Saturday, April 28, 2012

Ken Neal - A Typical Day
by Diane Young
"Editorial Conditions and Constraints" - Communications 4813
University of Tulsa
February 16, 1996

In the twenty-some years that Ken Neal has worked for the editorial pages of the Tulsa World, he has written close to 10,000 opinion editorials.  He’s covered education levees, property taxes, local and national elections,  civil rights and anything else needing an opinion.  Now, as editor of the editorial pages, he helps set the editorial policy and tone for the rest of the editorial writers. 

A typical day for Neal starts early in the morning.  He sorts through the mail giving each writer letters that apply to their interests, then the editorial board meets.  Monday and Tuesday meetings outline what the writers will cover at the end of the week, and the board discusses what will go into that day’s paper.  Editorial meetings also have frequent guest speakers.  Members of special interest groups, election candidates, the mayor and judges all stop by to keep the staff informed.  The mayor typically gives progress reports from City Hall.   The political candidates and interest groups aim for the endorsement and support of the newspaper.  Last year Howard Schnellenberger paid Ken Neal a visit to talk about the future of OU football, and more recently Steve Largent stopped in to discuss his future political goals (he’s not getting the endorsement).

After the morning meetings are finished the writing begins.  Wednesday is a busy day because all the writers have to have their columns for Wednesday ready and the pages for the Sunday edition of the paper.  Friday, however, is the most hectic.  By mid afternoon the editorial staff must turn in columns and editorials for Friday, Saturday and Monday.  All the locally generated columns are supplemented by nationally syndicated pieces that paper gets from wire services.  To have the paper ready by deadline, proofs of the pages need to be ready by 3:00 p.m., and then they go back to Neal for the final review.  If he doesn’t agree with any of the editorials, he can throw them out. 
I asked Mr. Neal how being an editor compared to the constraints of being a reporter, which he also was.  Reporters are bounded by the factual circumstances of an event.  The job of a reporter is to research a topic if necessary, and  be fair and accurate when reporting the details of the research or story.  An editorial writer though, tries to interpret a set of facts for the public, and is able to defend the beliefs he or she has written about.  So, what kind of facts do editorial writers interpret?

The driving editorial standard at the Tulsa World is to write opinions that reflect “what we feel is good citizen ship.”  This concept of good citizenship encompasses several other ideas that the paper uses to guide the editorial policy.  The best example of this is the attempt the paper makes to remain a non-partisan newspaper.  This means that they are not guided by political ideology, but practicality.  Does a candidates platform and ideas make good sense?  Is education funding through taxation a good idea or a bad idea?  Funding for education is an idea that the editorial board agrees on, so through consensus, it becomes policy.  Political endorsements and other stances the paper takes are all decided through consensus of the editorial board.  At any time, however, they can be out voted by Robert Lorton, the owner of the Tulsa World.  This could be a considerable constraint to work within, but luckily Lorton leaves the policy to Neal.  Lorton’s influence could easily turn the World into a partisan paper slanted towards democrat or republican ideology, but he recognizes the disservice this would do readers, and prefers to remain middle of the road.  He trusts that Neal would not allow anything that would embarrass the paper.  This is the extent of his control over the editorial policy of the opinion pages.

While readers often accuse the paper of being slanted in favor of one party or the other, Neal has endorsed just as many Republicans as he has Democrats.  The objective of endorsements, he says, it not to pick winners, but to pick candidates who will be the best for the local community or the state.  The reason that the editorial pages focus primarily on state and local issues is simply because of access.  Reporters in Tulsa can’t have the same, or as good, access to information on national issues as a correspondent covering the nation’s capital can.  This limitation is why the national editorials are taken from the wire services.  National issues are usually interpreted to explain what they would mean on a local level.

When I met the editorial board, one of the observations I made was that all the writers are white.  I’ve seen their pictures in the paper but it didn’t register until I saw them all in one room.  The other thing I noticed is that Janet Pearson is the only woman on the board.  Lutz and Collins note in our text that the editorial board of the National Geographic was also white males with no women.  This has seemed to shape the content of the National Geographic, and lend the paternal tone that the magazine has taken over the years towards third world countries.  While sex and race must also shape the opinions expressed in the editorials of the World, these factors do not shape them in the ways associated with being white or being male.  The editorial board is pro-choice, supports civil rights, and affirmative action.  All the writers are also sensitive to women’s issues, so Pearson doesn’t stand alone in many of her opinions.  These are considered liberal views by the general public, but are good citizenship and good ideas to the editorial writers.

So how do they handle conflict among themselves?  It sounded to me like they didn’t have any conflict.  This could also hamper the opinions put forth in the paper.

Neal said that all the writers were reporters at one time, and they have all seen the same things.  He describes them as having similar backgrounds that have given them similar views on issues.  This problem could probably be solved by having more writers who might offer contrasting opinions.  Instead, Neal says they do the best with what they’ve got.  I asked him if the board ever struggled with sounding stale considering they all held the same opinions.  Neal pointed out that it’s not just his personal opinion he has to struggle with to keep fresh, but the issues that present themselves limit what he can write.  He has seen the same taxes and issues and bill proposals come into the public eye more than once.  Nothing ever changes he points out.  Governor Keating has proposed several ideas in his term that Neal says he first heard in 1958 in the gubernatorial campaign of that year.  One of the biggest frustrations Neal has is writing on the same issues over and over that were not a good idea in the past, and are not good ideas now. 

What is the obstacle then, that an editorial editor struggles with most?  The greatest constraint, Neal says, is one’s own intellect and experience.   You can only write about what you know and understand.  He is guided by a sense of personal responsibility to the readers and to the paper to write informed opinions that will help inform the public.  He feels ultimately responsible to the readers and to the owner, Mr. Lorton.  He knows he is doing a good job when readers write and use the paper as a forum to discuss the issues, and provide alternate opinions.  On many of the letters that are published he responds to privately to defend his opinions.   He gauges his success not by agreement, but by reader response and “participation in public discourse.”  In the case of the Tulsa World they try to write informed opinion rather than merely writing that they do or do not like something.  The issues and ideas are weighed on their merit, and if they are not sound or beneficial to the community they will not be supported by the paper.

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