In early 2017, as editorial pages were coming to be the latest focus of newsroom job cuts, the Kansas City Star went the opposite direction — it expanded its editorial and column offerings.
Parent McClatchy is now pleased enough with the results to ask editorial page editor Colleen Nelson to catalyze similar changes in the chain’s 29 other newsrooms. Still leading the Star’s editorial board, Nelson now carries the added title of Opinion Editor for the entire company.
There has been much to admire in the Star opinion group’s output, including three major national awards in two years.
But there was an even more important business rationale for Nelson’s expanding portfolio: At the Star, analytics have shown that opinion pieces have become a major driver of traffic.
A big sports story is still going to get the most page views in a given month, Nelson explained in a phone interview. But as more sophisticated analytics measure which stories new subscribers read just before ordering, opinion consistently turns up among the top five.
In our conversation, Nelson highlighted five elements she pushes for successful opinion writing:
1. Do some reporting: The best editorial and opinion columns, she said, contain original reporting, as opposed to just piggybacking on reported stories by the news staff. One of the highlights of Nelson’s tenure in Kansas City was relentless digging and a long series of editorials on the mayor’s effort to award a $1 billion no-bid contract for airport improvements. Ultimately the contract was rebid at a savings in the hundred millions.
“In one-person shops at our smallest papers, we have them spend much of their time on reported columns,” she said. “In Wichita (Kansas) and Lexington (Kentucky), we have promoted someone from the newsroom, and we have seen success there.”
2. Keep it local: “I strongly discourage purely national editorials. If you comment on the State of the Union address, for example, you are competing with a cacophony of opinions out there elsewhere.”
My own take is that Nelson is smartly extending a truism of the current news landscape to opinions. Consumers can get up-to-the minute national news reporting from many sources for free. And between the cable networks and digital-only sites there is also a superabundance of opinion on all things Trump.
But I also think more traditional editorial editors will have a hard time letting go of a voice on national matters. There is still a case to be made that if editorials meet a newspaper’s obligation to stand for something, then that applies to national matters, too.
On the other hand, who is going to take a digital or print-plus-digital subscription for the Metroville Bugle’s commentary on the national scene?
3. Think digital. “(Sometimes) we need to move at the speed of news,” Nelson said. To get noticed, the opinion section often should weigh in digitally ”while the news is trending.” Waiting a day or two for a measured response risks falling flat as attention has moved on.
As an example, she cited a “fantastic editorial” in McClatchy’s Raleigh (North Carolina) outlet after the Republican House convened a surprise early morning session without telling Democrats, so as to be able to override the Democratic governor’s budget veto.
Veteran News & Observer editorial writer Ned Barnett had a fiery commentary posted by noon lambasting the political dirty trick. Accompanied by a video clip of an angry Democrat, the piece’s lead was:
“The verdict is now plain. North Carolina’s Republican legislative leaders — not actually leaders, but connivers — are beyond shame.”
“(Barnett) did everything right by jumping on this unexpected turn of events in the legislature,” Nelson said, “and quickly writing an impactful editorial when reader interest in this story was peaking.” (The Senate did not follow suit and the budget deadlock remains unresolved.)
A digital orientation, Nelson added, also facilitates branching out into formats like Facebook pages, podcasts and other audio, newsletters or conversations with newsmakers.
4. Collaborate when possible: The News & Observer and McClatchy’s Charlotte Observer have jointly taken on North Carolina’s voter suppression election laws, among other topics. They “have driven a ton of impact,” Nelson said.
You could straddle state lines as well as local boundaries with opinion on a regional topic such as climate impacts in the West. (McClatchy’s headquarters and flagship Sacramento Bee are at the center of one of California’s wildfire zones.)
5. Aim for results: Nelson and I only brushed on the topic, but she clearly subscribes to the view that prompting action is the highest level of editorial writing success.
I am admiring of current experiments in solutions journalism, community dialogue and the like. Still,l I would hate to see newspapers, in print or digital format, take their foot off the gas in fomenting the sort of indignation that fuels change.
The Kansas City crew has racked up the prizes lately. Melinda Henneberger was a Pulitzer finalist for commentary and won the American Society of News Editors’ commentary award this year. Dave Helling, who wrote the airport bid stories, won ASNE’s editorial writing award in 2018’s contest. And Nelson herself was part of a Pulitzer-winning team of editorial writers at the Dallas Morning News.
I asked whether it was realistic to shoot for the same level at other McClatchy papers.
“That’s a fair question,” Nelson said. ”We are very fortunate … I consider ours a team of all-stars.” But as jobs open elsewhere in the chain, she can find strong internal or external candidates up for a “reinvention approach.”
McClatchy has pursued a number of journalism projects this year, even as job cuts remain a dominant industry storyline (and McClatchy has had some big ones).
It has teamed with Google Labs for Project Compass, planning to launch digital news operations in three markets no longer served by a newspaper. (Youngstown, Ohio, which lost The Vindicator when it closed at the end of August, is the first).
Last week, McClatchy announced creation of a four-person Education Lab at the Fresno (California) Bee, funded by a local foundation.
I hope we are seeing a mini-trend at McClatchy, along with the big company-wide investigative units at Gannett and GateHouse, of investments in local and regional journalism that can attract a paying digital audience essential to sustainability.
Rick Edmonds covers the business of the media for Poynter. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.