By Gregg McLachlan
A university student recently asked me for advice about applying for a position as editorial page editor at her campus newspaper. She wanted tips about the skills she would need if she got the job. Here's what I suggested (I hope this can be useful to anyone who wants to become an editor, regardless of section):
1. You will make mistakes. The best people learn from them. The other people dwell on them in a negative way and make excuses. Learn by Doing is a life-long approach. The way you handled a situation or issue today, may change tomorrow because you've opened yourself to other ideas and approaches. The opinion page editorship is a position where it's always good to look at situations from many angles . . . before you commit to a set path.
2. Beware the space fillers. Editorial pages can be chock full of items that, over time, appear simply to fill space. Standing features such as man-on-the-street interviews with six headshots and opinions on a subject that obviously points to the desperate nature of trying to come up with such streeters. Or darts and laurels that seemed like a good idea at the time, but now struggle to share anything constructive. See #4.
3. Have a thick skin. The editorial/opinion page is always a balancing act involving opinions. You'll get the calls (lots of them) when people disagree with an editorial. The best advice for these situations.... just listen. Be a good listener. Rather than defend and argue, it's good to try to encourage the person to put their opinion in writing and share it with readers (maybe others will agree with the person). A good editorial page offers a sharing of opinions, whether we agree with them or not.
4. Create a page that is always evolving. The hard truth about editorial pages is that some readers read them, and others flip the page and put it in the newspaper pile that's headed straight to the recycling box. Always be open to reviewing the content of your editorial pages. Are you relying on standing features or items that have existed for years on the pages, simply because that's the way it has always been done? Or are you exploring new ideas and features? Static = unimagination = risk of losing readers.
5. Be a good fact checker. People often put stuff in letters that unfortunately is factually wrong (such as putting a quote in their letter that someone supposedly said). Numbers, etc., in letters to the editor are also pitfalls that need to be checked.
6. Get an understanding of libel. This is a serious issue that can appear in letters to the editor, especially when people personally attack someone. The op-ed page editor must be able to catch cases of libel before they go in print. The old cliche: when in doubt, leave it out is worth remembering. When you allow libel in letters to the editor, the newspaper is also liable.
7. Let letter writers have the last say. Sometime that can be tough when they write stuff we don't agree with, but it's wise to remember it's the opinion page and people are entitled to their opinion.... by this, I also mean it's good to resist putting an editor's note at the bottom of people's letters, unless it's for a compelling reason. It's also wise to resist allowing the letters to the editor to become a battleground for the same people to write rebuttal after rebuttal on the same topic. Just like newspaper editors, the person who submitted the first letter shouldn't be given carte blanche to write rebuttal letters to every other letter writer.
8. The best editorials are, of course, the ones that spark debate. In really simplistic terms, there's nothing wrong with an editorial that only 50% of readers agree with. It leaves the other 50% with a different view. So what have you accomplished with this kind of editorial? Well, you've probably started debate. That's part of the point.
9. Understand cartoons are exactly that: a cartoon. You'll likely face some people who disagree with a cartoon, at one time or another. Generally, a cartoon is a deliberate satirical distortion of a current event. On any particular day, some people see the humour, others won't. The next day it could be vice-versa.
10. Know the difference between a rant and an editorial. A rant goes on and on and offers little suggestions or alternatives. Effective editorials contribute a meaningful point of view, rather than exist as a forum for the editorial writer to sit upon a throne and tell the readers about the World According to . . .
P.S. The student got the position and today is editorial page editor of her university newspaper