Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

May 5, 2011
The nuts and bolts of the editorial page

The opinion page of any newspaper is typically a lightning rod that attracts strong criticism and praise. The Transcript’s Open Forum page, which runs weekly on Tuesdays, is no exception. However, in addition to the feelings it stirs up, the page is also one of the most misunderstood by some readers.

Open Forum is meant to stand apart from the regular news content of the paper in that it is a compilation of opinions rather than neutral reporting. The purpose of the page is to create a space where respectful and responsible community opinions — including those that might be seen as unpopular, contrary to conventional wisdom, or representing a small minority — can be shared. This is accomplished via editorials, letters to the editor and editorial cartoons.

In the past, some readers have criticized these opinions on the basis that the writers need to “get their facts straight.” This is certainly a valid criticism when an argument hinges upon a disputed but verifiable point of fact. However, the criticism is misplaced when it refers to the argument itself or conclusions drawn from it. In these cases, it’s important to remember the opinion page is, by definition, subjective.

The opinions expressed on the page are not necessarily those of the newspaper, with the exception of the institutional editorial in the upper left-hand corner under the heading “Our View.” In fact, we take great pride in publishing opinions that are different from those of the editorial board — which is comprised of myself, publisher Scott Dunn and publisher emeritus Joel Dunn — on the basis that differing viewpoints are essential to healthy dialogue.

In our editorials, we strive to live up to a claim made at the top of the page to be the voice of Tooele County since 1894. Some of our award-winning editorials in recent years have included “Reconsider recess, especially for boys,” “Local Dems need to get their act together,” “Stockton Bar is worth more than its gravel,” “Commissioners have to rethink $3 million bond,” and “It’s OK to question Sant’s contract with Tooele City.” We don’t write these pieces for accolades however. We write them out of a sincere desire to highlight problems and find solutions.

The longer pieces on the opinion page are often referred to as “op-eds,” an old newspaper term that means “opposite the editorial.” Different from our unsigned editorial, these pieces are bylined by specific writers and express their individual opinions. Currently the paper has two consistent, local op-ed contributors — Matt Rowley and Jewel Allen — plus several national columnists we use to fill out the page when local content comes up short. We are always willing to provide this longer space to readers who want to offer an opinion on a topic of broad community importance that can’t be summarized in a 250-word letter to the editor.

The letters section of the page is also frequently misunderstood. We publish virtually every letter we receive. In my time at the paper, the only letters we have disqualified were those that were libelous, contained remarks that would be offensive to most readers, or were submitted anonymously — a qualification in line with our desire to publish only responsible, accountable opinions. We typically only edit letters when they exceed the 250 word limit, contain errors of grammar, punctuation or spelling, or would be unclear to readers without clarification.

Each month we select a letter of the month and give the letter writer a free subscription to the newspaper, or an extension of their present subscription. The winner is selected based on thoughtfulness and originality without regard to their opinion. In fact, several past winners of this award have won for criticism specifically directed at the newspaper, our editorial stances or our news coverage.

The editorial cartoon is another section of the opinion page that is often confused as being the institutional opinion of the newspaper. It is not. The space is given to a cartoonist to make an individual comment on an issue via illustration rather than words. For the past several years, our local cartoonist has been John Christian Perkins, a talented young artist whose insightful, provocative and humorous cartoons have engendered strong praise and criticism from readers. This is exactly what we hoped he would do, and we’ll be sad to lose him in June when he leaves to serve an LDS mission.

Taken together, the components of our Open Forum page represent a smorgasbord of opinions selected without endorsement by the newspaper in order to share ideas about our community. The page may be a lightning rod, but hopefully you get a charge out of it whether you agree or disagree. As always, I would appreciate hearing your thoughts.

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