Friday, October 2, 2009

NEPA Story on Salem Newspaper

This was from the New England Press Association about this editor from Salem, Mass. that talked about using editorials and opinion pages to encourage community feedback and involvement.

16 NEPA Bulletin March 2009
by Meena Ramakrishnan
Bulletin Correspondent
“Despite press layoffs, it is a great, opportune time
for opinion pages,” Nelson Benton, editorial page editor
of The Salem (Mass.) News, told an audience of 16 people
at the “Involved Editorial Page” workshop Friday,
Feb. 6, at New England Press Association convention in
the Boston Park Plaza Hotel.
Benton, who writes a weekly column on North Shore
politics and has been with the Salem News for 36 years,
discussed using the newspaper as a forum to help bring
about discussion in the community. Newspapers are an
important way to learn about your community, and letters
to the editor are a foundation of a paper, he said.
Early on in the discussion, Benton said the workshop
would be informal. He interacted with the audience,
giving advice, suggestions and examples from his editorial
What makes a good editorial page is to keep an open
mind and have other sources besides that day’s paper, he
“It’s our job to make people think and make people
respond,” he said.
Benton posted editorial and op-ed pages from the
Salem News to an easel to show how the paper is more
appealing to readers with graphics placed beside editorials
and letters to the editor. An example was a letter
about a controversy involving the Salem power plant
paired with a picture of the plant.
“You can use a syndicated graphic for someone local
writing about something national,” he said. “You never
know where you can find those kinds of illustrations for
the letters and for the columns.”
Benton said that, when writing editorial pieces, make
your opinions pointed and stand behind them.
He told the audience a story that took place in the
Boston Park Plaza Hotel’s ballroom about an editor at
his paper who had written an unflattering opinion
piece. The subject of the piece came to the NEPA convention
and demanded to know where the editor was.
Benton later found the editor hiding behind a column
in the ballroom.
“You may very well run into the person you talk
about, and you have to try to defend what you wrote,”
Benton said.
The editorial pages can also be used to discuss errors
made by the paper, reader complaints, or even to break
news, Benton said.
“Sometimes there are arguments over where things
should be run, but that’s a legitimate place as more
places in the paper shrink,” he said.
In the second half of the workshop, Benton discussed
restricting letters to the editor and censoring comments.
The guidelines he gave were to remove personal or
libelous postings and to give signed opinions more
prominence than anonymous ones, both in print and
One audience member said he does not allow reader
comments about cancelling subscriptions or suggesting
that he be removed from his position, and said “the
readers could argue about what they want but couldn’t
target his job.”
That prompted other members of the audience to say
what they would do in that situation. One person said
such comments don’t bother him too much. Another
talked about being told she came from a “tin-hat planet.”
Benton said it boosts your credibility to allow more
people to attack you.
Comments to the Salem News are also posted on its
Web site, allowing readers to respond online, a good tactic
when there is less and less room in the paper, Benton
“Our message is to provide people with different
ways to get their word across,” he said.
On the Web site, the newspaper has begun posting
online polls and blogs. After the most recent presidential
election, the paper hired a conservative and a liberal
columnist to blog while they were watching the inauguration.
The Salem News also airs a monthly local access cable
television show for an hour each month that is prerecorded
and posted on the Web site. The show covers
local news, business and feature stories on the North
The last question asked at the end of the workshop
was how Benton had stayed involved in the news business
for 40 years.
He said: “I love doing what I do and find it very
interesting. I love the interaction with people and writing
my opinion. I’ll probably stay as long as they have
Meena Ramakrishnan is an undergraduate student in
the Northeastern University School of Journalism.
Art, reader comments enliven editorial pages

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