Masthead 2015

This page was current during summer 2016; AOJ is merging into the American Society of News Editors by Jan. 1, 2017.

Updated 6/23/2016 to clarify links to symposium

Symposium 2015 coverage:
Multiple articles in AOJ symposium-news-2015
Awards in symposium-honors-2015

(back to main Masthead index)

White House agrees to confer on access issues (Nov 12)
Updated with summary and link to Dec. 15-16 Poynter article.

Minority Writer Seminar '96 alumna recalls joyful career

AOJ Symposium 2015 registration expands (Home)

AOJ again joins SPJ plus 52* vs gov't opacity

August 11: Bingham Fellowship honors bilingual educator (link)

August 3: Greenberg semi-retirement evokes good 'ol days

July 22: Discussions of Rebel flag evoke past AOJ events

June 19, /21-25: Editors quick to share responses to massacre (direct to 6/21 update) (direct to 6/25 update)

June 8-13: 8 tips for writing fun editorials and 36-plus for editing 
Easy-printing PDFs 8 tips on 1 page or 36-plus on 2 ppp (rev 6/13)

Spring 2015 DC-events issue (updated 6/2/2015)
UPDATE 6/2/2015: Obama nominates State Dept official we saw during April briefings to be ambassador to Mexico. See Cuba below and video.

cyber-security as a multi-faceted issue (5/11
- Agency helps journalists avoid being victims of mayhem;(4/28, 5/1)
- Nepal earthquake early disaster relief and ebola follow-up; (5/2)
- Consular offices serve millions, spot evil-traveler risks (4/29)
- current issues behind Iran nuclear negotiations (5/6)
- Trans-Pacific-Partnership and similar trade deals (5/7 )
- Russian aggressiveness in Ukraine and eastern Europe is
     worst since the Cold War, senior diplomat asserts. (4/29-30)
- Cuba and U.S. relations recovering slowly; (4/30-5/1)
     video 59sec diplomat zings U.S. media 
- new term in the coalition struggle with ISIS-ISIL-Da'esh (4/28)
- another look at off-the-record info (5/5)
- turn-about: AOJ editors brief State staffers (5/7-8)

External links to blogs and such are in some articles, and...
R.Prince: "Ghettoization" of Latin American News?:

AOJ-Poynter DC event: Harwood says Woe is opportunity(4/27)

Earlier winter-spring 2015 Masthead:

Is canned op-ed turfy? Should editors reconsider rejecting it all?
  A sort of pro-con tri-a-logue... (4/15/2015)

Candidates on the fringe? Relevance decides interviewing third-parties,etc (with links to previous AOJ discussion list threads)(2/3/15)

Disability as diversity is due in content and staffing (with tips) (2/6/15)

Are letters guidelines outdated? (with links to many threads) (2/9/15)

Back to Masthead main all recent years (back to top of page index)

(reposted 1/5/2016)

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White House agrees
to confer on accessibility

This page was current during summer 2016; AOJ is merging into the American Society of News Editors by Jan. 1, 2017.

(posted 11/12/2105; click here for update of 9/15/2016, about a renewed complaint to the White House press guru.)

Journalism organizations’ efforts to reduce federal administration barriers to access got some good news 16 months after starting to push the issue.

The Society of Professional Journalists announced Nov. 12 to its scores of organizational partners that the presidential press secretary will meet Dec. 15 with representatives of the organizations.

UPDATE: An initial meeting Dec. 15 was reported by AOJ partner Poynter's Tim Mullin, with a stock photo of an Obama news conference:

A copy of SPJ’s message to AOJ’s president David Haynes is just below.

Links to prior AOJ articles on this are here.

From: Jennifer Royer SPJ HQ
Subject: Update on government transparency issue

Fellow journalism/government transparency advocates,

We have some good news to share: White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has agreed to take a meeting to discuss press access with a small group of SPJ and SEJ representatives the afternoon of Tuesday, Dec. 15.

An agenda and goals are currently being developed for this meeting. We view the meeting as one more step in a long battle. Policy change and a more open government are what we hope to achieve by sharing our concerns with Mr. Earnest and others in the White House.

This, of course, would not be possible if it weren’t for your unwavering support and advocacy efforts. You can count on us to make the most of this opportunity, representing all of the journalism organizations signed on to the letters of July 2014and August 2015. This is proof that when we all work together and are persistent, people do listen and (hopefully) changes can be made for the better.

Please feel free to share this information with your members as you see fit. We will keep you informed of any developments before the meeting, and will report back to you after the meeting. Please let us know if you have any questions. Thank you again for your partnership.


Paul Fletcher, SPJ National President
Dave Cuillier, SPJ Past President
Kathryn Foxhall, SPJ Ethics Committee member
Beth Parke, SEJ Executive Director

(posted 11/12/15 17:55 updated 12/2215 JM)

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Minority Writer Seminar
'96 alumna recalls joy

By Deborah Locke

(Posted 10/27/2015 updated 12/17/2015 JM)

The workshop on editorial writing started a long and happy tenure as an opinion writer.

We learned editorial basics and tips on deadline writing from professionals who were devoted to making opinion writers out of us. They succeeded. I returned to Milwaukee with a clear focus: find an editorial writing job, apply and get it.

During a conversation with Milwaukee Journal editorial staff members, I learned that the St. Paul Pioneer Press had just started a nation-wide search for an editorial writer. That information led to phone calls to St. Paul, a resume update and interviews.

Three months later, I moved home to Minnesota and started work as an opinion writer, producing editorials and signed columns.

I had a superb editor who was well-known to the NCEW*: Ron Clark. He challenged writers to become the best they could be, and made assignments based on a writer’s interests and passion. Employment-wise, the years with Ron as an editor were the best years of my life. I loved the challenge of a 2 p.m. deadline with its flurry of phone calls and background research and then the writing.

Oh, the writing was the best part. A few times I walked in on Ron as he read an editorial or column from me for the first time. His face said it all. The piece worked.

The St. Paul job [10 years] led to an editorship at the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and that, too, had its rewarding moments. NAJA* gave a first place award to my column on land ownership, U.S. Steel and Wisconsin Point in Lake Superior. The column taught me and a reading audience of the drama of land ownership in the 1800s. The “old warrior” who led the charge against U.S. Steel and the land occupation was my great-great grandfather, Frank Lemieux.

Ron Clark had passed away before that column appeared in the tribal paper, but I think he knew it was written and I think he approved.

My opinion writing career hatched during a transforming weekend in Nashville and blossomed throughout the years ahead. The experience was extraordinary, and I will never forget it.

Deborah Locke is a Native American who attended the first Minority Writers Seminar in 1996 and wrote editorials and columns in St. Paul until 2006. She has won awards for writing and editing in Native American media. She directed the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 program for the Minnesota Historical Society, really enjoyed blogging, and has led writing workshops. She has been completing a college certificate program in social media and recently resumed full-time work as a communications admissions associate at the University of Minnesota.

* NCEW: National Conference of Editorial Writers, formed in 1947, renamed Association of Opinion Journalists in 2012. (back)

* NAJA: Native American Journalists Association

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AOJ, SPJ, Poynter among 54* signers vs U.S. opacity 

August 2015 letter again chides White House
non-responses re federal non-transparency

(Posted 8/12/2015 John McClelland)

AOJ is among more than 50* journalism and free-information groups that have renewed last year's protests to the White House about recurring abuses of governmental information access.

The letter, originating like the others with the Society of Professional Journalists, derides the administration's record of monitoring weakly and appearing to tolerate or even encourage undue obscurity or secrecy in federal government records and actions.

Some of the causes of "deep concern," it says, include:

  • "prohibiting staff from communication with journalists" except through public affairs offices or political appointees;
  • "refusing to allow reporters to speak to staff at all, or delaying" access until its value has passed:
  • "monitoring interviews"; and
  • "speaking only on the condition" of anonymity even for one with the "title of spokesperson."

It also says, "The public has a right to be alarmed... This information suppression is fraught with danger." It cites recently disclosed FDA and CDC laxity about mishandled pathogens and their staffs being forbidden for years to speak to media.

The letter concedes the value of the PIO function but asserts that controls "have gone too far." It urges President Obama to live up to his pledge "to become the most transparent president in history."

*The letter lists 54 persons, representing approximately 51 organizations by my count. Some groups were represented by more than one person, such as ASNE's legal counsel and president, or 3 persons at SPJ, and one case of a person representing two groups. This complexity explains the variations in numbers cited in current and previous accounts. David Haynes, AOJ president, confirmed his support to Masthead.

Here are links to the letter and related items:

SPJ plus 53 including AOJ in Aug. 11, 2015, letter: 
(pdf opens or downloads depending on your emailer or browser)

Jim Warren at Poynter:

SPJ August 2015 release:

First letter on this, July 8, 2014:

Follow-up letter, Aug. 5, 2014:

Masthead July 8, 2014 AOJ among groups protesting barriers to info:

Masthead on 2013 photo-access protest:

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Bingham Fellowship 2015

article resides with AOJ diversity materials at

Greenberg semi-retirement
recalls the good-'ol times

By John McClelland
(posted 8/3/2015)

Paul Greenberg's semi-retirement_*, that is retirement from editing but not from opinion writing in Little Rock, has special meaning for me in several ways and for AOJ in at least two special ways. Those two first:

He was a leading voice when we were the National Conference of Editorial Writers, and in the classy print Masthead, long before I even joined.

Our convention in Little Rock was superb in large part because of his graceful leadership and his assistant/successor Dave Barham's energy.

Then the personal tales:

I was in the slot at the Pine Bluff (Arkansas) Commercial the 1978 night we learned of his almost-second-Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

The one he actually received was 1969 for pushing school integration statewide after Little Rock Central was out of the limelight and other districts were still stonewalling on Brown v. Board of Education.

