Guest Opinion: Community input adds public voice to page


June 15, 2014 

Put a "regular citizen" on a newspaper's Editorial Board? Time was when that concept might have raised the hackles of some professional journalists.

As a former Idaho Statesman reporter, I had my own doubts about the advisability of that action when the paper, years ago, announced plans to add what it called a "community member" to its traditional Editorial Board. I was skeptical about the wisdom of putting a nonjournalist into one of the key roles for any newspaper.

Well, the Idaho Statesman Editorial Board now has had community members for some 17 years. Any doubts have long since been erased in the most positive manner. The community members bring an outsider's perspective, plus a broad array of real-world personal and professional expertise, to the Editorial Board's process for making daily decisions about addressing ongoing news events and issues.

Here's how it works: The Editorial Board - including community member(s) along with Publisher Mike Jung and Editorial Page Editor Bob Ehlert - meets at 10: 30 a.m. every Tuesday. Ehlert gives the members a lengthy list of potential editorial subjects. Board members then discuss the items and jointly work out the best way to approach some of those issues editorially.

Between its weekly meetings, the Editorial Board also has frequent special background sessions with a variety of public figures, from Idaho's congressional delegation to state and local officials or representatives of the business community.

There also are numerous candidate interviews during local/state/national election cycles. (The candidate interviews were my personal favorite part of the job because of the wide range of, shall we say, "interesting" personalities sitting down for their board interviews.)

From time to time, the Statesman's community members may write editorials on a subject within their particular area of expertise.

That's the basic job description. Without question, the community member makes a significant time commitment to serve his/her six-month stint on the Editorial Board. Some serve even longer. There's no denying that most of the issues discussed are complicated, often defying quick or easy solutions. The Editorial Board meetings are not a "debate society," but there can be a variety of strong opinions to air before compromise is developed on the ultimate editorial approach.

In fact, decisions about developing editorial positions routinely have been and are affected by the community member's input - broadened, or toned down, or strengthened, or sometimes stopped dead in their tracks because of the knowledge the community member brings to the table.

A few years ago, I also had the pleasure of serving as a community member on the Editorial Board. That experience showed me the importance of having someone outside the newspaper itself helping make decisions on the paper's reactions to the full range of news events - from national and foreign affairs to issues at the state, city and school board levels.

Over time, the list of those who have served includes several Idaho businesspeople, a former Republican statewide elected official, a former Democratic legislator, a former Republican legislator, a former Republican county sheriff, another Democratic state department head, a former state school superintendent, as well as a school district superintendent, and even a couple of former journalists.

Current community representatives are Marty Peterson and Angie Nelson. You'll recognize the names of many others who have served in this role - Tamara Brandstetter, Eric Hone, Tim Olson, Jerry Evans, Marilyn Shuler, Floyd Ayers, Darrell Manning, Sue Pisani, Tom Ryder, Hal Bunderson, Jason Pierre, Christine Donnell, Jessica Flynn, Lindy High, Vaughn Killeen and Susan Stacey, among others.

So - I've seen it from both sides now, as a former reporter and after a lengthy stint of my own on the Editorial Board. I've learned that the community members are, in fact, the Statesman's roots into the community, feeding information and opinions into the development of the newspaper's editorial voice.

Steve Ahrens is a former Statesman political editor, lobbyist for Boise Cascade Corp., and retired president of the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry.

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