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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Who wrote that opinion? Going forward, you’ll know the answer

Opinions have played a huge role in American newspapers, dating back before the Revolutionary War. It was this country’s desired independence from British rule that first showed the power of newspapers to unite people for a common cause.

That era’s patriot papers contained some news, but the stars often were the letters to the editor. And more often than not, those letters were actually written by the editors themselves under pseudonyms – including Ben Franklin – and explained the importance of a unified purpose between very different colonies.

Once independence was achieved, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay wrote 85 essays to explain the nation’s new Constitution, as well as to defend its core principles. Up until this time, these sorts of political writings mostly appeared in pamphlets, but not the Federalist Papers. Initially appearing in two newspapers as each part was written – and eventually running in nearly every newspaper in the nation – these deep-dive explainers ultimately were compiled into a book.

But Americans first read them as opinions in their community newspapers.

In those early years, the United States were often united in name only. That led to a different role for many of the country’s newspapers, as they quickly pivoted from being unifying patriot papers to being divisive political papers. Many newspapers were established for no other reason than to espouse a particular point of view. And they often didn’t mince words when they did it, as the papers could be viciously personal in order to make their political points.

Some newspapers didn’t even try to hide their biases as they put their political affiliations directly in their name. Now you know why the newspaper in Quincy, Illinois, is named the Herald-Whig. It was first established as the Quincy Whig, and kept the name long after the political party of the same name had gone away.

It’s still around today and has one of the best names of any newspaper in the country.

Now you know just how long opinions have been a part of print journalism’ DNA.

Yet despite longtime subscribers reading opinion pages, most people couldn’t tell you how these pages are built. That’s because it is confusing. Here’s a perfect example of something that makes no sense: a newspaper’s main opinion piece is often called an editorial, yet at most daily newspapers across the country, the editor has nothing to do with editorials even though the job title shares a lot of the same letters.

At most daily newspapers, no one from the newsroom is typically involved in writing or selecting that paper’s editorials … so much so that they rarely – if ever – even know what will be on those opinion pages. At some papers, the publisher either writes the editorial or has it written based upon her/his opinions, or the publisher appoints a group of people, often called an editorial board, to decide on the newspaper’s opinions.

Another confusing thing is the letters to the editor don’t actually go to the editor at many daily newspapers, including this one. The editor typically won’t even see those letters until they are published.

So, let’s clean up a bunch of this confusion because The Spokesman-Review is changing how its opinion pages work in a fairly radical way. A list of all of those changes is with this column, but let’s hit a few of the bigger points.

We want, and need, for these pages to accurately reflect what matters to the members of this community. That means we will be running even more letters to the editor, even making it so that some designated letters can extend past our normal word counts. We’re going to have more columns from local professionals, leaders, academics and politicians, as well as from diverse voices that are underrepresented in traditional newspaper columns.

How will we find these new columns? Sometimes, our editors will reach out to ask people if they would like to write one for our newspaper to help our readers better understand parts of an important local story. And sometimes, you will tell us who you would like to hear from or what you would like to hear more about. If you have an idea like that, please email me directly.

Our local news columnists will move to the opinion pages, making an even bigger point that opinions are on the opinion pages and that news is what lives on the news pages. But that doesn’t mean that will happen all of the time. Sometimes, a local columnist might appear on the front of the Northwest section or even on the front page when the person’s writing is much less about an opinion, and much more about a well-reported news story.

That’s exactly the case with today’s newspaper, as Shawn Vestal’s column certainly sounds like his writing, but it is a much bigger story. When that happens, we will still make sure it is obvious that these are columns, not a normal news story.

Of course, the biggest change is we will no longer have unsigned editorials or endorsements in our pages, although from time to time, there might be round-ups of opinions from other newspapers that are relevant to our community. Whenever our publisher or anyone from this newspaper’s ownership would like to opine on something, it will be treated just like one of our newsroom columnists, with her/his name on it along with one of our newspaper’s column illustrations.

That doesn’t mean you aren’t going to read something on these pages that you really disagree with. What it means is that you’ll know who wrote it so that you can address your concerns directly with the writer.

The things listed today are very much a work in progress. We’re changing gears from some policies that are more than century old, and we will be open to tuning things up as we go along. The key will be telling us what you like and don’t like, and what we could be doing more of.

We’ll listen, which is why I want you to send those thoughts directly to me.

We still want this newspaper’s opinion pages to be vibrant and relevant for another 137 years or so. It’s just that this time, we don’t want these pages to be our pages, we want them to be your pages. Ben Franklin believed in the power of the people, so we think he’d approve of our new direction.

Rob Curley can be reached via email at robc@spokesman.com.

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