There was one 1978 report that he had been first choice of the judges but they got overruled so someone in DC could get a well-deserved first. He was also a finalist in 1986, from Little Rock. But back to the 70s...

Paul's perfectionistic-page-polishing penchant was legendary. We called his assistant the "Paul-bearer."

When I came back north in 1980, we were still fighting decades of foot-dragging on huge, sometimes racist, "details" of public school integration and other Jim Crow skeletons.

Paul has always been a voice for fairness and reason and progress on these matters, even if he did once provoke a protracted advertising boycott. Some candidates for office came in for interviews -- and some of them reputedly to beg him and our brave owner-publisher, Ed Freeman, NOT to endorse them. It is no coincidence that his Little Rock time, at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has been with another brave, innovative, publisher.

Paul is one of two Arkansas journalists who could legitimately claim to have begun calling Bill Clinton either "Willie Slick" after the movie pool hustler or "Slick Willie" as in Teflon politicians. He inspired our cartoonist to skewer doofuses of all stripes, and he repeatedly called Frank White, Clinton's inept successor, "Governor Goofy."

Early in Clinton's first governorship, my late first wife said, Paul asserted something like: "This young attorney general we just elected can't put together a kiddie-korps cabinet for the 49th state, but he wants to be president someday and, God help us, he might."

His syndicated column really took off after Clinton's presidential nomination. None of us could ever have found so many ways to use details to back up his "I told you so" during the Whitewater and Lewinsky situations and more.

My first photo service to NCEW, now AOJ, was at the 2004 Chicago convention. The keynoter was ill and the organizers invited a self-described "skinny kid with big ears and a funny name" to say why he wanted to be in the U.S. Senate. Paul unerringly steered Barack Obama aside for a lively one-on-one while a campaign aide fidgeted. photo: obama left, gesturing; greenberg right skeptical; (c)2004 j. mcclelland for ncew/aoj

A few years ago, it was a daunting day indeed when Paul strongly questioned my statement of a Masthead policy. We do not publicly quote the comments posted on the AOJ members' collegial discussion list without consent or a seriously due-cause situation.

Paul is a vigorous advocate of transparency and of taking the heat for one's deeds. He said opinion journalists are public figures, and should be always quotable. The policy stands, and it was a relief to remain friends after disagreeing. That is the Greenberg way and typical of our gracious list.

Last year, I was honored to edit (by posting, 99.98 percent verbatim) his essay on the killing of the great editorials:

_*Arkansas Democrat-Gazette articles on Greenberg retirement (highlights free; full-text for $3)

 John McClelland did 2-plus decades in newspapers in the Midwest and Mid-South, then 2-plus teaching at Roosevelt University, Chicago. Retired. Editing Masthead 2012-present.

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Rebel flag discussions
evoke AOJ conference

By John McClelland (posted 7/22/2015 updated 1:55pm cdt)

The national discussion of "that" flag continues, and parts of it recall messages one would not have seen without being in AOJ.

Anniston (Alabama) Star publisher H. Brandt Ayers did a signed editorial asserting that Klanners, redneck cops, and others had hijacked the Confederate flag's symbolism. That piece recalled his talk to the 2014 AOJ Symposium* and his book "In Love with Defeat; The Making of a Southern Liberal." 

His assertion that removing the flag was the right thing to do provided counterpoint to his recitation of a South misled before 1860, mis-led, devastated, oppressed by "Reconstruction" and more. 

In our polarized culture, it is too easy to see winners and losers in regionalism and race relations that still have made us all in some way into victims. Ayers sees the bigger picture and says his take on it movingly, even for those who might disagree.

One view of it was blogged by AOJ's diversity chairman, Richard Prince at the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education:

Here is the Ayers piece:

*Here is our Masthead article on Ayers' speech, with link to video of it:

Early 2104 Masthead package on Confederate symbols:

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Editors quick to share
views on S.C. massacre

(6/19/2015 John McClelland; updated 6/21, 6/22)

As often occurs on the AOJ members' discussion list, editorial page editors across the country promptly shared their first pieces about a horrific news event, in this case the Charleston shootings. 

They did this mostly on a Friday, a crunch day when most of them were quite busy with follow-up from Thursday-Friday, plus lining up pages for Saturday, Sunday, and even Monday morning. The discussion among them would resume on June 22.

Here are extracts and links from some of their postings:

"Here’s ours of today, first of several to come," Charles Rowe, editorial page editor, Post and Courier, Charleston. S.C.

"We are the daily newspaper covering Newtown," Jacqueline Smith, editorial page editor, Danbury (Conn.) News-Times.

"And ours..." Jonathan Alexander, the Southern Illinoisan, Carbondale.

Steve Paul, Kansas City Star:

Lois Kazakoff, San Francisco Chronicle

Paul Choiniere, The Day, New London Conn.:

Nicole Stockdale, The Dallas Morning News:

Richard Prince, author of the Journal-Isms blog, was collecting these links and more (more below in 6/21 update)

Dick Hughes, Salem (Oregon) Statesman Journal, sharing a working draft, said to his counterparts: "Colleagues, your work is inspiring, honest, thoughtful, eloquent and moving. It is an honor to be associated with you. I say that with much greater feeling than my words convey.

"Does anyone have a problem with reprinting excerpts from your editorials? If not, I may run some on Sunday.

"Below is the current draft of our Sunday editorial, which I just finished..."(Available to AOJ members who log in then Salem... 2 page pdf)

(Update 6/22: here is a link to Salem's published version, with compelling graphic: )

Updates 6/21:

Albany (N.Y.) Times-Union editorial (Jay Jochnowitz):
Online (paywalled)
On AOJ site (member log-in, then click Albany... massacre 1 page pdf)

“Here's a link to my Charleston commentary -- ‘Hardwired to Hate?’ -- which aired on Milwaukee Public Television” [Friday evening], Rick Horowitz: 

“Here's the Asheville Citizen-Times edit, written by Editorial Page Editor Jim Buchanan” and shared by AOJ member Bill McGoun:

Richard Prince, who prompted the online sharing:
“In Charleston, Massacre Is a Local Story”:
#PostandCourier Has Less Diversity Than 15 Years Ago
. . . #NYTimes Is Fine With Calling Shootings #Terrorism
. . . Does Focusing on Suspect Detract From the Victims?
. . . #Confederate Flag Under Attack After Massacre, Ruling

(Updates of June 23-25):

A Kansas City Start editorial board member's view:

Marjorie Arons-Barron, blog in Boston

Sarah Garrect Gassen, Arizona Daily Star: "We've written at length and often about gun policy and mass shootings since the Jan. 8, 2011 murders in Tucson."

Gary E. Nelson, Mail Tribune and Ashland Daily Tidings, Oregon, on Oregon's connection to the flag controversy:

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8 tips for doing editorials
people will read and
you’ll enjoy writing

In the New World Order of Journalism, Dick Hughes is the storytelling coach, editorial page editor and a columnist at the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. 

He recently gave a talk about editorial writing for writers and editors of Eagle Newspapers, a family-owned company that publishes small daily and non-daily newspapers in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Here are two handouts that he provided for the talk, [lightly edited].

Hughesism: Opinion writing is the second-most-difficult form of writing, behind only humor writing. Not only must you do all the reporting of a news story, but then you must develop a cohesive opinion that stirs the reader.

1. Journalists are storytellers. Editorial writers are journalists.

2. Write about what matters.

  • Suppress the urge to write the namby-pamby, let’s-all-get-along, drink-your-milk, eat-your-peas, and don’t-run-with-scissors editorial.

  • Readers would rather disagree with you than be fed blather.

  • If you’re merely citing conventional wisdom, or going along with the crowd, you’re not being a community leader.

3. Be bold. Be compassionate. Be considerate. Be mindful that you could be wrong.

4. Choose the point where you can make a difference.

  • Focus on the latest development, or the most recent problem, or …

  • Repress the desire to load the editorial with background. Include it sparingly – just enough for the reader to get the gist – and sprinkle it throughout the editorial instead of sticking a gob of background in one place.

5. Pay heed to each step of the writing process:
Conceive. Collect. Construct. Correct.

6. Answer these questions before you start writing:

  • What do I want to happen as a result of this editorial?

  • Who is the audience for this editorial? What conclusion or reaction will I lead them toward?

  • Will I start by stating my position and back it up, or build to it at the end? If I build to it, what will my headline be?

  • What is the best way to present or write this editorial: Wall Street Journal formula (specific to general to specific). Champagne glass. Radical clarity. Narrative. A photo, or photo essay, with few words. Graphic. Micro-editorial.

  • Tip: If you’re stuck, try the conventional editorial formula. State your position. Back it up. State the other side and explain, respectfully, why it is wrong. End with a strong conclusion that restates your position.

7. Work from a specific focus statement. “The school bond lost because of a weak, cautious and arrogant ‘campaign’ by the school board,” not “It’s too bad that the school bond lost.” Delete anything that does not relate to the focus statement.

  • Tip: If you’re writing about the baking industry, focus on a piece of pie. Make the reader see, smell, touch and taste that piece of pie (and maybe hear it being eaten).

8. In writing, “perfection” is the enemy of “good.”

—Dick Hughes, May 29, 2015

(posted 6/8/2015 JM) (top of page) (top of article) (related article below)

Tips for doing a final edit

Make a printout. Grab a pencil or pen and get to work.

  • Circle every fact. Don’t assume, and don’t trust your memory. Check that it’s confirmed in your research – and in your notes. (A Hughes maxim: “If it’s not written down, it doesn’t exist.”) If it’s in your editorial, you are responsible for its accuracy; never assume that press releases, business cards or other sources are accurate.

