Magazine article Editor & Publisher

A Primer on Call-In Columns

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

A Primer on Call-In Columns

Article excerpt

READER CALL-IN columns can add zest to your opinion sections and increased interaction with your readers. They take some investment in time, but aren't too expensive, and readers love them.

Some wring their hands over such call-in columns, calling them a breach of editorial conscience, responsibility and integrity, as well as an obvious abuse of the First Amendment. That's hogwash. They can be responsible and fun and are guaranteed to foster reader interaction.

To begin one, you need: (1) a dedicated phone line; (2) an industrial strength answering machine (put one in the budget each year); (3) a playback tape recorder with stenographer's control (a cheap foot pedal); (4) enough money to pay a transcriber for a couple hours a day, seven days a week; (5) a couple of mature editors with a good sense of fairness and libel.

One of the most popular additions the Citrus County Chronicle in Crystal River, Fla., ever made to its content in recent years when I was editor was the reader call-in column. We called it "Sounding Off, The Editor's Hotline." The idea is that readers who won't take the time to write you letters will call you. We found that to be very true.

In preparation, I had called the one editor in our newspaper group then using such a column. He gave me some advice and promised it would be immensely popular. He was right.

It would be an understatement to say I was apprehensive about the fairness and libel -- so much so that I took total control in the beginning. I had the answering machine in my office and I transcribed the calls myself for the first month or so. I did this to control everything that went into print and to see what was involved.

We allotted it some space on the opinion page, gave readers a story on it, ran the guidelines and the hotline number, and kicked it off; leaving the line open 24 hours a day. It was a hit and still rivals letters for space. When it's not in, the complaints begin.

It wasn't a hit, however, with some local officials, bureaucrats and politicians. For example, the local, longtime sheriff, a tough and successful politician who gets very thin-skinned at election time, hates it. He literally jumps up and down about it. "This is un-American. This is irresponsible . . . " and so on. The truth is that if anybody was going to criticize the politicians, then by God, they wanted to know who it was. This is politics, son, and paybacks are hell.

When they hollered, I always stopped them with one guiding principle about the way I ran the hot line. It didn't always make me friends, especially with officials, but it sure worked.

It evolved in the first anxious months about what to print and what not to. I'll skip all the nuances we wrestled with. Use the following axiom, and you won't get into trouble. You may still get stuff. Run these calls once in a while with an editor's note inviting them to call you to discuss it and referring to the reasons for rigorous editing.

What I said to other editors who were enlisted to edit the column was: If in doubt, whack it, without exception. They had to feel comfortable saying it and we might differ on the comfort zone, but if there is a question and one editor thinks it should go, it goes. Don't fight over it. This is not First Amendment stuff. You are saying it. And, if you can't salvage enough of it to make sense, toss it all.

Write your own occasional columns about the call-in line. Readers get the message fairly quickly about what you will and won't allow, and sure, they'll try you. You may wind up cutting a third of it in the beginning, though that will change. Most stay within bounds and have reasonable things to say once the column is established.

Some more technical advice:

* Give them only 30 seconds, and say that on the answering machine greeting to the column. If they callback to finish, you decide whether it's. worthwhile enough stuff to let them continue. …

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