I called the Salem Statesman Journal editorial board a "farce" in a recent post.
It bothered me that all six members of the editorial board are newspaper staff (no community members), and three of the six are from the news side of the Statesman Journal.
Realizing that one of the editorial board members, Kaellen Hessel, covers goings-on at City Hall for the newspaper, I emailed her this message after writing the blog post.
Ms. Hessel, I suspect you went to journalism school. (Me too, sort of; I was a journalism major at San Jose State for my first semester.)
I’m curious if you think it is ethical for a reporter to serve on a newspaper’s editorial board. In a blog post I wrote tonight, I noted that after the SJ editorial board you’re a member of endorsed Chuck Bennett for Mayor, you switched to your reporter hat and wrote a profile piece about Bennett and his opponent, Carole Smith.
Tell me: wouldn’t it make sense for SJ readers like me to question the objectivity of a reporter who was part of an editorial board that endorsed a particular candidate for Mayor of Salem, Bennett?
From now on, when you cover City Hall shouldn’t readers wonder if you’re capable of reporting on goings-on there in a professional journalistic fashion, given that you officially favored one Mayor candidate over another? (We don’t know whether you voted to endorse Bennett or Smith, but I have to assume that you stood up for one of them; otherwise, why would you be on the editorial board?)
I wrote about this in a blog post tonight. Any comments on it you might have would be welcomed. I’d keep them between you and me.
Today I got a email response. Not from Hessel, but from editorial page editor Dick Hughes. After his message I'll explain why I found unsatisfying what Hughes said.
As editorial page editor, I’m taking the opportunity to follow up on your recent note to my colleague Kaellen Hessel.
As you know, most editorial boards around the country comprise members of the newspaper staff. And as you know, like our colleagues around the country, individual members of the Statesman Journal Editorial Board recuse themselves when they have a potential conflict (example: my next-door neighbor is running in a race in which we made an endorsement; I stayed out of that decision). As you should know, Kaellen does not participate in decisions that fall within her news beats or that she covers. In the similar vein, because I am adjunct instructor at Willamette University, I did not participate in Editorial Board discussions regarding Willamette Academy.
Content coach/editorial page editor/columnist/newsroom trainer
First, the three "as you know" references are irritating.
It may be that most editorial boards are comprised of newspaper staff members. But the Statesman Journal used to have community members on its editorial board. And top-notch papers are careful to separate news from opinion, which isn't happening here in Salem.
Then, how would I know that Statesman Journal editorial board members recuse themselves when they have a conflict? And why should I know that Hessel doesn't participate in editorial decisions that fall within her news beat? The SJ editorial page just lists the names of the board members and says that editorials are the "composite view" of the board.
Well, two can play the "as you know" game. Here's my response to what Dick Hughes said.
Dick, as you know, early on newspapers in this country evolved away from rampant opinionating to a separation between editorials and news reporting. Here's an excerpt from a Columbia University Journalism School piece on the Oregonian editorial board.
Like most major American newspapers, the Oregonian devoted the last two-page spread of its Metro section to opinion writing. The convention had arisen in the mid-19th century as US newspapers, until then often instruments of partisan politics, gradually moved toward presenting the news in an objective, neutral tone to appeal to wider audiences. The opinion pages represented an attempt to separate partisan analysis of current affairs from the facts presented in the news pages.
This history was reflected not just in the pages, but also the staff structure, of modern newspaper organizations. A news staff typically reported to a managing editor, in charge of day-to-day newsgathering. A separate opinion staff reported to an editorial page editor, in charge of the opinion pages. The staff separation was meant to ensure that a newspaper’s “editorial slant”—the points of view expressed in its opinion pages—had no impact on the way its reporters gathered and wrote the news.
So as you should know, separating news staff from opinion staff is good journalistic practice. The Statesman Journal isn't doing this. As I pointed out in my first blog post, three of the six SJ editorial board members are from the news side of the paper.
This fits with Wikipedia's Editorial board article: "At a newspaper, the editorial board usually consists of the editorial page editor, and editorial writers. Some newspapers include other personnel as well."
Indeed, when I looked at the editorial boards of some of the best newspapers in this country, I found the above-mentioned strict demarcation between news and opinion.
As you know, all of the members of the New York Times editorial board are opinion writers, not members of the news team. Here's what the NYT says about its editorial board. Note that it operates separately from the newsroom.
The editorial board is composed of 16 journalists with wide-ranging areas of expertise. Their primary responsibility is to write The Times’s editorials, which represent the voice of the board, its editor and the publisher. The board is part of The Times’s editorial department, which is operated separately from The Times’s newsroom, and includes the Letters to the Editor and Op-Ed sections.
The same seems to be true at the Los Angeles Times. All of the members of the editorial board appear to be opinion writers, not members of the Times news team.
And you should know that the Washington Post also maintains a strict demarcation between editorializing and reporting, unlike the Statesman Journal.
The board highlights issues it thinks are important and responds to news events, mindful of stands it has taken in previous editorials and principles that have animated Post editorial boards over time. Articles in the news pages sometimes prompt ideas for editorials, but every editorial is based on original reporting. News reporters and editors never contribute to editorial board discussions, and editorial board members don’t have any role in news coverage.
Something to keep in mind for the Statesman Journal, Dick. I'll repeat and boldface how the Washington Post handles opinion writing:
News reporters and editors never contribute to editorial board discussions, and editorial board members don’t have any role in news coverage.