  • Circle every name. Make sure it’s the right name, the right spelling each time, the right title, with no missing first references.

  • Avoid long, cumbersome titles in front of a person’s name.

  • Circle every day and date. Double-check them against your notes [and a current calendar; it's amazing how many folks recycle the day-date from last year's event].

  • Look at your sentences. Vary the length and pace. Use strong, precise verbs. Change passive sentences to active voice. Keep the subject and verb close together. Start most sentences with a subject and verb, not an introductory phrase. End your editorial with a powerful word.

  • Circle every homonym; make sure it’s the right (or write) word.

  • Double-check words that commonly are misused. Did you write “anxious” when you meant “eager”? Did you use “insure” when the correct word is “ensure” or “assure”?

  • Spell out acronyms unless they are common (IRS, FBI).

  • Delete quotations, description or anecdotes that are marginally relevant.

  • Question the use of every cliché, acronym, bureaucratic term, “to be” verb, preposition, adjective and adverb. Each one robs your writing of power. Put a twist on a cliché instead of settling for a tired phrase. Recast sentences that have more than five prepositions and infinitives. Strive for specific action verbs instead of “to be” verbs, adjectives and adverbs.

  • Read with a dirty mind, so you can fix unfortunate sentence constructions (or spelling errors, such as the “l” missing from “public”). [And beware error induced by software "auto-correcting" of typos.]

  • Treat your online work with the same care as print.

  • Look for words whose opposite meanings can create confusion. For example, “sanction” can mean both “approval” and “punishment.” So can “cite.”

  • Guard against brain lock. After typing phone numbers and Web addresses into your story, call the numbers to ensure they’re accurate, no matter how confident you are. Copy the Web addresses into your browser and test whether they’re accurate. Then “cq” them.

  • Look for unintended meanings. Offend readers for the right reasons, not by accident.

  • Double-check the wording and information in any breakouts, graphics or captions. Write accurate photo requests so the people writing the cutlines don’t pick up incorrect information.

  • Important: Read your editorial aloud, s-l-o-w-l-y. Guard against inserting errors on deadline. After you make changes in your editorial, re-read those sentences or sections aloud.

    Watch out for these words:

  • Words commonly confused: affect/effect, anxious/eager, farther/further, less/fewer, ratio/margin, insure/ensure/assure, lie/lay, lying/laying

  • Words commonly misused:reverend, hopefully, most importantly, including, adjectives as adverbs (slow, careful, warm when they should be slowly, carefully, warmly …)

  • Impossibilities: totally destroyed, most unique, more parallel, surrounded on three sides (unless it’s a triangle)

  • Homonyms: it’s/its, you’re/your, they’re/their/there, principal/principle, to/too/two, led/lead, who’s/whose, peak/pique, peace/piece, faze/phase, pored/poured, red/read

  • Non-existent words:enthused, snuck, irregardless, picketers, comprised of

  • Great nouns/lousy verbs:impact, gift, transition, wardrobing, undergrounding, deadlining

  • Many words ending in -ize:finalize, prioritize, strategize, utilize

  • Bureaucratic words: signage, gaming (for gambling), onboarding, deplaning

  • Redundant phrases: future planning, new record, safe haven, at the intersection of, exact same, underground tunnel, past history, past experience

  • Unnecessary words: currently, presently, upcoming, a total of, very, really

  • Clichés: Field of dreams, came to play, 24/7, ’tis the season, ’twas the night before, Grinch steals, Yes Virginia, Jack Frost, Old Man Winter, Mother Nature, spring is here, etc.

    Develop work-arounds:

  • Know your weaknesses. Ask colleagues to triple-check your arithmetic, days, dates.

  • Keep a computer file of key information and numbers. Keep it on your screen as you write.

  • Do a “search” on words that you tend to overuse. Seek reasonable variety.

  • Keep sources’ home, cell and work numbers handy for quadruple-checking info.

  • Make a list of words, names, numbers or geographic locations that cause you problems.

  • Develop good relationships with reference librarians and others who will answer your questions on deadline.

    And bonus advice from Poynter writing coach Roy Peter Clark:

  • Begin sentences with subjects and verbs, letting subordinate elements branch off to the right. Even a very long sentence can be clear and powerful when subject and verb make meaning early.

  • Use verbs in their strongest form, the simple present or past tense. Strong verbs create action, save words and reveal the players.

  • Beware of adverbs. Too often, they dilute the meaning of the verb or repeat it: “The building was completely destroyed.”
  • Place strong words at the beginning of sentences and paragraphs, and at the end. The period acts as a stop sign. Any word next to the period plays jazz.

– Dick Hughes, May 29, 2015 

(Posted 6/8/2015 JM) 

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Masthead Spring 2015 (State Dept)

Cyber-world now a broad
policy-security-plus issue

(Posted 5/11/2015 17:47cdt by John McClelland)

A few years ago, leaders saw cybersecurity as a tech issue, but now cyber security and social media (mis)information have become a core issue, an economic issue, and a huge foreign-policy issue.

As a result, the State Department is pursuing world digital-technology and photo Chris Painter gesturing 250pxpolicy challenges in multiple ways, says Chris Painter, the department's first coordinator for cyber issues.

Briefing AOJ members April 27, he outlined his "buckets" of activity:

  • Internet security. Avoiding Internet "warfare," getting others to understand that rules apply to online behavior under existing international law and the United Nations charter. Some of the effort goes simply to building mutual self-confidence and encouraging transparency at high levels of diplomacy.
  • Norms of acceptable behavior at lower levels, every day. This includes honoring agreements not to attack critical infrastructure (e.g., the electrical grid controls) nor emergency response teams.
  • Technical malice. Persuading other countries to help, on request, to mitigate or prosecute malicious behavior originating within their borders inside or out of their public agencies.
  • Internet governance. The U.S. wants to be sure that the system (which originated here) continues as an independent, cooperative, network, not something run by government stakeholders. This means encouraging "links to freedom," a challenge because countries want control of the flow of information.

Q: Should the UN run the Internet? A: "That could have dire effects...," he said. "The Human Rights Council says people have the same free-speech rights online as off," but getting governments or UN agencies to protect them is difficult. 

At another point, asked about snooping, he said, "There is a big difference between watching threats versus watching legitimate use of free expression."

He tippy-toed around one question about a rumored U.S. counter-attack on North Korea after its denial-of-service attack on Sony. But he also let the group believe that something was done, saying in two separate responses: "That was an attack on human rights and an attack on [a target] on our soil" and "the president said it was North Korea," and there was an order about sanctions plus a statement that there would be a response at a time and place "of our choosing."

Q: Best and worst countries for cooperation? A: It is great with the U.K., France, Japan, and the Nordic countries. He declined to comment on worst.

Painter, who got going in cyber issues as a prosecutor of electronic crime in Los Angeles, said cybercrime has a longer history than the sexy but often misused term, cyber-warfare. "It's not like in the movies," he said.

The Internet can be a weapon, but is best as a powerful tool for economic growth, he said: "Security is not an end in itself. It is a way to get to the good things."

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Back to you, State staffers;
AOJ leaders' op-ed tips

From left: David Haynes, Miriam Pepper, Tony Messenger

"Busy editors can be cranky," especially on always-hectic Fridays, Tony Messenger told State Department public affairs staffers.

"Tell me a story," Miriam Pepper urged those who contemplate placing an op-ed article or extended letter.

"The reader is time-pressed, so it helps to compress your words," David Haynes told the group.

Haynes, new AOJ Foundation president and editorial page editor of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, also told the State staffers that there is real value in finding and emphasizing the local or regional implications of a foreign-affairs event.

"There are ways on almost any issue to bring it home," he said. "For me in Milwaukee, what are the trade deal's direct effects on Wisconsin businesses? Or the nearby Chicago region?"

A novel turn-about closed the April 27 AOJ State Department annual briefing day. Those three presented a panel of tips to 17 State employees with media-related jobs.

A lot of the panelists' advice could apply to anyone trying to get a viewpoint published on editorial-, letters-, or op-ed pages, or in their online versions with or without audio-video components.

Pepper, recently retired as vice president-editorial page editor of the Kansas City Star and still retiring as AOJ association president, told the mostly young group, "Avoid fancy words. Let readers know how they can act or use the message."

She said it is OK , or sometimes even better, to pitch a piece for use only online, where tight space constraints do not so rigidly deter publication.

Messenger, editorial page editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and recent runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize, urged public servants and others planning to visit an editorial board to "be focused … what do you want to accomplish?"

He also said to expect to be on-the-record, to be on-video, and to be quoted in tweets or in a news story. Outside the Beltway, he said, it is rare indeed, and only by prior agreement, for editorial leaders to close part of a session for sensitive info that helps journalists understand a delicate issue*.

Q: Why does it take so long from submission to publication?

A1: We must choose and prepare articles in advance; Saturday, I approved a whole week's worth of op-eds, although some of them will get subbed out for better or more timely material (Messenger).

A2: We strive for balance on issues, and to avoid two pieces that overlap on the same area. Online only can run in about 48 hours, or right away for a breaking event (Pepper).

A3: We are digital-first now, though print is carefully considered and not an afterthought (Haynes).

Q: Odds of getting a submission used? 

 A: Widely variable. Pepper: We run 9 letters for 1 op-ed. Plural responses: being tight and focused and having a local tie can make the difference.

Q: News releases? A: Be sure it is sent to the right person, such as a beat writer; try a (non-Friday) call or brief email query first.

