Readers who are not writing a letter to the editor to the Cook County News-Herald this week will likely not notice that a subtle change has been made to our editorial policy. Regular submitters may not notice the change at all, as they already know the letter to the editor guidelines.
They may not always follow those guidelines, which leads to a bit of conflict now and then, but our frequent contributors do know the length, libel and slander limits.
The change is subtle. We rearranged the language in the note at the bottom of the editorial page and added a line. Along with the requisite: “Letters to the editor, columns and cartoons are the opinions of the contributors and not necessarily the Cook County News-Herald”—we’ve added a cautionary statement for letter writers.
The footnote now also states: “While we encourage readers to submit letters to the editor on issues they feel strongly about, we encourage writers to be respectful to one another. Your message is more likely to be heard if it is delivered in a civil manner.”
The change is one outcome of my attendance at the Blandin Foundation Editor & Publisher Community Leadership Program—and of the meetings with community members that followed. Participating in the Editor & Publisher Leadership Program—E&P for short—is an amazing experience.
The program was established by the Blandin Foundation and the Minnesota Newspaper Association, based on the traditional community leadership program offered by Blandin. The goal of the training is to create healthy communities. At the training, each attendee took a hard look at his or her own community. The Blandin Foundation doesn’t give advice on what participants should do when they get back home. In fact, the training raises more questions than it answers. But the leadership sessions give invaluable networking opportunities and provide resources and support as leaders work through what works best for a community.
We have quite a few community members who have attended Blandin Leadership training. You likely know someone who has participated. They are government officials, nonprofit volunteers, teachers, and business owners. Most are actively working to make Cook County a better place, using the skills they learned and the ideas generated at the program into action.
The goal of the E&P program is the same. Since 2005, newspaper editors and publishers from across the state have gathered to take part in the program that asks them to look at the newspaper’s role in the community. One of the principles stressed in both the traditional and the E&P leadership program is the importance of social capital.
We all need people we can count on, to turn to when things need to get done. For a newspaper, it is crucial. We need to know who to call to clarify budget questions, to explain environmental rules and regulations, to let us know the story behind the story. We need people to act as citizen journalists at all the meetings and events that our small staff can’t get to. We need our local photographers to capture moments that we miss because there is too much going on. We couldn’t produce a newspaper without support from the community—our social capital.
So one of the Blandin E&P assignments was to reach out to the community to build social capital. We were asked to do that by interviewing community leaders about the newspaper’s role in the community.
I took it a step further. You may have seen the announcement of a newspaper focus group back in May. It was really interesting. The goal was to evaluate the Cook County News-Herald on how we were doing covering factors that create a healthy community, such as lifelong learning opportunities, safety and security for all, environmental stewardship and more. I asked for ideas and suggestions on how the newspaper could contribute to a healthier community with its coverage. I received that feedback—and then some. Thank you to the folks who took time out of their busy lives to participate!
One of the things that came through loud and clear—in the focus group and the one-on-one interviews—was that people were often irritated and offended by letters to the editor. My knee jerk reaction was to reply that many letters are much more spiteful than what gets published. I wanted to say that we have little control over submissions. But I tried to keep my mouth shut and listen. And I kept hearing that people were not reading the letters because of the angry discourse.
That is troubling and I took the question to the E&P group. I was vindicated a bit. As defenders of a citizen’s constitutional right to free speech, the group collectively agreed that we have little control over what readers submit. It’s a slippery slope, deciding what will offend a reader. If we rigidly edited or refused to run every letter that could possibly offend, we’d have no letters at all. And that would be as harmful as having some letters that may annoy or offend.
So, with our new policy, the Cook County News-Herald is asking readers to police themselves. Our new policy uses the honor system. We encourage you to write letters on subjects you feel strongly about. But we also encourage you to speak gently to one another. We want your message to be heard.
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A healthy community is a place where all people can meet their economic, social, physical, cultural and spiritual needs, working together for the common good and participating in creating their future.
The Blandin Foundation philosophy