Front-page editorials, a tool seldom used
During the short but intensely controversial life of the 2011 Utah Legislature's House Bill 477, some readers asked about the two editorials The Salt Lake Tribune ran on the front page.
Who made the decision to put them on page one? Why was that decision made? Who wrote them?
In the almost eight years I have been editor, we have used the front-page editorial only twice. Both were comments on the governor's options and actions in signing HB477, which would have gutted the state's open-records statute. After a public furor, the bill was repealed.
Colleagues with institutional memories going back 35 years say they recall one or maybe two front-page editorials in all those years.
It is not a choice often made. To my way of thinking and that of Publisher Dean Singleton and editorial page editor Vern Anderson, that is how it should be. Front-page editorials are reserved for issues of critical importance to the community.
The publisher is the ultimate decision-maker in terms of how the newspaper uses its voice. You won't see a front-page editorial without his say-so. In this case, the initiative was his.
HB477 was such an egregious assault on open records and public access that a strong stand against it was an easy call. Dean, Vern and I all agreed that if we were ever to use the front page to express our view, this was it. Newspapers are the public's watchdogs. It is our responsibility not only to inform the public but also to cry foul when government does something not in the public's best interest. That said, it wasn't a decision made lightly. It engendered serious discussion and considerable back and forth.
Once the decision was made to put the first editorial on page one asking the governor to veto the bill, the decision to put the second on page one was easier. When the governor signed the bill we felt that act merited equally strong comment and play.
Editorial board member and writer George Pyle wrote both opinions. The way the editorial board works is that after discussion about issues of public importance, the group decides their stand and one of them pens the opinion. Vern, as opinion editor, then edits the piece before it is published. The publisher, opinion editor and three writers make up the board.
At The Tribune, like most major newspapers, the news side of the organization and the editorial side are separate and independent of each other.
As managing editor for news, Terry Orme says, "the firewall between the newsroom and the editorial board exists because our roles are distinctly different. The editorial board takes sides on issues. We report on all sides of an issue. They clarify through the lens of point of view and opinion. We illuminate through exploring and weighing many points of view, and we keep our opinions out of our stories."
The separation between the editorial board and newsroom mimics the separation between the newsroom and advertising. Professional journalists see both walls as prerequisite to doing their jobs. The newsroom needs to be as independent as possible from opinion and business interests so that it can pursue fairness and balance in news coverage.
HB477 hit journalists right where they live. It is their business to access records, to investigate government action. If the bill became law, it would be harder to do their jobs. Being mindful of their responsibility to pursue the truth no matter what they think or how they feel, editors advised the newsroom to report on challenges to GRAMA as they would report on any other issue. Tough order but well-heeded and responsible journalists at The Tribune and news organizations across the state did their jobs well.
In the end though, the repeal of HB477 was the people's victory. Vern summed it up when he said, "While I believe that our front-page editorials underscored the importance of the issue, I also believe that once the public was alerted to the Legislature's effort to railroad HB477 into law, it was the public that raised an outcry legislators could not ignore."
Nancy Conway is editor of The Salt Lake Tribune.