Other points one or more panelists made:

  • Offer something exclusively in that market area.
  • Do not change details or use composites even to protect a trafficking victim's identity, for example. We understand the occasional need to use only a first name, but the copy should explain that.
  • Tell the real stories of real people, perhaps through a law-enforcement officer's account.
  • First-person storytelling is good, especially if done by a participant or decision-maker.
  • The best official voices are brilliant speakers who know their stuff and can do an article "that can push a button for the reader."
  • Be ready to promote a piece more widely on social media as soon as it appears online. You have a potentially world-wide audience even for a one-city-specific article.
  • If planning a visit, don't do it just for show, have a relevant topic and target, and be sure to alert the publication's beat writer.

We distributed a reprint of an oldy but still goody Masthead tip sheet for any organization seeking to meet with editorial boards: PDF

(* A look at off-the-record at State with links to 2 prior articles: below)

(by John McClelland; posted 5/7-8/2015)

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Trade gurus point to jobs
not lost to agreements

By John McClelland

photo of Craft pointing to wall clock above doorReaching toward the ceiling of a State Department conference room, William Craft Jr. used the plain wall clock to make a point about the double-edged nature of world trade.

An element of protectionism in a Buy American policy, he explained, could boomerang if other countries use it as an excuse to exclude or overtax more U.S. products or services.

But sometimes, there's good cause, he asserted: That clock, like every one installed in U.S. government buildings, is made in Chicago at the Lighthouse for the Blind.

Kraft, deputy assistant secretary of state for trade policy and programs, was answering questions by AOJ members during the annual State Department briefings April 27.

He had said moments before that trade officials live and work in, um, "interesting times." They try to promote trade with agreements like the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership, and they use restraints on trade, hoping to cause "the economic impact of sanctions to intelligently punish evildoers."

Now there is ongoing dispute in DC about pending trade agreements. Craft said every president from Franklin Roosevelt until now, except Richard Nixon, "has had some trade-promotion authority." He said a compromise, pending in Congress after passing several committees the previous week, would prevent a filibuster to kill the TPP deal, if certain requirements were met.

photo of LudemaRodney Ludema, the department's chief economist, said: "We are trying to respond to the [changing] world, with rules that work for U.S. businesses, not against them."

For example, Ludema said, most U.S. workers by far now are in the services sector and the U.S. is a major exporter of services, which are treated unfairly compared to manufactured goods in other countries.

To a question about labor's criticism of trade deals, such as the established North American Free Trade Agreement or the pending TPP, Craft urged caution on cause-and-effect conclusions. For example, NAFTA began in 1994, but off-shoring of work was already big by then, he said.

Ludema was more direct: "The claim that NAFTA cost U.S. jobs is false." He said factory jobs are down in the U.S., Mexico, Japan, even China, because manufacturing has become more automated, more capital-intensive, and less labor-intensive.

Asked about a barrage of union advertising against TPP in New England, Craft said the administration has gone on the road selling its position. Well, is there a budget for a counter-barrage of ads? "No."

Two of AOJ's leaders published on this soon after getting back home:

David Haynes, Milwaukee, give the president the tools he needs

Tony Messenger, St. Louis, more data needed before fast-tracking

(John McClelland was in newspapers for decades before teaching and retiring from Roosevelt University in Chicago; he edits Masthead for AOJ)

(posted 5/6/2015 18:04cdt) 

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Iran deal no sell-out,
president's aide insists

By Bill McGoun

The negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program are not a sellout of U.S. interests, a high federal official told a group of opinion writers, making a good case for his views.

The anti-Obama talking heads have been having a field day. Blogger Jennifer Rubin* said in the Washington Post that President Obama was prepared to reach a deal locking in Iran’s nuclear-weapons program while lifting sanctions immediately.

Nothing could be further from the truth, in the view of Ben Rhodes, assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser. He was speaking to the annual State Department briefing of rhe Association of Opinion Journalists.

Iran has four possible pathways to developing nuclear weapons, and the agreement shuts off all four, Rhodes said. 

  • Iran’s heavy-water reactor would be converted to non-weapons use and its spent fuel exported, while 
  •  the underground facility would be covered for research, and 
  •  only centrifuges incapable of producing weapons-grade fuel would continue in use at a third facility.
  • The fourth pathway, construction of a new underground facility, would be impossible given the level of inspections contained in the agreement, Rhodes said. He said inspections can be ordered at any suspicious site, even a military base.

Sanctions are the single greatest issue yet to be resolved, Rhodes conceded, but he insisted there would be no immediate lifting of all of them. Some were imposed by Congress and can be lifted only by Congress. Others were imposed by the United Nations and thus are beyond direct U.S. control.

The U.S. envisions a gradual lifting of the sanctions over the 15-year life of the agreement. Also, the U.S. will insist on the right to reimpose sanctions if Iran does not live up to its obligations, Rhodes said.

The White House had no problems with a bill passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee because it deals only with sanctions, in which Congress clearly has a role. The administration persuaded the committee to remove from the bill some provisions that in Rhodes’ view were designed to scuttle the talks. [This was written while the administration and Congress were still negotiating, or wrangling, about the bill and other provisions. NY Times example 5/5/15]

It's nukes only in this deal: Rhodes stressed that the multi-national negotiations address Iran’s nuclear program, period, and that attempts to introduce unrelated issues were really attempts to block the agreement.

[Responding to a question about other disputes with Iran, Rhodes turned back to this deal. He said the chances of Iran becoming a good world citizen soon are slim. If it remains disruptive, he asked: "Do you want to deal with a bad actor, or a bad actor with nukes?"]

The White House has plenty of problems with the letter signed by 47 Republican senators telling Iran any deal would be “nothing more than an executive agreement.” that might not last beyond Obama’s departure from the White House. Rhodes did not address that issue, but Obama‘s other defenders did.

“...if these negotiations fail, a military response to Iran developing their nuclear capability becomes more likely,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, in a written statement. “These Republican senators should think twice about whether their political stunt is worth the threat of another war in the Middle East.”

Rhodes did echo Durbin regarding the cost of failure. “If there is no deal,” he said, “Iran will be moving closer and closer to having a nuclear capability.” This, he said, would increase the chance of confrontation.

There may well be no final agreement to see before June 30, and there still is the possibility Iran will insist on conditions the U.S. and its allies cannot accept.

Allies? Yes. The talking heads would have us believe Obama is negotiating alone, but in fact five other nations – Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – are parties to the agreement. Rhodes alluded to this though not saying it directly.

The Obama-haters will not accept any Iran agreement – or anything else, for that matter – that comes out of this White House. The test will be what the agreement says.

Bill McGoun wrote this column for both Masthead and the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times, for which he writes in retirement. He filed before leaving for Cuba.

An AOJ member who attended for the first time this year, Rosemary O'Hara of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, told readers of the AOJ discussion list that she probably could not have done her 827-word editorial on Iran without the briefing. She shared the entire paywalled article with the list.

* [One Rubin blog]:

(posted 5/5/15 JM updated with O'Hara 5/8/15 15:25cdt) 

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Another look at State's
off-the-record ground rule

By John McClelland (individually) (5/4/2015)

Journalists outside the Beltway decry what some of us disdainfully call "The DC Game" of unattributed quotes or needlessly off-the-record or "background" information.

Sometimes when at Foggy Bottom, we are asked to go along with State Department officials who offer candid comments and information with limits on their use. In bureaucracies this happens occasionally from bad habit or merely to avoid potential embarrassment.

But usually it seems that the point at State is to help us better understand their public positions, touchy negotiations, or sensitive world events -- and to do it without disrupting talks or exposing vulnerabilities.

That was the case, again, at the annual AOJ briefing April 27, 2015.

Because of friction* about surprises at previous AOJ-State events, the organizers were careful this year to provide a handout stating the standard department policy on ground rules for on-the-record attribution and the various levels of off-record, background and deep background.*

With this sort of understanding up front, there was only a bit of polite verbal pushing this year when the time came for an official to go off the record by prior agreement. Just for myself, and I think possibly the 20-plus who stayed for an interesting Q&A, it was worthwhile on this occasion.

The rest of the event was, as the agenda header said, On The Record.

* The text of the handout is online as a transcribed PDF

(John McClelland was in newspapers for decades before teaching and retiring from Roosevelt University in Chicago; he edits Masthead for AOJ)

* Previous Masthead articles on attribution issues at State Department briefings are online at the links below. Because of variations in coding from our former website, they may appear oddly; please use your Back button to return here.

2013: deep background or not

2012: non-attribution request

(posted 5/4/2015 16:15cdt)

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Masthead 2015 State Department package

Disaster relief unending:
Ebola, Nepal, ~68 more

By Carolyn Lumsden

Amid the hustle of the second day after the earthquake in Nepal, Jeremy Konyndyk, director of USAID's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, made time to brief AOJ members and State Department guests on Nepal, ebola, and more.

Konyndyk said his office responds to an average of 70 disasters a year. He described the agency as the international equivalent of FEMA. He was working on getting teams deployed to Nepal when he spoke to us.

The response to the ebola threat was "hugely effective," he said.

But in August 2014, when the U.S. sent the first team to Liberia, "the epidemiological curve was nearly vertical. It was one of the most terrifying things I've seen," he said.

The disease was "driven by behavior." To contract it, a victim had to come in contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. So the goal was changing risky behaviors and putting in place safe burial practices.

But reporters focused on hardware - Ebola Treatment Units - while overlooking the role of software - training, education, outreach. He said the investment in those areas had greater impact than in hardware.

Biggest crisis? Syria

In response to a question, he said Syria remains the largest human crisis in the world. The U.N. appeal this year is $2 billion higher than last year.

South Sudan is also in pretty bad shape. There are 3.5 million people who are "food insecure" and the rainy season is approaching, when crisis often hits. Relief agencies are scrambling to get food stocks in before the roads turn muddy or impassible.

