or editors have questions about those issues.

Rick Mills, editor of the Morning Sun in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., a member of the DFM opinion journalism study group, provided this account of how his community editorial board works:

Rick Mills

Rick Mills

Our Morning Sun Editorial Board was launched in 2004 and is entering its 10th year. During that time it has changed a bit, but the core mission has remained the same – to share ideas and opinions on local issues and generate at least three or four local editorial ideas per week.

Impetus for the board was basically my belief that the editor, who traditionally wrote one local editorial a week, should not assume such an important and critical community leadership role on his own, without input from community and staff.

To gather applicants, I wrote a column about the importance of a newspaper’s Opinion Page, about the role of local editorials and opinion columns, and asked for those interested to apply either by email or snail mail.

Of each, I asked for: Name and contact information, city of residence, professional and community experience, reason they were interested and a list of three potential local editorials they think should be written.

We got about 15 responses, accepted them all, and then scheduled an introduction meeting hosted by myself with Jim Wieghart as our speaker. Jim taught journalism at Central Michigan University at the time, and was former editor of the New York Daily News and author of the Iran Contra report.

Les Rosan, Morning Sun community editorial board member

Les Rosan, Morning Sun community editorial board member

I strongly suggest an outside expert as a guest to introduce new members. Jim outlined better than I ever could the importance of local editorials and strong opinion pages not just to a newspaper, but to the community. He also discussed the institutional editorial as opposed to a column, stressing that there are things a columnist can address things that the institutional voice of the newspaper may avoid. He empowered them with the importance of the role they were accepting. Oh, and he discussed the types of editorials – call to action, praise, criticism, etc., with special focus on ability to guide community discussion, opinion and action.

We meet for one hour weekly. Besides good and sometimes heated discussions on opinion matters, this group is essential now to our news coverage. We routinely get up to a half dozen excellent story ideas from the group. In addition, we bounce project ideas and controversial ideas off them, gather their views and expertise and use that to shape our coverage.

Experts from various vocations have also helped us in many ways. We have former police officers, a current police officer, business people, a licensed counselor, former librarian, and have had a superintendent of schools, former professor, retired military, etc. These folks have proved valuable for insight, ideas and background on a wide range of stories. They are often the first one we go to in order to bounce an idea, seek input or ask for direction and sources.

Anyone who launches a community Editorial Board should also expect to have to refresh it from time-to-time. We are currently at eight members and need to do that soon. We’ve lost a few to career moves, a couple have passed away and a couple have simply parted ways for various reasons.

Ed Fisher, Morning Sun community editorial board member

Ed Fisher, Morning Sun community editorial board member

With eight, we have all attending every week, and they love that. With larger numbers, I have used rotations – usually four members of the public per week, on one-month rotations.

Finally, be sure to include some staff members. Depending on the size of your staff, these can be copy editors, opinion page editor – really, anyone. And it also doesn’t hurt to include someone outside the news and editorial staff: a sales member, publisher, circulation director.

Oh, one more important thing. Two of our members, Ed Fisher and Les Rosan, both pictured here, are now weekly columnists, and very popular ones, and at least three others either write their own or contribute to a group effort blog on our website.

Digital First Editor-in-Chief Jim Brady discussed the Morning Sun community editorial board in an earlier blog post (it’s the third item).

Other members of the DFM opinion journalism study group:

  • 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
  • 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

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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