Uninitiated Unclear on the Concept

Article excerpt

Unwilling as I am to speak in universal terms for my colleagues in the opinion craft, I will venture to suggest that most of us find ourselves cloistered in ivory towers certainly more than we would prefer, and even more than we would like to admit.

Opinion writers, like reporters, develop their own distinctive methods of cultivating news sources and those who help us to understand the players and events that form the body of information with which we ply our trade. From the thunder of criticism about being "out of touch," though, you have to wonder whether we've somehow missed some important linkage in the communications network.

At my newspaper, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, community advisory boards are nothing new. At last count, three such panels were in more or less active status as critics/counselors and sources of feedback as to our numerous journalistic shortcomings and our rare complicity in random acts of modest competence.

Not long after I joined the paper 12 years ago, delegations from the newspaper would go out into neighborhood meeting places to invite comments and criticisms from our readers on their own turf. As I recall, we hosted four such sessions within a three-month period, and the exercise was discontinued for lack of sustained interest - the public's, not ours.

About six years ago, we tried again. This time, we called on two sets of citizens. The first was a panel of community "leaders" from the more visible participants in civic, political, and social activities. The second was composed of "grassroots" advisers, whose perspective would be, well, different. Invariably, the few sporadic meetings led to the inescapable observation that most of our readers had little knowledge of the dynamics of producing a daily newspaper. Much of the time in those sessions was devoted to explaining - usually to incredulous faces - the mundane routines completed under stressful deadlines that led to the final product tossed onto front lawns each day.

Despite our diplomatic protests to the contrary, many of our critics simply could not accept the idea that some menacing conspiracy - no doubt shaped by a socialist or racist agenda - was at work in the duplicitous fashioning of ideologically shaded information. Somehow, the idea that newspapers were produced by human beings afflicted by the potential for making mistakes did not seem plausible.

Once the notion was seriously entertained, however, interest in the advisory board meetings waned. Either the participants considered and accepted the explanations, or they gave up trying to get through to us. In any event, after about three sessions, the boards didn't meet again.

Last year, the paper established a Star-Telegram African-American advisory council in response to several strong public criticisms about coverage and editorial endorsements for political office. …