He listed in order the most pressing problems as Syria, South Sudan, Yemen, and ebola; the relief agencies are keeping a close eye on Ukraine.

Nepal still developing

As for Nepal, the damage was significant but not nearly as catastrophic as initially feared. On the Monday after the quake, about 90 percent of the structures in Katmandu were still standing, but conditions in the countryside were still largely unknown. The Disaster Assistance Response Teams were mobilizing plastic sheeting for shelter, coordinating interagency involvement, and directing military search and rescue teams.

For the ebola crisis, his agency coordinated with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the military to make the broader international system work.

"Disaster countries are typically very happy to see us," he said. The U.S. has significant capability that few nations have. "We are the indispensable nation on the humanitarian front," he said. Ebola is the best example of that.

The U.S., in sending in the CDC, military and DART, set the template used in other countries to contain Ebola.

Carolyn Lumsden is editorial page editor of the Hartford (Connecticut) Courant

One participant in the briefings, Steve Paul, editorial page editor of The Kansas City Star, led his report with Nepal.


(Posted 5/2/2015 14:40cdt JM)

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In U.S.-Cuba relations,
nitty-gritty grinds slowly

By Marjorie Arons-Barron (posted 4/29/2015 21:20cdt JM)

The announcement of a changed relationship between Cuba and the United States was not a kumbaya moment. Five months later, there was still much work to be done to allay decades of distrust on both sides.

But the commitment to normalize the relationship announced Dec. 17 by both President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro is a game changer. That’s the message to be drawn from Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson's remarks to participants in Monday's AOJ briefings at the State Department.

Jacobson, who heads the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, conceded, "There’s distrust there, on their part and on our part. We have to understand how we're going to operate. We don’t want to go down the road and find out that we’ve misunderstood each other."

"But we’re going to get there," she added. "That’s inevitable at this point."

The first challenge to getting "there" is setting up an embassy. For that, Jacobson said, "there is a floor below which we will not go." She was referring to a threshold in operations and procedures to be acknowledged by the host country, requirements largely covered by the Vienna Convention. (The Vienna Convention spells out the terms of diplomatic immunity, staffing levels, respecting the confidentiality of diplomatic communications, and freedom from harassment or prosecution. Diplomats’ families are covered as well.)

"After so many years without this kind of conversation, it has taken longer for the Cubans to come around to things that are standard elsewhere. It’s not going to look like our embassy in London, but it has to look like many embassies in other places around the world that may be fairly restrictive, ... we have to be able to work under what we perceive to be the rules under the Vienna Convention and our own law.”

Giveaways? NO: Pressed on whether the United States had given away too much without getting anything in return, Jacobson “nothing has been given away.” The only specific “deal” in last December’s announcement was the spy exchange, in which three Cuban agents held by the United States went home, and one U.S. “asset” was released. The release of Alan Gross was on humanitarian grounds and outside the spy exchange.

Jacobson further said that removing Cuba from the list of states sponsoring terrorism was not a condition of normalizing diplomatic relations. Cuba, she noted, has said on the record that it was such a condition and also that it was not. Either way, she said, a review of the status was timely.

Jacobson acknowledged that, given the history of foreign powers exploiting Cuba for centuries, it’s understandable that this island nation the size of Arkansas wants its culture to be respected as the move toward normalization goes forward. “We need to be sensitive to history,” she said, knowing that there is a fundamental difference between our political systems and how we organize our economies."

Culture clash, rights issue: The most important thing is for people to understand and respect Cuba’s national heritage, she said: "But there are also international rights and responsibilities to which we have both signed up that have to be respected.”

That is not now the case, she continued: “When you recognize the UN Universal Human Rights declaration and its institutions (the Human Rights Council), with that comes an acceptance of those universal human rights, which they’re not implementing.

“There are things that are universal standards and there are things that are uniquely and justifiably and proudly Cuban, and those ought to be able to coexist."

Jacobson has no problem with Chinese investments in Cuba, as long as China is playing by international rules, including using an open bidding process, using local labor and following environmental standards. “That’s fair, and we’d have no problem competing in such a situation.” Eyes wide open, the United States will keep “a close eye on them for playing by the rules and for when, and if, their interests in the region spill out beyond the economics.”

As I wrote upon my return from Cuba in March [links below], distrust is the biggest obstacle to successfully normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba. Some distrust is rooted in history. [Within living memory] the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Cuban missile crisis, the Soviet presence, Cuba’s embrace of the Palestinian cause and anti-Israel posture, Cuba’s exporting soldiers to Angola and involvement in Latin American revolutions, its restrictions on journalists and treatment of political prisoners, all are part of a history [that includes the Spanish-American War and an era of U.S. gunboat diplomacy -Ed.].

For most of the generation in their ’40’s and ’50’s, on both sides, even these are dim memories and relics of the Cold War. Yet for more than half a century, we have been mired in the rhetoric of that struggle. What Obama and Castro did was to change the tone.

Consistent with that, Jacobson seems to be going in with her eyes wide open, dealing with the prosaic nitty-gritty of normalizing relations. The change may indeed by inevitable, but it will inevitably come slowly.


Lingo line: Ed. note: Jacobson also spoke about the imbalance of languages in U.S. media reporting on non-Anglophone countries in the hemisphere. She said a belief that immigrants want news from the old country only their parents' languages results in "ghettoization" of news for them 59-second video. And AOJ diversity chair Richard Prince led his extensive blog roundup with related matter

 Marjorie Arons-Barron was a print and broadcast journalist, including 20 years as editorial director of WCVB-TV, Boston's ABC affiliate, and is now a blogger and communications consultant.

The return-from-Cuba postings:

Life in a time warp
The embargo is not the only problem
Sports and arts are cultural signatures
Health care, religion... how much is spin
Cubans' views on normalization

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Russian aggression called
worst since Cold War

By David D. Haynes

Russia’s invasion of Crimea and subsequent meddling in western Ukraine is the “most fundamental challenge to European security since the end of the Cold War,” says senior diplomat Paul Jones.

Jones, principal deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs at the U.S. State Department, told AOJ’s annual State Department Briefing that U.S. policy would continue to resist Russian aggression through non-lethal means.

He outlined these steps; the U.S. and its European allies will

  • Continue to support Ukraine’s effort to reform its own government and root out corruption.
  • Reassure allies in the region, particularly the Baltic states, Moldova and some nations in central Asia. “Russia really has upended the foundation of European security,” Jones said. “A lot of countries around the world are watching that.”
  • Impose costs on Russia in the form of sanctions to put a “slow squeeze on their economy.”
  • Try to isolate Russia politically. One example: Boycotting Russia’s celebration of the end of World War II this year.
  • Seek a diplomatic solution and offer an “off ramp” for the Russians. If the Russians comply with an accord reached this spring in Minsk, then some of the sanctions will end.
  • Counter Russian propaganda by pushing the West’s version of events in the media.

“We’re on the eve of celebrating victory in Europe 70 years ago. We built institutions after the war to preserve the peace in Europe. That has global significance,” Jones said. “One of those understandings is that you don’t intervene; you don’t take bites of other countries and then you don’t intervene militarily against a democratically elected government.”

A bright spot, Jones said, is that Ukraine is evolving away from the kleptocracy that was so in evidence under former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The country is taking on the oligarchy and has more transparency. It also has a newly reconstituted police force that is viewed as less corrupt and has launched reforms in banking, health care and the pension system.

David D. Haynes is editorial page editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and president of the AOJ Foundation.

(Posted 4/29/2015 18:15cdt JM)

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On low-profile front lines
of immigration and safety

By Lois Kazakoff

Washington -- The nuclear negotiations and disaster responses grab the headlines, but the State Department mission that directly touches the most Americans and shapes global views of the United States is the Bureau of Consular Affairs.

photo Michelle Bone at microphone with pen in handThere, the nitty-gritty, paper-pushing work of immigration gets done in a network of 222 offices worldwide staffed by 12,000 State Department employees, Assistant Secretary of State Michele Bond, the woman in charge of consular affairs, told AOJ members attending the 15th annual State Department Briefing on April 27.

Delta Force squads and Navy SEALs combat terrorism but the bureaucrats in the unadorned consular offices are the ones on the front lines of keeping out of America those who might harm us. Or, as concerns rise over disaffected Americans traveling overseas to join Islamic State fighters, they are a key part of keeping in those who might wish to join terrorists abroad.

A consular employee's attentive ear is radar for trouble. "We are the ones who have to think to ask if the story told by the long time unemployed young man seeking to travel on vacation to Turkey is true," Bond said.

Most of the concerns consular staff deal with are the big life events: traveling Americans who have family or medical emergencies or financial difficulties; a worker seeking a visa to take a new job and pursue a new life; new immigrants hoping to reunite with family members still living abroad; Americans attempting to bring home and adopt a foreign-born child.

America remains a beacon for people around the world and the consular offices are where that attraction is most visible. There are 38 countries where no visas are required for Americans to visit or those countries' citizens to visit the U.S., but visas are required for the rest, and all travel reservations are pre-screened. The consulate in São Paulo sees a "couple of thousand applicants a day," Bond said, and managing the crush is the first order of business. The goal is to ensure that no applicant spends more than an hour in the office and that most business is done in 20 minutes.

The consular affair operatIons are fee-funded, and by law any surplus funds are turned over to the U.S. Treasury. Americans stranded abroad can get a government loan to cover the cost of transportation home.

With normalization of diplomatic ties with Cuba on the horizon, the State Department is already bracing for Cuban Americans wanting help to adjudicate decades-old property claims in Cuba. "We will work to establish a fair process for all," Bond said.

Amid the din of the congressional immigration debate, the consular work goes on largely without note. "What do you want us to tell our readers about immigration reform?" Rosemary O'Hara, the editorial page editor of the Sun Sentinel in Florida, asked Bond.

