Influencing Editorials

"Without local activists pushing the media, it wou1d have been impossible to defeat exteemist attacks on thr environment in the guise of 'regulatory reform.' Grassroots efforts resulted in editorials in key Congressional Districts denouncing the Congressional rollbacks. Those editorials gave us powerful evidence in keeping 'Takings' legislation off the Senate floor in 1995." - Gary Bass, OMB Watch

 

Research has shown that editorials influence public opinion and policy makers. An editorial endorsing a particular issue or piece of legislation has been known to change even the most committed policy maker's mind. Outreach to editorial boards can result not only in editorials covering progressive issues but can also influence coverage throughout the newspaper. For this reason, 20/20 Vision Core Groups should use editorial board visits as an effective strategy for influencing media coverage - and subsequently public opinion and national policy.

 

As a grassroots activist, your input to editors and editorial boards will be welcomed because you have something that is not always easy to find - local reader opinion. Your interest in seeing certain questions asked and answered within the pages of the paper provides valuable feedback on their service. In small towns, where one individual writes three to four editorials each day, potential topics are welcome.

 

The editorial section is the page or two pages of the "A" section of the newspaper where you find the masthead and staff listing of the newspaper including the owner's name or company's name, 1 - 4 editorials, syndicated and local guest writers (known as op-eds or "opposite the editorial page"), political cartoons and letters to the editor. It is only here that openly acknowledged opinion as opposed to traditional "neutral" reporting is published.

 

The editorials are not signed ("by-lined") and are considered the "voice" of the paper. Here, newspapers endorse candidates, take stances on issues, eulogize leaders, criticize official decisions and comment on events.

 

The majority of editorials are written by one staff person at that newspaper. At the smallest of daily newspapers and at most weekly community papers, the owner, publisher or managing editor tends to write all the editorials.

 

At most daily newspapers this task is performed by the editorial-page editor, and usually consists of two to four editorials a day. At the largest papers, perhaps 60 in the country, specific editors or editorial writers will have specific areas to follow and cover, and will write all of the editorials on that subject. For example, The Philadelphia Inquirer has separate writers who cover the environment, international affairs and state politics, to mention only a few.

 

Newspaper editorials can be inspired by submitted information, events, current opinion or even letters from readers. 20/20 Vision Core Groups can have an impact on this process - the constant requirement of coming up with editorials means that editors are always in search of topics. The single best way to influence the content of editorials is conducting a briefing with editorial boards, although editorials can result from simply sending materials and following up by phone.

 

You will see that researching, arranging and meeting with an editorial board is very similiar to the process you go through for a successful lobbying meeting with a policy maker. Follow the step by step instructions in this fact sheet to encourage coverage of the issues that matter to you.

 

Research your topic with a fresh eye.
Researching an editorial board presentation is not very different and certainly not more difficult than researching and writing your monthly 20/20 Vision postcard. However, just as it's important to take extra steps to educate our subscribers on issues less familiar to them, it's also important to go an extra step in educating the editorial board on why our issues are so important.

 

Know Your audience.
Check the masthead or call the newspaper you are considering approaching to make sure that the editorials are locally written. (Some newspaper chains, such as Gannett, provide editorials for the local affiliates. Others, such as Knight Ridder, provide other types of articles, but editorials are locally written.) The papers where all editorials are locally written by one person will be the most receptive to your suggestions.

 

"All news is local."
An editorial board will be much more likely to use your materials and/or take the time to meet with you if you present some information they do not have. Strongly consider compiling extra data for your research on local implications.

 

Read the paper you are approaching.
Asking for an editorial when one has already been published will waste your time and hurt your credibility. Newspapers will cover issues more than once; however, make sure that you approach the editorial page editor with updated information or a new "spin" on the issue that acknowledges what has already been published.

 

Build your coalition.
Be creative and build a coalition of individuals and representatives of organizations who don't normally work together. The individuals do not have to be members of organizations or full-time advocates. Think of the "stakeholders" of the issue: health professionals, local elected officials, parents or members of the clergy. Your 20/20 Vision Tools for Activists "Thinking Locally" provides many sources for local research. One excellent coalition example is the "Green Scissors Report" released by taxpayer groups and environmentalists, advocates who seldom work together.

 

Research checklist

When beginning this process, ask yourself the following questions:

What is the issue and the arguments for all sides?

Whom do you, and the opposition, represent? (Can I build a diverse coalition?)

Where is the affected area? (your town, your state, the U.S.?)

When is this issue important? Is there a timely angle to the issue? The answer needs to be "Now" - you create the hook.

Why do you care? - And why should the newspaper and other readers care?

The answer to "why" should be made clear by the previous facts, but you should be able to summarize this easily in a sentence or two within the context of the paper's readership (i.e. an international treaty may not directly impact your town, but your Representative, who is in a leadership position on this issue, has not responded to his constituents who have asked him to support this treaty.)

National and local organizations can help you to answer these questions. As you collect information on a topic, keep notes on who provides it because you may need to refer specific questions to them or you may decide to ask them to participate in your briefing.

 

Set Up Your Briefing

Outline your intent for the meeting in a letter. The opening paragraph should answer all the who, what, where, when and why questions clearly and concisely. Your goal - an editorial supporting your position on the issue - should be stated. For example: "Proposed 'takings' legislation could cripple efforts to improve water quality, and jeopardize enforcement of worker safety standards. Please educate other citizens in my area on how 'takings' will harm Pennsylvania through an editorial against takings legislation." You should request a meeting with the editorial page editor and other newspaper staff on behalf of yourself and any other individuals representing a variety of constituencies who can support your arguments. Mail or fax this letter and supporting materials made up of the best facts or latest reports to the editor of the editorial page. (REMEMBER TO KEEP COPIES OF EVERYTHING.)

