Whose views make the news?

Newspapers have been filled with opinion since, well, the first Roman acta was carved in stone — the beginning. Slowly through the centuries, most newspapers curtailed the amount of partisanship in their pages by limiting opinion to the editorial and opinion pages.

However, in the case of opinions, less is more; less space means more competition — and controversy — over those precious column inches.

Now, I can hear some readers responding to that opening paragraph with a loud, “Yeah, right! Newspapers are biased from A1 through classified ads.”

I’ll give you that a very small minority of newspapers do slip opinion into other parts of the paper when they think we aren’t watching. The vast majority do not.

Back to the opinion pages. The purpose of editorial and opinion pages in the newspaper is to foster healthy, civil debate on topical issues within communities. It sounds easy, but it isn’t.

“We like to use the metaphor of a dining table to describe our opinion pages,” explains William Mills, editorial page editor of the Cape Cod Times. “We like to make everyone around the table feel as comfortable as possible in expressing their opinions. We realize, in a pluralistic society, that we need to make room at the table for the Uncle Harrys or Aunt Marthas, those who may be a bit eccentric and colorful.”

According to Mills, readers often complain that their letters and “My View” columns are dismissed by Times editors because they disagree with the writers’ opinions. That’s simply not the case. A serious student of the Times’ opinion pages would find that the contents reflect a variety of viewpoints.

It’s the facts, not the opinions, which determine the makeup of the pages. Editors are challenged to find the right balance between allowing readers as much access as possible to a community forum while providing accurate, informed opinion that protects the credibility of the newspaper.

Letters editor Julie Lipkin knows this challenge well. She is the first gatekeeper of the letters to the editor and “My View” columns. She enjoys spending time talking with readers and writers who are passionate about their beliefs. She is equally passionate about the criteria for a good — or publishable — letter to the editor. Articulate. Local interest. Factual. Concise (under 200 words). Signed.

“We’re looking for original thoughts and ideas, not talking points from lobbyists,” Lipkin said. “We’re looking for raw, not processed.” Lipkin immediately rejects letters that are clearly part of an organized campaign to sway opinion; she calls these letters “Astroturf,” or fake grassroots.

Personal, emotional rants or letters with unsubstantiated accusations are also eliminated. When letters come in longer than 200 words, she often works with the writer to edit them without disturbing the original intent, or she suggests the writer consider revising the piece into a 600-word “My View” column.

Mills, Lipkin and colleague Michael Medwar work together to provide readers with a broad range of ideas, but they don’t always agree. Lipkin worked with Sandwich resident and frequent “My View” contributor Patricia Stebbins on a climate change piece published on Dec. 8, 2009. She asked Stebbins to provide sources to support her statements, and Stebbins obliged. When the editing was complete, Lipkin believed that the piece still did not quite “rise to the level of informed opinion.” She wouldn’t have run it.

Mills disagreed. “Isn’t it the role of the opinion page to provide as wide a forum as possible and let readers make up their own mind?” he asked. The piece ran, and readers on many sides of the issue responded with their own letters to the editor.

That’s what the Times tries to do every day. Mills and his staff are able to run about 40 percent of the publishable letters they receive. To improve that percentage, they are hoping some online forums will be back in operation soon and are considering publishing other letters online only.

“I’m blown away by how many Cape Cod Times readers want to have their voices heard,” Lipkin added. “I have the best job on Cape Cod!”

This column was originally published in The Cape Cod Times on March 7, 2010.

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