Friday, January 30, 2009

Does Opinion writing have a future?

On Monday, I’m scheduled as the guest speaker for a University of Iowa class on Editorial and Commentary Writing. I’ve been asked to talk about how I pull together and then write up the institutional view of the Press-Citizen Editorial Board. The students are supposed to read the Opinion pages for the past seven days and to have at least two questions ready to ask me. They also are supposed to write two institutionally voiced editorials of their own.

It’s an easy enough assignment — lord knows I can talk endlessly about my job — but I’m struggling over how to begin the discussion.

In order to frame what I actually do at the Press-Citizen, I think it’s necessary to talk about the constraints of a one-person Opinion shop — especially given that there are many more one-person (or even less-than-one-person) Opinion shops than there were just a few months ago.

If these young journalists really want to learn what opinion and commentary writing is all about, they’ll need to understand how the newspaper business is evolving (devolving) right before their eyes. In addition to what gets printed in the paper, they’ll need to develop an online presence for their Opinion sections as well as an online presence for themselves — one independent of the newspaper they work for (this Web site is my my first attempt). And while they develop their own independent voice, they’ll need to learn how to exploit the lingering vestige of institutional authority when it can help give a little more credence to their opinions.

And, unless they’re lucky enough to land a job at one of the dwindling numbers of newspapers who employ multiple editorial writers, they’ll need to learn how to write opinions that don’t fully match their own. They’ll have to learn to be faithful to the consensus opinion of their editorial boards without breaking the National Conference of Editorial Writers’ Basic Principle No. 6: “The editorial writer should have the courage of well-founded convictions and should never write anything that goes against his or her conscience.”

While I definitely don’t want to paint a rosy picture of the industry, I also don’t want to scare off the kids completely. Nor do I want to come across as just kvetching about my job.

Do you, dear readers, have any suggestions for how I should frame this broader discussion? Or perhaps I should just stick with a tutorial on how to:

* State the main point clearly,

* Grab readers’ attention,

* Avoid piling on facts and statistics that have little to do with your main point,

* Avoid sounding like you expect your words to be chiseled in stone and

* Go after your opponents’ best — rather than worst — arguments?

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