"I firmly believe that is a political question and not one I would speak to officially," Bond said. "What we do know is that the process takes too long."

Kazakoff file photoLois Kazakoff is the deputy editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle (and until this week, president of the AOJ Foundation)
(posted 4/29/2015 JM)

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State Dept has its reasons
for protecting journalism

Mayhem against reporters is a world issue

By John McClelland (4/28/2015 updates at end 4/29, 30)

Why does the State Department eagerly do the annual briefing for opinion writers, editors, broadcasters and producers?

photo Doug Frantz 4/27/2015 JRM for AOJ (c)"The more citizens understand U.S. foreign policy, the better they can give the support leaders need" to do what is needed for the economy and security, said Doug Frantz, assistant secretary of state for public affairs. He was one of several senior State personnel who spoke to the annual briefing for AOJ members, some Poynter people, and a few non-member journalists on Monday.

Each of them, in her or his own way, said informed journalists, including opinion leaders, are vital to the department's mission.

The department is acutely aware that journalists outside the U.S., both American and foreign, are in increasing danger of suppression or death. (And shortly after he spoke, journalists were in danger just half an hour away, covering the riot in Baltimore.)(Poynter roundup)

He quoted Secretary of State John Kerry as frequently saying, "Freedom is under siege."

Of journalists abroad at risk of being abducted or murdered, Frantz said, "The most vulnerable are freelancers and local reporters who cannot buy a plane ticket out and have no backups of colleagues like I had when I covered wars for the Los Angeles Times and New York Times."

As a result, the department is cooperating in efforts to:

  • redraw the usual freelance contracts to provide for employer support
  • develop a standard curriculum for training journalists and non-governmental agency workers in safety and even first aid, before they go into danger zones
  • encourage sharing information about threats, partly via an app, – even among competitors!

With candor seen more often in these briefings than in broader public-face events, he conceded that the bureaucracy is slow, but he insisted that it progressing on these things.

He gave some specifics of other, related, activities:

  • funds for training local journalists in hostile environments, limited by U.S. law to foreign reporters, of whom 350 have been served so far
  • protocols for U.S. embassies worldwide to be ready to act when approached by a journalist, U.S. or foreign, who is in trouble
  • encouraging U.S. ambassadors to nag host governments on a bilateral issue, the appalling tendency for those who commit crimes against journalists to have a sort of immunity, with 90 percent not being prosecuted.

He alluded to a Freedom House report due out later this week that is likely to show, as others have, a rising level in many countries of violence against journalists. (related reports linked below) 

He said that in an environment of repression and oficial falsehoods, empowering independent journalists is a way "to counter propaganda with the truth." Involving such things as "the integrity of NATO and the European Union" and the growth or survival of democracy worldwide, he said journalistic freedom and safety do have real effects on and in the U.S.

(John McClelland was in newspapers for decades before teaching and retiring from Roosevelt University in Chicago; he edits Masthead for AOJ)

Related report 4/29/15 press freedom including safety is worst in 10 years:

Referenced report by Freedom House (linked 4/30), harsh laws, violence:

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Envoy against ISIS
prefers Arabic acronym

(4/28/2015 JM)

General John Allen reviewed the coalition's diplomatic-military struggle against the Islamic State, commonly called ISIS or ISIL, though he used a different term in his AOJ briefing.

It is "Da'esh," which he pronounced about midway between "dash" and "dah-esh," He said it is an acronym from the Arabic letters for Islamic State.

Later, someone else at State said "da'esh" can also be an insulting word in Arabic, so its use is part of the campaign to further tarnish the murderous group's image.

Allen, a retired Marine, is special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIL, appointed in September. He once led 150,000 U.S. and NATO forces at a key time in Afghanistan.

Allen said the battle with Da'esh is being waged broadly in five ways:

  • military, with several recent victories
  • disrupting the flow of foreign fighters
  • disrupting access to financial and other resources
  • humanitarian works, such as aid to civilians in liberated combat zones
  • information, now a crucial front

He said Da'esh has lost momentum in the fighting recently, eight months into what will be a long war. He re-stated other recent public pronouncements. 

 For example, he said informally what he had told the Senate Foreign Relations committee: "ISIL was attractive to many of its recruits because of its proclamation of a so-called Caliphate and the sense of inevitability it promoted. The last six months have amply demonstrated that ISIL is really operating as a criminal gang and death cult which is under increasing pressure, as it sends naïve and gullible recruits to die by the hundreds."

He praised the partnership of 60 nations, including 30 that have changed laws about travel toward the area of conflict. He discussed synchronized efforts to block financial assets such as oil, organized crime, and trafficking in antiquities or sex slaves.

About the information struggle, he paraphrased the king of Jordan: The voices and faces must be Arab faces and Muslim voices, telling that "the Caliphate is not a utopia but a nightmare."

He had some pithy comments (details below) about television use of outdated file video as background b-roll and its harm to the balance of truth vs the Da'esh image.

### (top of page) (top of article)

(John McClelland was in newspapers for decades before teaching and retiring from Roosevelt University in Chicago; he edits Masthead for AOJ) 

Allen's April 17 comments on Da'esh's record of atrocities and on military victories 

Senate statement  

A John Allen TV-b-roll statement, text provided by State staff:

“Just as I am careful, just as other leaders are careful, the media should be careful to tell the story, the balanced story, but not in any way empower this organization beyond the reality of what it is. And I think what’s important here is that you’re not going to find any freedom of the press or any free media anywhere in any area controlled by Da’esh. And giving them the appearance of greater power or greater coherence than they really have empowers them and makes them even more attractive.

"We often talk to the media in the area where I live about this continued term “B-roll,” which I know you understand, which is sort of background media that’s playing behind interviews or commentary, that shows Da’esh convoys of hundreds of vehicles coming down the roads with their lights on and celebrations, et cetera. That hasn’t happened in months. They can’t get on the roads now, because if we catch them on the roads, we destroy them instantly with airstrikes. That is an image of power that the media continues to portray, and it vastly inflates the capabilities of Da’esh beyond what it is today.

"And so as we try to balance the story, to try to tell the true story, that element of Da’esh, when it was coming down the roads in convoys of hundreds of vehicles – they would stop briefly to slaughter an entire population or to cut the heads off of young recruits. First of all, nothing useful came from those convoys, and second of all, they don’t exist today. And to continue to roll that kind of coverage of them empowers Da’esh well beyond its own capabilities.”

Related interview text and video on denying ISIS the resources it needs:

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Woe is opportunity
for good journalism

(Posted 4/27/2015 12:30 a.m. John McClelland)

Professional opinion writers and editors have new kinds of opportunities, along with the huge challenges, of the cyber era. Sometimes, John Harwod says, they can convert a burden to a benefit.

photo Tony Messenger and John HarwoodHe told a roomful of them some ways to go at it, Sunday night in Washington DC, at the first joint event of the Association of Professional Journalists and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

Like much of his audience, he was in newspapers first and still does a New York Times column in addition to his regular television work. He told of a key event in his use of the even-more-immediate forms of social media:

"The whole phenomenon of journalism by social media seemed vain and stupid," he said. But a colleague called Twitter the new A.P. for political coverage. "Once I started, I felt totally different. This is a way to communicate instantly with a reasonable number of people the essence of a news story."

It may be different for opinion writers, television editorialists (there were three in the room) and especially for editors. But it can be done, he predicted.

One case of learning from politicos: President Obama cut televised interviews and "is doing a YouTube interview with someone my 17-year-old knows about." That's a new wrinkle on an old dodge by politicians, Harwood said: "They have been trying to cut through the clutter or filters we represent for decades. Reagan did it. Clinton ... Bush … Obama does it."

In a similar way, "We have to look for different ways to cut through the clutter [of internet overload]," he said, alluding to people of nearly all ages "who appreciate journalism with inegrity … we apply reason and evidence to the points we make."

A short-staffed editor asked about how to deal with numerous people who call in wanting to meet the editorial board. "They want to get on the agenda," Rosemary O'Hara said, "especially in this fractured environment, and we just don't have the time."

Harwood suggested turning the problem into a service, perhaps a town hall meeting with the editorial board and several groups who need to be heard. He also suggested making video pieces of the citizens speaking.

"The idea of making yourself a sounding board may take many forms," he said. "I was hearing a lot of opportunity to turn that around."

It will not be easy, he conceded, to "stand up for journalism in opposition to many players in our political system with less integrity, at a time when the economic pressures are unbelieveable."

Presidential politics, one of his specialties, came up, of course.

Prodded to predict, he said Hillary Clinton is the best bet for the Democarts. The general election "is fated to be close," he said, because any of the top three Republicans, most likely Jeb Bush, could beat her if they reach out, and perhaps if she has a real fiasco.

Beware pundits' and pollsters' predictions, he implied with Clinton-Obama anecdotes:

When Bill Clinton's draft board finagling came up early in the 1992 campaign, alleged experts declared his chances dead. He won. Some television execs were clueless in the 2012 campaign. "They were saying, 'Obama is advocating higher taxes on the rich, and yet he leads in the polls.' Well, yes, he leads #because# he is advocating..."

Online media change things, but a key question is still, "What can I do for my audience?" But now, Harwood said, "You have the ability to penetrate beyond the geographic confines of you circulation area."

Politico, sensing a national audience for news from a swing state, is doing a daily Florida political newsletter. A newspaper or journalist in Iowa could find a national readership from now to the primary season or beyond.

Other points:

"Do humor only if you are very good at it." Harwood got laughs mimicking Obama's quip to the correspondents' dinner the night before: "Republicans are losing voters left and right. May they rest in peace."

