Elements of an effective editorial

Lighthouse stairsIn October I concluded my time as a member of the Palladium-Item's community editorial advisory board, which I joined about two years ago.  I enjoyed the experience and while (as expected) I didn't always agree with the views published by the paper, I felt like I was able to bring a perspective and approach that helped shape the overall conversation.  There have been few other places in my day-to-day life since college where people regularly gather in a room to vehemently but respectfully talk (okay, and sometimes shout) in depth and in person about current events and important issues facing the city.

I was already a fairly close reader of the viewpoints page in the Pal-Item and other publications, but being on the editorial board inspired and required even closer attention to what topics local writers were submitting letters and columns about, and how they went about presenting their views.  As a result, I've put together a list of elements that I found to be present in the most effective and engaging editorials I've read:

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I'll pay you to help improve local public discourse

A few weeks ago, one of the online community resources I maintain, ProgressiveWayneCounty.org, soft-launched a new program where we're paying local community members to blog for the site.   During that time, we've already had some great contributions with reflections on affordable housing, national politics, over-simplifying our choices in the world, some heartfelt advice on caring for pet dogs, and what the life of Richmondite Esther Griffin White can teach us about how we plan for the future.  (Thank you to Matthew Jenkins, Aaron Nell, Cassie Oaks, Robert Hertzog and Anne Thomason for serving as the pioneer contributors and testing out the publishing system!)

Today, I'm happy to publicly invite others in Richmond and Wayne County to join in this effort to raise the level of public discourse in our area.  Whether it's commentary on the local arts scene, restaurant reviews, political news analysis, your experiences with religion and spirituality, technology tools, sustainability tips or perspectives on education, we welcome contributions from those who feel they can provide a local connection and provoke conversation that might help move the community forward in some form.

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I'm joining the Pal-Item Editorial Board

Postcard-likeI'm pleased to note that I'm joining the Palladium-Item's community editorial advisory board.  This comes after a number of conversations with the paper's staff about the role of the editorial page and its advisory board in prompting and shaping community dialog; I'm excited that I will get to contribute to those efforts in this new way.

The board is a volunteer group of community members who meet regularly with the paper's editorial staff to discuss issues facing our area, and to help ensure that the viewpoints expressed by the paper are the result of careful consideration and broad consultation.  In the end, it's the Palladium-Item staff (and not the advisory board members) who craft the resulting columns, but Dale McConnaughay and others responsible for that task rely on the input received (and strong disagreements aired) through the board's private conversations.  They also regularly invite community leaders to meet with the board for updates and discussion about projects underway.

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The balancing act in political candidate debates

One of the things I've gained during this campaign is a new appreciation for how challenging it can be to produce and facilitate a meaningful and substantive political debate that is valuable to voters.  Between the spring primary and the general election, I can think of at least eight events where myself and some combination of other candidates for office were asked to debate (or converse, or discuss) the issues facing Richmond and Wayne County for an hour or more.

At each event, as a candidate I've tried to balance a series of (sometimes competing) goals for my participation, including:

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Why Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst was good for you

Republican Congressman Joe Wilson has already apologized for his lack of civility in last night's joint session of Congress, after shouting "you lie!" at President Barack Obama during Obama's speech about health care reform. Wilson is unsurprisingly being raked over the coals by fellow politicians, the media, and indignant bloggers and Twitter users, but I'm not sure we don't also owe him a word of thanks.

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Obama, Gates and Restorative Justice

When Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested on July 16th at his house in an apparently over-zealous and possibly racially charged police decision, everyone involved quickly fell into the usual pattern of conflict for these kinds of incidents.  Statements were released, lawyers were hired, accusations and implications were flung, and everyone prepared for to defend themselves in battle.  The media did its usual thing, egging on the conflict and brinksmanship, interpreting every action and word in the worst possible light, and the parties involved in the fight used those channels to communicate their anger with each other indirectly.  When President Obama first got involved, he only escalated the situation by first admitting that he didn't have all the facts, and then proceeding anyway to say that one of the parties involved had acted "stupidly."  Awful and disturbing, but pretty much what everyone expected.

But then something curious and possibly amazing happened.

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Choosing when to go deeper in conversation

Alive MenuI've been thinking lately about the moments in a conversation when the people participating make a choice - conscious or not - about whether to let it go "deeper," or to keep it at a pleasant and polite level of chit-chat. I'm exploring that because (A) I really enjoy deconstructing how we communicate with each other, and (B) I want to take responsibility for my own part in the cases where more depth would have been a good thing, but was avoided. (I even kind of wrote a little poem about it a few years ago.)

I put "deeper" in quotes because it's one of those touchy-feely words that needs a little more definition to be useful here. When I think of a conversation reaching a new depth, I think of the people involved taking on topics that are significant or meaningful to them in ways that invites personal vulnerability or reflection, where you might have to take a stand, where the stakes are higher and there is something to gain or lose by going there. The topics that achieve this will of course vary widely by personality, community and culture.

So, what do those turning points look like? Here are a few I've noticed:

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A few new blog interaction features

I've upgraded the WordPress software powering this blog to a more recent version, and added a few more ways to interact with my posts at the same time:

  1. I'm now using Gravatars - "globally recognized avatars" - to display user-uploaded images next to the comments that people post. This creates a little bit better sense that you're interacting with real humans, and even adds a dash of color. If you want to try it out, just visit gravatar.com to upload your avatar today.
  2. You can now choose to be e-mailed about follow-up responses to a particular post that you comment on. While you can always subscribe to a post's RSS feed to track comments, sometimes getting an e-mail is the easiest way to go - and don't worry, you can just as easily unsubscribe too.
  3. Some time ago, I added a post rating system to the blog, allowing you to indicate what you think on a scale of 1 to 5 stars (5 being the best, of course). Posts with high ratings get a little more attention elsewhere on the blog, and each star you add also help an angel get its wings. It's a way to give feedback without typing out a comment - "thank you for helping us serve you better."
  4. Also added some time ago, but now more prominently featured, you can see posts that are related to a new blog entry, listed right below the entry itself. I tend to circle around some similar themes, and so this is at least a helpful way for me to see how things tie together; I hope it's a useful way for you to explore my other writings too.

There ya go. Let me know how this stuff works for you; as always, this space is a work in progress.

The haters are writing in, what are you doing?

Turtle on the GreenwayThere's some real vitriol out there in "letter to the editor" land, especially here in Richmond. In the Palladium-Item, we like to play the game "How Many People Can You Insult in 300 Words or Less?" sometimes also known as "The Wheel of Not So Subtle Discrimination and Hate-mongering!" Today's contestant is Paul M. Yevcak who says that "hypocrisy proves middle name for liberal Democrats."

My response, posted in the forums (despite my better judgement):

It would be possible to debate some of Mr. Yevcak's points related to the role of the courts, the history and nuances of U.S. immigration policy, and the legal technicalities of the recent presidential intervention in the Libby case. But I'm not sure what purpose that would serve, since Mr. Yevcak seems intent not on having meaningful debate or dialogue, but just on disparaging and insulting a wide swath of people, essentially on the grounds that they don't agree with him about how the world should work. And of course, when that is someone's goal, you can't really have a meaningful conversation with them.

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