First things first: All columns, even those research-based like mine, are matters of opinion.
Sunday’s Opinions page featured several letters complaining of the perceived impropriety of opinion in our daily journal, suggesting newspapers are not the place for them. While these readers are quite correct that opinion has no place in reporting itself (an increasing challenge in today’s online world), to remove it from a newspaper entirely would defy centuries-old traditions in worldwide print journalism.
It’s like going to a bookstore: If you’re searching for a physics primer, you don’t look in the fiction section. If you want a novel, you’d steer clear of sports.
What you get depends on where you look.
Like categorical divisions in other reading material, newspapers are subdivided into reporting, advertising, and opinion — both ours and yours. Opinions can be useful to provoke thought, inspire passionate discussion (such as Sunday’s letters), entertain, or simply serve as kindling. Articles are another matter entirely. By design they’re to be factual, neutral, and as objective as humanly possible.
Signposts can help readers determine which is which; look for hints in this newspaper primer:
Articles: (Hint: Reporter’s byline at top) Written by trained reporters, an article reports news. Its purpose is not to opine, comment, or entertain, but to simply and straightforwardly report facts and events. Standards require at least two sources to confirm a fact; often there are more. Quotes are nearly always included. You know you’re reading an article when there is no photo of the writer, so if you see one, it’s not an article. Nor are what’s in the “Opinions” section of the paper articles. Another hint is the byline — it’s at the top, right below the headline, with the title “staff,” “correspondent,” or — if it’s taken from the national news wire, perhaps “AP/Associated Press.”
Columns: (Hint: Columnist’s photo and “tagline” — mini bio with name at the bottom) Regular columnists usually — but not always — appear along a page’s edge, include the writer’s profile photo, and sometimes, a column title (Main Street, Consumer Guy). Columnists may or may not have a journalism background; many — like me — are independent contractors, not reporting staff. Tyler Wilson (entertainment), Mark Nelke (sports), Uyless Black (variety of subjects), Bill Brooks (CDA Press Consumer Guy), Steve Cameron (sports, politics and more), Bill Rutherford (food, education and more, returning soon!) and Kerri Thoreson (“Main Street”) are regular Press columnists.
Unlike articles, columns are supposed to be opinion, judged independently by readers. Columns may include facts or share news, but with commentary, expressed or implied. You will rarely see quotes in a column. They are not meant to be relied upon as a primary source, but are designed to entertain; provoke thought, interest, or discussion; and elicit emotion — good and bad.
Editorials: (Hint: “Opinions” page) Readers often mistakenly call columns editorials, which they’re not. Editorials (in ours, printed next to Readers Write) represent the opinions and positions of the editorial board (at The Press, that’s Larry Riley, publisher; Mike Patrick, managing editor; and owners Brad and Duane Hagadone), typically addressing important local issues.
Letters to the editor: (Readers Write) These are your opinions, generally appearing next to editorials. Which letters are printed depends upon length, timeliness of topic, author verifiability (anonymous letters aren’t printed), the number received (too many to print at election time), and occasionally, legal issues (no threats, libel, etc.). Editors approve letters for inclusion. Editors may purposely print letters they disagree with, but which they hope will spark a public discussion over time. This is one of the functions of local newspapers, to provide a forum for public discussion.
Guest opinions: (Hint, often with writer’s photo, always with tagline at the bottom) Sometimes editors print guest ops, such as “My Turn” or other opinions which read like long letters in other areas of the paper. These are opinion pieces by readers or public figures on current topics of broad interest. Sometimes guest ops are used to balance out an issue upon which letter writers or quoted officials have opined, but only on one side of an argument. Sometimes they’re used simply to explain things further, but again, from that person’s perspective — unlike an article, they aren’t necessarily neutral.
The beauty of a newspaper and its varying contents is that readers can choose what they wish to read, and what they don’t. Some people read a paper cover to cover; others pick out the “light” stuff, like columns, TV, food, and sports and use other sources for news. Some do the opposite, only wanting “hard” news.
Whatever your pleasure, odds are you want something different from your neighbor. So providing abundant local content and variety is what this — and every local newspaper — hopes to achieve for the community it serves.
Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.