Columnists now have more influence than the institutional editorials because of the sense of personal connection, and because "It's easier for the target to dismiss the [anonymous] editorial."

One way to counteract that would be to make authorship of the editorials known. On a large board, if someone is the specialist in politics, for example, make that fact known. This prompted the discussion moderator, 2015 Pulitzer Prize runner-up Tony Messenger, to suggest that editors discuss signed editorials.

Harwood said he does analytical analysis, different from the normative analysis on Fox and other cables, by saying "what I think will happen, not what should happen."

Q: What were the most shortsighted and prescient newspaper responses to the new media?

A: Wall Street Journal, prescient in developing a paper-content profile [effective because] the most intensely loyal customers were business people with money to spend. "I was a late adopter of Twitter. I think newspapers and television still don't know how to do digital video."

Q: Will news on paper survive? A: "I'm scared to death that they won't. … Are we headed to a world with two or three national papers and some local supplements? I don't know. … I hope that creativity and innovation will occur."

Regarding divisive matters in a crazily polarized society, he re-stated an old truth about opinion writing: "You can affect things on the margins but cannot bring about wholesale change."

And at another point, "You can increase the traction of editorials by personalizing."

(A nearly identical version of this article was published on Poynter's site 4/27/15 by agreement. link here )

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Masthead winter-spring 2015

Is a canned op-ed 'turfy'
or legitimate anyway?

By four members

"Turf" alerts are often seen as one of the most valuable tools on the AOJ discussion list. Often, they finger an interest group's effort to get its canned view into local letters columns via local readers' email.

Dick Hughes in Salem, a prolific contributor to the list, posted an alert about an advocacy group's effort to place an op-ed piece. He provoked a thoughtful discussion.

He said, "Americans for Tax Reform is submitting similar commentaries around the country. In Oregon, it was in partnership with the Cascade Policy Institute. We turned down this one after asking whether it was original."

He and AOJ Foundation trustee Herb Berkowitz had an exchange that invited us all to think again about these things. Jack Wilson added to the Masthead package.

Here are edited excerpts:

Berkowitz: I’ve been amused by the “turf” alerts. What’s the point?

If the objective is to flag campaigns in which local individuals submit letters scripted by national organizations, turf alerts may have some value. But being drafted by third parties doesn’t negate the facts or disqualify the opinions. Presumably the person who sends it agrees with the content.

How does this differ from opinion you publish under the bylines of prominent figures? Some flunky wrote it for them.

If the alert flags an op-ed or commentary, I also don’t see the point. Even if sent to every opinion editor in the U.S., in what significant respect do such articles differ from [the wires] or a syndicated column? This is not a canned letter someone is trying to sneak by you; it's a by-lined article.

Americans for Tax Reform (never a client) has little or no access to media distribution channels. How else is it to make its views known?

ATR localized the article for Oregon and partnered with a state think tank. Where I come from, this is collaboration, a good thing.

The time when commentary was distributed by numerous news organizations is gone. If groups have no access to national distribution channels, what else can they to do?

You call it “turf.” I call it an attempt to inform and persuade.

Part of Hughes' reply to an earlier Berkowitz message:

We and the readers know syndicated columns are sent everywhere. But to print something presumably local, we expect it to be original. We have limited print space.

Until a couple of years ago, I put them on our website. But I don’t have time for that anymore, and our company’s focus has shifted to quality and engagement. 

Commentary doesn't cut it online without an aptly provocative headline. We wrote a lot about our ousted governor. A side piece got the most web traffic with this headline: “So she got canned for dissing the guv’s girlfriend.”

I’m starting to be more flexible. If we have few local letters and guest opinions, I can take something that is distributed elsewhere. That's more likely during the holidays, spring break or the summer.

But maybe we need to rethink our position. The world is moving so fast that “This is the way we do it” is an instantly outdated reason for doing anything.

Jack Wilson said:

We ignore the op-ed pitches that pour in every day from distant PR firms and advocacy groups.

If they ask, we explain that we give top priority to the abundant material from local contributors. We want material that readers recognize as belonging here, not just as well in Pocatello or Pensacola.

An exception is an issue of specific local concern. When our city council was debating paid sick-leave, we published an op-ed from a D.C. group. Another is a rebuttal of an editorial or article in our newspaper.

In both cases, the common element is local relevance.

Dick Hughes is editorial page editor and more at the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon.

Herb Berkowitz is president of PRoactive Solutions Public Relations in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Jackman Wilson is editorial page editor of The Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon.

John McClelland is retired from paid editing and teaching in Chicago and edits AOJ Masthead.

The term "turf" is a reference to AstroTurf and similar artificial grass; in editing letters and op-eds, it refers to artificial "grassroots" messages.

(posted 4/16/2015) (top of page) (top of article)

Disability due as diversity
in content and staffing

[Links to resources, below] (top of page)

By Sarah Gassen

Comedian Dave Attell has a joke: If you want to know the shortest way between two points, ask the person with one leg.

It’s true. We do know. And the knowledge and insight gained by experiencing the world differently is valuable. It’s a diversity of perspective that belongs on our opinion pages and in our journalism ranks.

Disability is different than other categories, such as ethnicity, race, gender, and LGBTQ, however, because disability is a group anyone can join -- and many will through accident, congenital condition, illness or age.

What is disability?

“Disability” is a catch-all that includes everything from vision to mobility to long-term illness to mood disorders to intellectual and cognitive differences.

One in 5 Americans has a disability, according to 2010 U.S. Census figures. Many definitions, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, use the presence a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one of more “major life activities.”

But for the purpose of our discussion, let’s think about disability in the broadest sense. It can be transitory – you break your leg – or lifelong. It can affect you directly, or a loved one.

A word of caution: Not everyone who lives with what others might view as an impairment considers herself disabled. Just as we shouldn’t proclaim that a person suffers from a condition – he has cerebral palsy, it’s not our call to say that he suffers from cerebral palsy– the decision to identify as disabled is personal.

The way we think about disability generally falls along two lines: the medical model, in which disability is an person’s individual tragedy and responsibility to fix; and the societal model, which views disability as the result of a society constructed in a way that doesn’t include all of its members.

In other words, you’re not necessarily disabled if you have the tools and access you need. My own disability is greatly reduced if I have access to the prosthetic leg I need to walk, and if where I need to travel has ramps, elevators and stairs. Without these, I become more disabled.

Bring in voices

Like the person with one leg who knows all the shortcuts, people with disability are busy living their lives as parents, neighbors, professionals, consumers, students. Folks likely are not spending time thinking about being “the disabled” – and we journalists shouldn’t box our sources or subjects into one category, either.

Deepening our coverage isn’t difficult when we expand our own view. If your county is considering a transportation project, ask a taxpayer who uses a wheelchair to weigh in, too. When police in Ferguson, Mo., cited protesters who didn’t keep walking, how did their rule affect protesters who couldn’t “keep moving?”

A few ideas that come up from the daily news coverage: Overgrown sidewalks that don’t connect from one block to the next endanger people in wheelchairs who are forced to travel in the roadway. Budget cuts for non-classroom spending means fewer speech therapists in schools. Zoning can put community mental health services far from a bus line – and out of reach.

What else to do

So how to get voices those voices into our publications?

Everyone has probably had the experience of asking a source to write a guest opinion piece for our publication and found the other person surprised – why would anyone want to know about my life? We’re interested, so we should ask.

To be clear, I’m not talking about asking people to write the tell-us-what-it’s –like-to-be-blind kind of inspiration porn piece, or the condescending story you see too often about how gee, that crippled person is just like a normal person! Imagine that!

Asking someone who uses the county behavioral health system to explain how budget cuts will affect patients, or asking a person with severe mental illness to share their reaction to connecting mental illness with mass shootings... this helps readers know their communities.

On a practical note, you may need to work with people who aren’t able to compose a full guest opinion piece themselves, maybe through an interview.

Or publish a person’s artwork or take dictation. Do a Q& A. Our conventions shouldn’t exclude the voices we need to understand.

Sometimes it is difficult to find someone to share his experience because of the stigma attached to disability, particularly mental illness. The more issues are talked about, the better. Seeking out people who can share their direct perspective is always worth the effort.

In the newsroom (editorial "suite")

Disability as diversity in newsrooms improves our journalism

Navigating a world not built for you takes skill, ingenuity and resourcefulness – all skills useful to a journalist.

Recognizing disability as diversity brings value. An investigative journalist who stutters told me that he thinks the moments of silence his stutter creates help him be him a more effective interviewer, because he can’t jump right in with the next question. His sources fill in the pauses.

A journalist whose wife couldn’t see noticed a problem in a new community fitness center Tucson had built for people with disabilities: the towel dispenser was affixed to the middle of the locker room wall at head height with nothing else around it. No one would expect it to be in such an odd location. And a person without vision wouldn’t detect it with a cane and would walk right smack into it.

Recognizing disability as diversity isn’t about creating a new category of issues to cover. Instead, it’s about doing better, more accurate, journalism by understanding that our readers, viewers and listeners experience the world in so many different ways.

photo of Sarah GassenSarah Garrecht Gassen writes opinion for the Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

Resources for help

Suggested by Gassen:

The National Center for Disability and Journalism provides an excellent resource list and style guide. The center is located at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University 

Researcher and author Beth A. Haller's blog, Media Dis&Dat, is fantastic for disability news, blogs and information. She studies how the media shape public perception of disability.

