Jewish World Review May 25, 2004 / 5 Sivan 5764

Paul Greenberg

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Editorialists put on the spot | At this rate, we're going to have to stop telling Aggie jokes around the office. They're not very funny after a bunch of journalism students from Texas A&M at Texarkana came by to quiz us about how we write our editorials. They left me wishing my responses had been as direct, concise and candid as their questions. For example:

Do you think it's more important to be opinionated to write editorials, or to be informed?

The two are not mutually exclusive. One without the other can be fatal to an editorial.

Do your opinions and the newspaper's ever clash?

Seldom. When they do, each editorial writer here at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is free to write a column expressing his personal take on an issue. That way, the integrity of both the writer and newspaper is preserved. Besides, it wouldn't be fair to a point of view to have it expressed by someone who didn't believe it. Don't write anything you don't believe.

How do you write on controversial issues without offending readers?

You don't. An editorial column that never offends anyone isn't much of one. What we write is our responsibility; how the reader reacts is his. When you make a mistake, correct it. Corrections are probably the best-read items on the editorial page; run one at the slightest excuse.

Do you get more reader reaction from critical editorials or the subtler ones?

The critical ones attract the crowds, pro and con. The effect of the subtler ones can be, well, subtler. I'd rather have readers say they disagree with us but like the way we write than the other way around. It's the quality of the thought, not the ephemeral conclusion, that matters. The aim of an editorial shouldn't be to force your opinion on others but to raise the level of public discourse. If it doesn't, whether you've changed anybody's mind or not doesn't matter.

Who determines the paper's stance on issues?

I once spent a year to the day writing for a large metropolitan daily - the Chicago Daily News - and each working day would begin with a conference to determine the paper's reaction to the morning's news. By the time everybody offered an opinion, and an editorial writer was assigned to express the murky consensus, there wasn't much opinion left. No wonder a lot of editorials in American newspapers read like committee reports.

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I resolved back then that, if I ever had anything to do with running an editorial page, there would be no daily meetings. Or any meetings at all if it could be helped. I don't believe we've held our annual meeting for three or four years now. It's something of a record, I believe.

Too many good editorials are talked out of existence before a word goes on the computer screen. Here at the Democrat-Gazette, each of us editorial writers comes in and writes about what we think needs writing about. Then I edit the drafts, send 'em back, and this ping-pong game may go on several times before an editorial is finished - or finishes us.

The last and sometimes the first word comes from the boss here, Walter Hussman, who's a hands-on publisher. His flurry of questions and suggestions used to come in the form of notes (we called 'em Waltergrams), and now they're e-mails. But his interest remains as keen.

What is the most common mistake made by editorial writers?

Taking too long to wind up before the pitch; the reader tends to lose interest. Also, adopting the jargon of whatever you're writing about - legalese, business-speak, inside-the-Beltway, whatever it's called. And that goes for journalese, too. Try English instead.

Why do you live in the South, and does living here add to your creativity?

There's no place like home. When the Russian poet Yevtushenko, a native of Siberia, visited this country, he was asked what part of the United States he liked best. He responded without hesitation: Alaska.

Besides, I've never thrived above a certain degree of latitude. My considered but also instinctive opinion is that if the South doesn't get a response out of you - emotional, artistic, recreational, political or intellectual - no place will. If you don't just feel more alive here, you better see a doctor.

How do you adapt editorials to reach the widest possible audience?

You don't. Just write the best you can, if not better. Wrestle with yourself, not with what you think people might think. Aim for a masterpiece every time. Even if you fail, the result will be interesting. Never write down to people. We ain't that high up.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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