Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | October 9, 2007

Newspaper primer redux

Recent conversations and letters to the editor convinced me that nearly four years since my first “newspaper primer” column, the time is right to refresh some basics about my favorite source of local current events information.

Most of these conversations and letters addressed the months-long controversy surrounding a proposal to study the feasibility of trails on public land near the Jackson Oaks subdivision. Many Jackson Oaks residents vociferously opposed even studying the idea.

One recent letter writer took a reporter to task for a headline.

“I am quite distressed with last Friday’s Times inflammatory headline,” Lynn Liebschutz wrote about the headline on a recent story. He concluded, “… this Times’ writer needs to be much more conscientious when reporting affairs of our city.”

Reporters do not write the headlines that appear above their stories. Similarly, columnists do not write the headlines that appear above their columns, and authors of letters to the editor do not write the headlines that top their epistles.

That’s the job of an editor.

If you’ve got a complaint about a headline, your complaint is with an editor, not the reporter, columnist or letter writer.

And before you file your complaint, keep this in mind: Writing headlines is not as easy at it seems.

Give yourself the same number of characters (remember: spaces count) to write a still-compelling but better headline. Make sure the headline highlights the most important information in the story in an attention-grabbing way. It’s not easy, is it?

And if you still think you have a valid complaint, make sure that you’re aiming your fire at the appropriate target: the editor, not the reporter, columnist or letter writer.

A letter from Sherry Purser was published after an early editorial supported inclusion of the proposed trails near Jackson Oaks in the city’s trails study. Purser criticized the paper for daring to have a “biased” opinion.

Complaining that an opinion is biased makes as much sense as complaining that a celebrity is famous, that a genius is smart, that a spotlight is bright, or that a tautology is redundant.

An opinion, by its very nature, is biased. Merriam-Webster says an opinion is “a view, judgment, or appraisal formed in the mind about a particular matter.”

The newspaper is entitled to its opinion, just as Purser is entitled to hers. Both are biased because both are opinions.

Shortly after the editorial that outraged Purser was published, I spoke with a Jackson Oaks resident who was considering canceling her Times subscription because she disagreed with that editorial.

She was forgetting, I suspect, that newspapers have two purposes.

The first is to report news in an unbiased, evenhanded way. As a former Times reporter and current Times editorial board member, I believe this paper does a good job of this.

The Times is the only media outlet that provides regular coverage of Morgan Hill’s city council, school board, schools, community groups and businesses.

You simply won’t find information on the inner workings of our community coming from the closest big-city newspapers, television stations or radio stations.

A newspaper’s second purpose is to provide a forum, to paraphrase playwright Arthur Miller, for the community to “talk to itself” about important issues.

Editorials are the opinion of the newspaper. Those opinions reflect the consensus opinion of the editorial board. Each week, we discuss local issues before arriving at our positions.

The newspaper doesn’t hog the soap box. Instead, it provides lots of space for letters to the editor and guest columns so that others can have their say.

This discourse is vital to the community, I believe, and anyone who cancels a subscription because the newspaper prints an opinion contrary to her own is shortsighted, thin-skinned or naive. Or all three.

And here’s an important fact: The editorial board has no influence on news coverage.

When you disagree with an editorial, column or letter, don’t eliminate your best source of information about your community by canceling your subscription. Instead, as I’ve urged before, “share your thoughts with your neighbors on the newspaper’s opinion pages. You’ll let the community know how you feel about an issue, liven the debate by contributing a fresh voice, help your newspaper become a more accurate mirror of the community, and experience the pride that comes with having the courage of your convictions. Hope to see you soon on the opinion page.”



  1. […] the seven-plus years that I’ve been writing a newspaper column, I’ve twice seen the need to offer a newspaper primer to my readers. Sadly, I’m compelled to offer one a […]

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