Often when a reporter comes back from a story assignment, an editor will ask, "What's the headline?" It's a way to shortcut a lengthy conversation without getting bogged down in detail, and it can help the reporter clarify the direction the story will take before he or she starts writing.
We had our first meeting this week of the Nevada Appeal's Readers Advisory Panel, a group of readers assembled to provide feedback, guidance and constructive criticism on how we can make this a better paper. Here are the headlines from Thursday's gathering:
"Accuracy is king."
Every good journalist strives for accuracy. That goes for getting the facts straight, spelling names right, and keeping typos out of the paper to the extent that we can.
"Civility counts on the Opinion page."
Every good editor wants the newspaper to be a forum for the civil exchange of opinions. Readers don't want to be yelled at, scolded or belittled. We like it when our columnists and contributors shed more light than heat on an issue.
"Engage readers as much as you can."
We love to hear from readers. What worries us is when we don't hear from you. Though we have a staff of professional journalists, we're only as good as our sources. We're relevant to your lives only to the extent that you allow us in. We'd rather talk with you than to you. Two-way communication is essential.
Where it gets sticky, our panelists pointed out, is when the lines blur between those three principles.
Take, for instance, the intersection of accuracy and reader engagement. Being a community paper, we obviously aren't staffed to verify every assertion of fact in every letter to the editor that we receive. So we sometimes have to give the writer the benefit of the doubt. What's our responsibility when a reader points out that a letter contains inaccuracies?
Our panelists kicked that one around, but we reached no easy, one-size-fits-all answer. If it turns out that a letter made it into print, and we didn't catch the inaccuracy, do we run a correction, thereby exposing the writer to possible embarrassment (and thus discouraging others from writing)? Or do we publish all letters under a blanket disclaimer that says we've verified the writers' identities but not their facts?
Another for-instance: Say we run a political columnist whose passionate, sometimes firebrand, style is loved by some and disliked by others. Do we ask him or her to tone it down, or do we let it rip and just accept that we can't be all things to all people? Should we strive to offend no one, at the risk of boring everyone? Or is there some middle ground? Our panelists maintained that there is indeed room for passion and civility in the same column - and that it's our responsibility as editors to find that sometimes-elusive balance.
We had scheduled an hour for Thursday's first panel gathering, and we went almost two. It was engaging (that word again!), a little complicated - and tons of fun. It was also eminently useful to me and my fellow editors, Adam Trumble and John Kelly. The interplay among the panelists was lively, respectful and cordial. We didn't all agree on everything - and that's a good thing.
Newspapers aren't just black and white anymore; we use color ink on almost every page. What hasn't changed, though, is how much of what we do comes in various shades of gray.
• Editor Dennis Noone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.