 

Follow-up with a Phone Call

Phoning the individual editor is critical. Sometimes your phone call is your only opportunity to pitch your issue, and sometimes just your phone work results in an editorial for your cause. Plan to call a minimum of five times.

Once you reach a live person on the call, address him or her by name. The first question out of your mouth once you have identified yourself by name and as the person who sent him or her information is, "Is now a good time?" Many times, the answer will be no. Ask when would be a good time to call back and do so at that time.

Ask if he or she has had a chance to look at your materials. The individual will more than likely not remember receiving your information. Be prepared to fax it, mail it, or drop it by again.

If they received, but have not looked at your information, sumarize the materials and then ask when he or she thinks would be a good time for you to call again. If they looked at your materials, but offer no further elaboration or questions thank them for their time. Then repeat again why you think a meeting is worth her or his time.

Ask if he or she is intetested in a meeting.

If the answer is yes, arrange a tentative time to meet. Tell him or her that you will have to confirm with the other participants but that you will get back to them as soon as possible. (Journalists' attention spans are somewhat short, so "as soon as possible" means within a day or risk losing your opportunity.)

If the answer is no, ask why? Take detailed notes. If it's just bad timing, ask when to call back. If there are other more complex reasons, call the 20/20 vision national office to brainstorm next steps.

If the editor shows interst and/or support but says that time for a meeting is scarce, make your pitch on the phone and ask if the paper will do an editorial on your issue soon. Ask if they have questions you haven't answer then offer to send more information.

If you reach voice mail, leave updates on your issue as a message. Leave your name, the reason for your call and your phone number every time. Call back every day, a minimum of three times a week.

 

The Briefing
The most effective editorial board briefings should have 2-3 individuals who make a combined presentation of 10-15 minutes (no more than 20 minutes). The briefing will follow the outline you submitted closely, and you will have materials ready that support your points in more detail. Prior to the meeting, you should divide up the briefing with your colleagues and decide who will address each point. Your ideal briefing will include demonstrating a coalition of support, tlirough individuals, position papers andlor a letter signed by a variety of groups. If you have graphics, tables or compelling statistics, highlight them in your briefing. Be clear about what you want the paper to do.

 

Being partisan can hurt your cause. Try to frame your statements as they would appeal to the "average Joe." At the end of your presentation take questions and be prepared (as above) to articulate the opposition's case and rebut it. This will get you further than your personal and/or ethical conviction. Industry groups are frequent visitors to editorial boards so take care to be prepared to respond to their economic arguments. Don't be afraid to say that you don't know, but promise to do more research, and get back to them. If possible make your presentation shorter, then allow the questions to direct the discussion. You are there to answer their concerns.

 

Be Courteous and Persistent. All press professionals are inundated with mail, faxes and phone calls. Respect that they are under certain professional constraints- As public relations campaigns become more and more widespread, busy journalists get more and more solicitations. Your courtesy, prompt response to requests and understanding of the demands upon the individuals you have contact with will go further for your cause than all the statistics and passion in the world. As with any type of press outreach, a persistent individual will do best.

 

Special Considerations: During election seasons, editorial boards are most interested in elections - from school board to Senator. As primaries and November get closer, editorial board members' time will be consumed with meetings with candidates and endorsements of the candidates. Candidates' campaigns will be literally frantic for an endorsement by September, and editorial boards will be inundated with information and requests. Therefore, issue advocates' best times to schedule meetings during election years are late spring to mid-summer in order to make specific issues be a part of the overall electoral coverage. Make sure that your pitch frames your issue within the context of elections, so that the editorial board considers your issue when they consider endorsement of candidates.

 

What else you can do.
If the newspaper decides not to do an editorial supporting your position, or to take an editorial stance that is contrary to your position, propose they print an op-ed piece or a long letter stating your viewpoint.

 

Follow up your work

 

Thank you's

Write a thank you letter to the people who met with you, whether an editorial is written or not. If you have already sent your note when the editorial is written, call the editorial board editor and say thanks again, and offer your opinion of the editorial. (If it was good say so; if an aspect of the issue is left out, offer to send more information on the issue.) The editorial board briefing is the first step in your relationship, sirniliar to your relevant lobbying efforts. Stay in touch send them issue updates and event notices, even an occasional postcard, but don't overwhelm them with paper.

Share your findings
Share the events of your briefing with your local coalition. They will be interested in the questions asked, as well as the editorial once it's printed. Let them know if there are next steps for following up with the editorial board, or if additional information or pressure is needed.
Don't forget to send the editorial to the 20/20 Vision national office!

Leverage your Editorial
Use the editorial briefing and the editorial for furthering your relationship with your policy makers and other newspapers. The actual editorial should be sent to your entire Congressional delegation -both to Washington and district offices. Include a cover note which states your position and the coalition members who were involved with the briefing. You can also send a printed editorial to larger papers in your state to get them interested.

 

"Editorials played a major role in convincing the Senate to pass a land-mines moratorium and ratify the START II nuclear treaty as well as convincing President Clinton to extend the nuclear testing moratorium."
-Wayne Jaquith, National Security News Scrvice

20/20 Vision
Education Fund
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