Our day-to-day difference

Newspapers, which almost always offer information about the past, have a strange resistance to remembering what happened before today. Even the grammar rules avoid any self-reflexivity: News writers are never supposed to reference themselves and the word "yesterday" is literally banned. There are no footnotes to acknowledge that the story on page 1 has been written before.

It's no wonder that from the outside, it looks like newspapers are simply the same from day to day.

I promise, they are not. At least, The Chronicle is not.

The way we research, write and edit stories is a process that is constantly changing. In the past year especially, we have revised the way we function to improve our accuracy and our appeal. Any time we realize that we are falling short of earning our readers' trust, we make more drastic changes.

Last year at this time, The Chronicle ran a column on its editorial pages that became infamous. I, and many other editors of this paper, mark college in eras before and after we printed Phillip Kurian's column "The Jews." The column offered an argument about Jewish entitlement, and it contained several incendiary and arguably racist statements that overwhelmed Kurian's intended point and became the focus of debate.

The reaction from the community was an uproar. People called for the resignation of the staff and full examination of how editorials are printed. Eventually, The Chronicle printed a brief explanation of why we printed the column and several pages worth of letters that we received in condemnation.

At the time we defended the value of printing the column, and we still would. But we also acknowledge mistakes were made that ranged from the title to the editing process.

People still said that we had not reacted enough, and The Chronicle promised that we were trying to prevent similar mistakes in the future.

A year later, we want to explain to you the ways we have improved our editorial page process. None of these improvements were a specific reaction to the controversy of that column, and all of them were wholly necessary

With the wisdom of a year's distance, it is now easy for me to recognize that the uproar following Kurian's column could have been dulled or even prevented if The Chronicle had been better at editing in general.

At the time, columnists sent in their articles through e-mail. It was possible for columnists to never even see the newspaper office. Some of them only met their editors face-to-face once. These writers, who are the only people The Chronicle grants the privilege of having public opinions, were regarded as satellite members of the staff.

This year, we are working to change that conception. All columnists now submit their copy more than 24 hours before we go to press so that it can be looked over with plenty of time for writers to change wording, alter arguments or find alternate columns if the piece needs more than a day's worth of work.

We added an editorial page managing editor to ensure that every columnist could have an editor available to answer questions, hone arguments and improve writing style. Before any column runs, the author must come in for a face-to-face copyediting session in which we review word choice, argument style and facts.

These are processes that have always been in place for our news stories. So far, we think they have had a positive impact on the quality of our editorial pages as well.

We also have made a concerted effort to run more letters to the editor. The Chronicle views our editorial pages as a community forum. We have sought out columnists from a variety of different perspectives, and we have trimmed the number of regular columnists to allow more guest editorials.

Despite all these changes, we can always improve upon our goal to represent unusual, relevant and thought-provoking opinions. That is why we want to keep hearing from you. In the next few months, we will continue to look for avenues to solicit more and better public comment, but the best way for us to improve will always be suggestions from you as readers.

Only when we know where we are falling short can we begin to really look different.

Kelly Rohrs is editorial page editor for The Chronicle.


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