Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

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Why there’s no editorial ‘we’ at the RN

by John Halverson

June 21, 2012

A friend recently wrote me an e-mail with suggestions for the newspaper.

No. 4 was: "Change voice of editorials so they speak for the newspaper as an institution and not just one person. An individual voice should be in a column."

No. 4 pushed one of my buttons, and also provided me fodder for this "column."

I've never believed in "editorials," except in the most extreme circumstances.

What my friend said is true. Editorials speak for the newspaper as an institution. But an institution can't speak.

In most small papers, the editorial is actually the opinion of one person — usually the editor or publisher.

If it's the opinion of one person, that person should own up and run it with his or her name. In that case, as my friend pointed out, it's really a "column."

If it's the position of the newspaper — an editorial — by rights everyone who works there should be polled, which never happens. (At the papers I've worked for, finding a consensus on just about anything would be impossible anyway).

Even on editorial boards, it's usually one person who ultimately decides, at least about important topics — usually the publisher. So the publisher, or whoever that is, should fess up and take the credit or blame.

The Regional News, like most papers, requires our letters to the editor be signed because we think you should have the courage of your convictions.

Yet, for too long, most newspapers were hypocritical. They hid behind the editorial "we" when it came to identifying the authors of their own editorials.

In recent years, many papers — especially larger ones — are providing the names of those on the editorial board. At least that's progress.

Another issue related to editorials is keeping opinion separate from news coverage.

On smaller papers, often the editorial will be written by the same person who is covering the story.

While others may disagree, I felt Lisa Seiser did that admirably during her tenure.

But it's a tough way of doing things.

When you cover something, you get close to the people involved, which can at the very least challenge your perspective as an editorial writer, or how others evaluate your objectivity.

And when you write editorials, it's hard to explain to people that you're covering the same subject objectively as a reporter.

I believe you can do both — but the perception is hard to overcome.

We've switched things up since I became editor.

Lisa felt the editor ought to cover the Lake Geneva City Council, our most important beat. But since she left, Chris Schultz has covered it.

He did that for the Janesville Gazette and is the most seasoned journalist on our staff, so it makes sense on that level.

But it also frees me to write opinion pieces with a little less baggage (not to mention a lighter workload).

I label these opinion pieces "columns" because as my friend notes, "it's one individual's voice."

Because we are a small paper with a limited staff, I do sometimes cover city stories, and sometimes some "reporting" is necessary to support a column.

As a result, this isn't a perfect separation of reporting and commentary, but it's less of a conflict than if I covered the city on a full-time basis.

Will you ever see the word "editorial" in the Regional News? Never say never.

There may be a time when something so heinous or so important comes along that the extra gravitas of the word "editorial" may be tempting, especially if there's a staff consensus.

I realize that contradicts most of what I just said, but if it happens I'll make sure to provide a wordy explanation.

So ... now that I've checked off No. 4 on my friend's suggestion list, I can do the same to No. 9:

"Write about media literacy and criticism to educate readers about how decisions are made at the RN and how other types of media and their professionals function."

If only I could be so efficient all the time.

John Halverson is editor and general manager of the Lake Geneva Regional News.