On June 3, 1895, when William Allen White wrote his first editorial for the Emporia Gazette, he told his "gentle reader" that "the new editor hopes to live here until he is the old editor. . . . His relations with the people of this town and country are to be close and personal. He hopes that they may be kindly and just."
A century later, editorial writers have distanced themselves from readers who do not seem so gentle. When we look out our office doors we don't see fellow townspeople on a dusty Kansas street; we see colleagues from the closed world of corporate journalism.
We see fellow "professionals" who presume to know better than mere townspeople what is important, what is wrong, and what should be done to fix all ills.
Demands for production plus a focus on faraway issues mean editorial writers get out less than reporters do. Most write anonymously for a committee, whose exposure to the public consists of meetings with politicians, public relations people, executives, and other insiders. Many of us sense, not just from our angry mail, that something is amiss.
We still want to make a difference as White did on his first day. So some of us are beginning to experiment with change. In spite of the newspaper industry's current struggles, we have reason for optimism in the fundamentals of our craft.
Communities need the skills at which opinion journalists excel - research, analysis, reason, and advocacy. But we have to do something about the barriers our profession has built between itself and the readers.
If we are going to cultivate a connection with readers, the first thing to do is to welcome them onto our pages.
The Spokesman-Review now runs a full page of letters to the editor each day. Twice a week we publish a reader-written "Your Turn" column beneath our staff-written editorial. In addition, by recruiting a board of volunteer citizen-contributors, The Spokes-man-Review has increased the number of lengthier guest columns it publishes.
Our two interactive editors go into the community to recruit writers, speak before local civic groups, and hold issue forums.
None of this replaces the editorial board, which still takes stands. Rather, the outreach aggressively opens our doors to a rich, new source of informed commentary - the general public.
This creates new challenges for editors, who must protect standards for accuracy, fair comment, and civility without censoring the style, views, and enthusiasm of non-journalist writers. The challenge is worth tackling.
With the public pursuing electronic avenues for grassroots commentary, newspapers can wither, or thrive. Why should talk radio and the Internet get all the action?
Newspapers have assets the competition lacks, including large staffs of skilled editors. The public's interest in participation indicates a healthy trend for democracy - as newspapers will appreciate if they open their doors and their editors' minds.
Meanwhile, in our own work as professional writers, we will only hurt ourselves if we let the tradition of anonymity hide our individual expertise and our identity as neighbors with a stake in community progress.
As the Internet buries us all with information, credibility becomes crucial. The credibility of an article hinges on knowing who is speaking and with what motives.
Over the years, non-journalists have told me they're mystified, even suspicious, about anonymous writing that speaks for an anonymous, corporate committee. And from my vantage point, while committee discussion usually adds value to an editorial, when time is short and pressure is high the committees tend to do what's safe - sometimes grinding passion, style, and original thought to mush. …