There he was among a mountain of photocopies, Applicant W38, a smart, plugged-in, articulate, longtime community leader. Who could write more knowledgeably about the city council than a former council member? Who could bring greater insight to crime issues than the former head of the state prison system?
But we rejected him. And here’s why: Charles Terrell has a voice. He’s a newsmaker. We’ll gladly run guest columns from him on timely issues, but he’s not “Voices” material.
So who is? To be a Community Voice, a volunteer columnist for The Dallas Morning News’s editorial page, the person needs to think locally, write well, tell us something we don’t know, and be persuasive.
I couldn’t quite articulate those criteria when I got our first group of Voices together over cheese and crackers in a cramped conference room in 2003. All I knew back then, and all I told those six volunteers who read the paper often enough to see our humble little plea for applicants, was that I wanted real people writing about real issues in their very real lives. I guess I had in mind a print version of reality TV, minus the eating of bugs.
Since getting things started with that thoughtful bunch in one of our suburban zoned editions, we have expanded to include our full readership, and we have published regular columns from hundreds of different Voices. We’ve added Student Voices and Teacher Voices to the mix, and we currently have 98 Voices writing columns every four to six weeks on our zoned local pages inside our Metro section.
In addition to writing full-length columns, these volunteers also answer our question of the week. We send them an e-mail on Monday and print the best mix of responses on Saturday. Non-Voices wanted in on this action, too, so we run their responses alongside responses from our Voices but, as the stars of the show, the Voices have photos included with their answers. This second-class status doesn’t bother the non-Voices, though. The list of people who send us their personal contact information to be part of Sounding Off continues to grow, having just passed the 1,000 mark. On any given question, we get about a 20 percent response rate.
We’re still figuring out what works and what needs work in our Voices and Sounding Off programs. Every time we put together a new introductory workshop, the agenda changes a little. For example, I used to spend time teaching free writing, but I’ve dropped that to focus more on preparing them to answer their fan mail, which is plentiful since all the adult Voices have their e-mail addresses published with their columns.
Other lessons I’ve learned along the way include:
Avoid partisan politics. I tried to even out the conservatives and the liberals, and then I realized I should be getting these people to write on issues that transcend such labels. Why don’t people talk to their neighbors? Why do kids fall behind in school? Are PTAs hostile to dads? These aren’t red/blue issues. When we’ve chosen party precinct chairs and tried to even them out, no one believed there was any balance anyway. They just saw red—or blue.
Create status. We don’t pay these folks, so we have to give them something beyond a byline. We invite them to sit in on editorial board staff meetings. They visit a morning news meeting, too. They come to a special brown-bag lunch with the paper’s columnists and ask them about their craft. We invite them to a special critique session, where we do more listening than talking. And we pass along free tickets to baseball games, plays, concerts and even a rodeo. At the end of the year, we send them a fancy certificate telling them how much we appreciated their effort, and we load them up with all sorts of stuff—notepads, pens, pencils, mouse pads—all afixed with company logos. We make them feel special because they are.
Provide feedback. We start the one-year term for Voices with a writing workshop that lasts about four hours. We feed them. We do a writing exercise. And we clearly define our expectations. As the workshops have become more focused, we’ve rejected fewer and fewer columns. They know what we want, and they deliver. Personal is local, but don’t get too personal, we tell them. And we give examples. Then, later, when they send us a draft of a column, they know what we mean when we say it’s too personal or it needs an anecdote or it’s not local enough.
Create a shared sense of purpose. Even with careful coaching, some writers will miss the mark, but readers know what newspapers are up against. They ask us questions about whether the print edition will go away and if the Internet will replace it. I tell them I don’t know, but I do know that we (and they) must give readers something they can’t get anywhere else. The first thing we cover at our workshop is our department’s stated “Principles of an Effective Editorial Page.” The editorial board put these together when my editor arrived here in 2002 and inspired me to start this program. Among our five principles, “bringing new voices” to the discussion, “encouraging a robust and respectful debate,” and “engaging readers” apply directly to this effort. Without these volunteers, we would be falling behind on the measures we created to hold ourselves accountable, and we let them know that.
I’ve studied research on dozens of local news strategies, and I’ve sat through hours of presentations of data that are supposed to help me understand core readers, light readers, marginal readers, and “net promoters.” But when I think about understanding our readers, I think about the personal columns, like the one by a mom explaining to her son why he shouldn’t give money to beggars who then realized that she needed to do more to help the homeless (and was recently named the homeless shelter executive director of the year by a statewide homeless advocacy group). I think about the high school student who wrote about her painful realization that she’s an alcoholic and argued that youthful indiscretions should not be taken lightly by parents. One of the powerful and persuasive columns was written by an unemployed nobody, one of the original six Voices, on the issue of health care for the poor in the richest county in Texas. He had no voice when his contributions to our pages began, but he went on to become his party’s nominee for a seat in county government, and I know we haven’t heard the last of him.
But his Voices time has passed, and 247 people applied this fall to follow in his footsteps. When we sought applications from teachers and students in the spring, hundreds answered that call, too. And I think I know why. I think it’s because no matter how much information we can get out there—on TV, online or even in print—people still look for news and information they can connect with personally. These columnists provide that in a way the typical journalist cannot. They see their world differently, and they write because they have something to say. Perhaps that is why readers don’t accuse them of writing just to sell newspapers.
One Voices’ applicant may have explained it best: “Your call to contribute is one of the most authentic opportunities for Dallas citizens to be engaged in meaningful dialog. What a wonderful challenge and responsibility to deliver diverse views that may resonate in a large and increasingly faceless metropolitan community of Blackberries and traffic.”
Michael Landauer is assistant editorial page editor of The Dallas Morning News.