The motivations behind the questions are at least as interesting as the question itself. If you will, let me take a crack at both.
Let’s start with some terms and definitions. Editorials are those unsigned pieces on the left-hand side of the appropriately named editorial page. They represent the institutional opinions of the newspaper and by definition they come with a point of view. They examine the facts before us and come to some conclusion.
The best editorials, in my view, deliver an opinion that is less fist-pounding dictate and more persuasive prose. At their essence, editorials should make their reader consider something from a different point of view.
This is not to suggest editorials should be milquetoast, on-this-hand vs. on-the-other-hand meanderings that never come to a conclusion. Editorials and editorial boards should stand for something. For The Anniston Star, it all begins at the top of the editorial page, in a quote from Col. Harry M. Ayers, president and publisher from 1910 until 1964. “It is the duty of a newspaper to become the attorney for the most defenseless among its subscribers,” Ayers famously said.
That’s the bedrock from which the newspaper editorials are grounded. What does that mean in real terms? The editorial board favors policies that look after the “most defenseless,” advocating that they have good schools, safe streets, a fair tax system, a rich cultural life, clean air and water, a strong sense of community, open and accountable government and quality elected leadership.
These work themselves out on our pages in various forms: editorials that beg for reform, editorials that suggest different courses, editorials that praise right actions and, come election time, editorials that weigh in on candidates and campaigns.
On this last point, the volume increases as Election Day nears. The loudest readers, I suspect, wouldn’t mind “one-sided editorials” if it was their side presented. They want to see themselves on these pages. Why, many ask, is the paper so out of step with the community’s conservative values? They are displeased by countervailing views and seem to want editorials that shift with the prevailing currents of public opinion. That’s not journalism, that’s marketing. Who could trust opinions that morphed according to the whims of the day?
Of course, if readers are looking for alternatives, they don’t have far to travel. Each day, readers’ voices share space with the editorials, in the form of letters to the editor. To get a sense of the balance, I looked at the number of words printed in Speak Out in August against how many words were printed in the editorial well that month. We printed 129 letters totaling almost 28,000 words. We printed 29,951 words in editorials. That’s just about parity, as well as a symbol of an active and involved readership.
The number of letters that month was higher than normal because voters went to the polls at the end of August to select city leadership. Members of the community wanted to have their say on the city elections in a space that is credible and widely read — the opinion pages of The Anniston Star.
There’s an important lesson here for the role and reach of an editorial board. Local issues are where the editorial boards of community newspapers can make the biggest impact. Editorials on national politics are important, but we know Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are not hanging on every word of the editorials. Closer to home, it’s a different story.
Two years before the August election put so many new faces on the Anniston City Council, The Star published a rare front-page editorial: “Timeout, time over for city council.” The editorial said, in part, “We are fed up. But it will take more than outrage to bring reasoned, civil dialogue back to City Hall; it will take a civic army. It is time for residents to come together, discuss the remedies available, choose leadership and shape outrage into a clear, sensible program of reform.”
The civic army took various forms over the next two years, bringing together parts of the community around the central idea of effective local government. On Nov. 6, voters head to the polls to vote in the presidential election, an effort that regardless of the outcome will probably not close the nation’s time-wasting partisan divide. On the same day, a new council takes the reins in Anniston; its marching orders from voters are clear: Work together to make the city better.
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or bdavis@EditorBobDavis. Twitter: @EditorBobDavis.