Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | November 3, 2003

Newspaper primer

Perusing letters to the editor and talking to people in the community has made one thing clear to me: lots of people are fuzzy about many newspaper basics. Inspired to educate our community about its local newspaper, I’m on a mission to clear things up a bit.

I think something I touched on two weeks ago bears repeating: the difference between news and opinion pieces. In The Dispatch, opinion pieces are placed on the page or pages that have the word ‘Opinion’ plastered in bold type across the top of the page. Other papers may use a different word – ‘Perspectives’ or ‘Views’ perhaps – but the idea is to distinguish opinion from news.

Opinion pages are filled with editorials, columns, letters to the editor and the occasional editorial cartoon. It’s helpful to know the proper terminology for and differences between the collections of words that fill the opinion page.

An editorial articulates the official opinion of the newspaper. At The Dispatch, it is determined by the newspaper’s editorial board. As I mentioned two weeks ago, the editorial board of this newspaper meets weekly to discuss local issues and reach a consensus on the position of the paper.

An editorial is not signed, or credited with a byline, because it is not the opinion of the writer, but of the newspaper and its editorial board. As a member of The Dispatch’s editorial board, I’m frequently asked, “Who wrote that editorial?”

My response always is, essentially, that it doesn’t matter who wrote it. The person who wrote it may not have agreed with some, most or even all of the editorial. The identity of the author is beside the point. The point is that the majority of the newspaper’s editorial board holds that opinion.

A column is a signed opinion piece, like this one. A column reflects the the opinion of the columnist who wrote it, not necessarily the opinion of the newspaper’s editors or editorial board.

News pages are filled with photos, graphics and news articles. The proper terminology for a news piece written by a reporter is ‘article’ or ‘story.’ It’s not a column, a term I’ve often seen used. The goal of a news article is to tell all sides of a story in a balanced, even-handed manner.

In a newsroom, these terms – editorial, column, article – are not interchangeable. A column is very different from an article, which is not at all the same as an editorial.

Now we come to perhaps the most visible verbiage of a newspaper – headlines. Headlines are not written by reporters, columnists, letter writers or editorial writers. They are written by editors.

I’ve often seen reporters or columnists taken to task for a headline that was placed on their article or column. That’s the wrong place to place the blame – if you don’t like a headline, your beef is with an editor.

When it comes to writing headlines, editors have quite a balancing act. They need to write a headline that is attention-grabbing, accurate and fair. They need to keep the overall layout of the page in mind to create an eye-pleasing composition. And they need to make it fit.

Let me tell you, Gov. Schwarzenegger will be vexing headline writers for a long time to come.

Subheads (the smaller headline below a story’s main headline, and above the writer’s byline) are similar to headlines in that they are not written by the reporter who wrote the article, but by an editor. The goal of a subhead is usually to amplify the headline with important information that could not be squeezed into the four to six words the editor could fit into the main headline.

What’s the point of this lesson? Not to talk down to the newspaper’s readers, but to clarify points of newspaper operations and enhance readers’ understanding. Hopefully, this primer will help readers who are moved enough by something they’ve read to be able to respond with correct terminology and with umbrage or kudos directed at the proper target.

Such an understanding would be a step in the right direction in enhancing the communication between The Dispatch and its readers – and in my opinion, that would be a very good thing.

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