How to do it right: Dan Barry of The New York Times writes about a group of men with intellectual disabilities who for decades were made to work in an Iowa turkey processing plant. For years they were abused and received only a pittance in wages. His "The 'Boys' in the Bunkhouse" can be found here:

[One of Gassen's own pieces, tweaking Microsoft for its syrupy Super Bowl commercial: ] (2015-02-06 JM) 

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Candidates on the fringe?
Relevance decides interviewing

By Bill McGoun (top of page)

“How are you dealing with third-party candidates in your endorsement interviews?” Rosemary Goudreau, editorial page editor of the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, asked her colleagues on the AOJ discussion list during the run-up to last November’s elections. “Have you set a threshold someone must meet to be interviewed?”

The answers reflected a wide range of opinions, as they had in previous years when the same or similar questions arose(*). If there was any common thread, it was relevance. The two poles were represented by Bill Perkins, editorial page editor of The Dothan (Alabama) Eagle, and Jon Alexander, opinion editor of The Times-News in Twin Falls, Idaho.

Our threshold is ballot access,” Perkins said. “If they've jumped through the necessary hoops to acquire ballot access, we treat them like any other candidate. And in our experience, lunatics come in every stripe.”

Alexander said: “We want a healthy back-and-forth that serves our readership. … I can't see how the addition of someone who will be hard-pressed to pull five percent in November in any way facilitates that goal.”

Alexander was referring specifically to a Times-News gubernatorial debate from which a third-party candidate was excluded. “(A)s repeatedly shown, ‘fringe’ candidates tend to steer the debate astray, often shielding the incumbent from defending his/her record. We're not looking to make Huffington Post because of some bit of random absurdity.”

Others would make an exception for local candidates. “If they are local we interview them … We do interview for state offices, rarely for national,” said John Hackworth, editor of the Sun Newspapers in Charlotte County, Florida.

In recent years we've taken to skipping interviews with most third-party candidates,” said Jackman Wilson, editorial page editor of The Register-Guardian in Eugene, Oregon. “We make exceptions if they're from within our circulation area and on those rare occasions when they appear to have a chance at having an effect on their races.

“Sometimes we'll meet with a third-party candidate who seems to have an interesting story to tell, or who calls to express an interest in meeting with us. But if they're candidates who have no chance of winning either the election or our endorsement, we save everyone's time by not issuing an invitation.”

Gary Crooks of the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, made a similar point. “Just met with an interesting independent candidate for Congress. Missing out if you summarily reject them,” he said.

“We interview the local general election folks (and single-party primary folks) together; in our market we've not had more than four parties,” said Larry Reisman of Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers in Florida.

Sarah Garrecht Gassen, opinion writer for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, said: “In the last city council and mayoral election we invited the Green Party candidates separately from the Democratic and Republican candidates,” breaking a tradition of interviewing all candidates for a given office together.

“(I)t worked well," she said. "The focus of the candidates' issues was different enough that it made sense. The Greens weren't pleased with the arrangement, but it was most useful for those of us writing the endorsements.”

Electability is the criterion for Jay Jochnowitz, editorial page editor of the Times Union in Albany, New York. He said: “We tended in the past to err in favor of a sense of fairness, but, perhaps because our time is more constrained, perhaps because we¹ve had some clearly unendorseable if not unelectable candidates come in, we have been a little more judicious about inviting in fringe candidates. We don¹t want to waste our time or theirs.

“We recently did an editorial on the issue of debate access for third party candidates,(**) arguing that if their party is credible enough to be on the ballot by default, they should be included in the debates. (W)e argued that debates are one of the few occasions when many people are paying attention, and they’re a good way to hear candidates’ views side-by-side.

“However, we also stressed that our position does not mean that third party candidates should be given equal time in all things, including news coverage, as that would skew reality in the sense of making it seem that everyone has an equal chance.”

Steve Matrazzo, editor of The Dundalk Eagle in Dundalk, Maryland, argues that denial of coverage may deny that equal chance. “Polling thresholds and the like have a way of becoming self-fulfilling,” he wrote. “A candidate polls in the low single digits, therefore does not merit coverage, therefore never gets past those low single digits.”

In short, AOJ members have opinions about third-party candidates. Lots of opinions.

Bill McGoun is a retired editorial writer for The Palm Beach Post. He does free-lance writing, including work as a contributing editor for the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times. He is the author of seven books and holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Florida.

** The Times-Union's June 2014 editorial: (back to **)

(*) Here are links to some past AOJ list discussions on this and related topics. Members of the list who are logged in to any Google service (usually Gmail) can access them directly. This collection includes some duplication and irrelevant hits; search engines being what they are, it probably omits some zingers. For tips on using the list and its archives, see and using-archives
(posted 2014-02-03 JM) (back to *)

Link to threads with "candidate interview"!searchin/editorialwriters/candidate$20interview

Link to threads with "fringe"!searchin/editorialwriters/fringe

Link to threads with "third party"!searchin/editorialwriters/third-party

Samples of the archive summaries you would see via those links (some details omitted):

candidate interviews. As often occurs here, what started as a routine query has elicited some articulate and widely different views of handling "fringe" candidacies. 7/9/14 ... 23 posts by 15 authors

hearing from loonies, and speaking of which, it's campaign season I must have been doing something right," still has some, limited, value, especially if "both sides" means some who are not lunatic fringe. 8/17/12 - 14 posts by 9 authors

Candidate Interviews. But, as repeatedly shown, "fringe" candidates tend to steer the debate astray, often shielding the incumbent from defending his/her record. 8/25/14 by Jonathan Alexander - 5 posts by 5 authors

hearing from loonies. I must have been doing something right," still has some, limited, value, especially if "both sides" means some who are not lunatic fringe. 8/17/12 - 3 posts by 3 authors

candidate interviews. In recent years we've taken to skipping interviews with most third-party ...Sometimes we'll meet with a third-party candidate who seems to have an 7/7/14 - 23 posts by 15 authors

Candidate Interviews. This of course resulted in a fairly testy email from a third-party candidate to the editorial board. But, as repeatedly shown, "fringe" candidates tend to 8/25/14 by J Alexander - 5 posts by 5 authors

endorsement season, judicial races and candidate questionnaires.
We then select a smaller set of races to actually interview/recommend in. The candidate questionnaire answers provide us a foundation for those interviews. 5/27/14 - 7 posts by 7 authors

candidate interviews...C'mon ... you have a beard, ...> usually invite candidates for the same office in the interview together 7/9/14 - 23 posts by 15 authors

Looking for info on your presidential... Candidate endorsements often help citizens make informed decisions ...the Editorial Board has met with each candidate in a face-to-face interview. 10/24/12 - 36 posts by 24 authors

(back to *) (back to top of article) (back to top of page)

(Copyright 2015 AOJ; individual contributors to the list retain copyright of their original work. It also is AOJ policy to encourage uninhibited discussion on the list by discouraging off-list quotation without the writer's consent.)

Are newspaper letter guidelines obsolete?

(with links to extensive discussion list archives, below)

By John Penney

Are the guidelines that newspapers typically use for letters to the editor ridiculously obsolete in an era of social media proliferation and immediacy?

For instance, why make readers wait 30 days before they can have another letter published?

Why bother calling letter writers on the telephone to confirm submissions if their pertinent information, including email addresses, is on file?

These are just some of the questions opinion editors are grappling with in a changing media landscape and workplace environment. With more tasks to complete but fewer staffers to complete them, opinion editors are looking for best practices and finding that there are benefits to changing old habits.

“Here in Billings,” said Opinion Editor Pat Bellinghausen at The Billings Gazette in Montana, “our usual practice is to confirm letters with a phone call. But for writers whose email address I recognize, whose handwriting, typewriter or style is unmistakable, I OK the letter without having the secretary confirm. Also, we don’t usually confirm letters thanking the community for supporting a charitable event or stopping to push somebody out of a snow drift.”

Indicative of the staff cuts many have faced, Dennis Mangan, who retired in 2013 as editorial editor of the Vindicator in Youngstown, Ohio, said: “I stopped universal verification some years ago after we went from three full-timers to two and lost our access to clerks at the same time. Regular and even semi-regular writers were used routinely. I tried to confirm all new writers, but depending on workload, I sometimes took a chance. It depended on the subject and tone of the letter. If it was a letter that was on or over the edge for one reason or another, I verified.”

The Poughkeepsie Journal, too, is considering shortcuts, including confirming via telephone only controversial letters and approving others if we have on file all the pertinent information about the author, telephone number, email address...

Many newspapers also have created automated responses to letter writers, not only to confirm the receipt of a submission but to point out the guidelines that, if followed, would increase the chances of publication. They include limits on letter lengths and the fact that anonymous letters won’t be published.

Opinion editors also said they are “relaxing” the once-steadfast “one-letter-per-month rule,” in part, to generate more timely content.

Bellinghausen said she was thinking of loosening the policy “because letters are slow right now. But I expect more soon because the Legislature has started its biennial session.”

Of that monthly limit, Jay Jochnowitz, editorial page editor at the Times Union in Albany, said: “I have been thinking of reducing it for the very reason you raise ... whether it’s too long in view of the immediacy of the Web. But we mostly have ample letters (we have hit a few more drier spells the last few years), and I do think people still see getting a letter published in the paper as something considerably more valuable and prestigious than a comment in the vast wilds of the Internet. Diminishing that is one concern I have about reducing the time limit.”

John Penney, shown puzzling over paper letters to the editor, is the engagement editor of the Poughkeepsie Journal, New York. You can reach him at

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(top of MH2015 page)

The AOJ members-only discussion list archives contain a wealth of past discussions on letters editors’ thoughts, tasks, trials, travails, and tricks. Here are links to a sampling of the diversity found with three search strings. Authors' names, publication identifiers and some other details have been removed from the hits in keeping with AOJ's policy of not publicly quoting list posts without their authors' consent. You can sail into the archive if you are logged in via any Google service, such as Gmail, and are a member of the list.

The extensive sample (pdf)

The links:

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