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Jan. 17, 2018, 9:36 a.m.

At The Boston Globe, the editorial pages are looking for new ways to engage readers

“We learned how important it is to have writers and editors and digital producers working collaboratively, near each other. It’s a model for the future.”

If the daily newspaper sometimes seems like a fusty relic, that’s especially true of the opinion pages. The standard format — chin-stroking editorials representing the anonymously expressed views of the institution, opinion columns by staff writers and outside contributors, letters to the editor, and a cartoon — has been unchanged for decades.

Since 2014, though, The Boston Globe’s editorial-page editor, Ellen Clegg, has been overseeing a gradual metamorphosis. Clegg, a veteran Globe journalist who replaced Peter Canellos after he left for Politico, has presided over a vibrant print redesign, the expansion of digital content, an innovative interactive feature on gun violence, and even a parody front page of what a Donald Trump presidency would look like. In an era when we all feel overwhelmed by a flood of information, Clegg is showing how editorial pages can cut through the noise and force readers to take notice.

For the past two years, the Globe’s opinion pages have published new year’s resolutions in the first Sunday edition of January. This year’s, headlined “We Resolve: What Readers Can Expect from the Globe’s Editorial Pages in 2018,” outlines an eclectic agenda, from keeping a close eye on Google and Facebook, to pushing for transportation improvements, to addressing racism “in all its forms.”

I asked Clegg where the idea for editorial-page new year’s resolutions came from and what she hopes it will accomplish. Our lightly edited email exchange follows.

Dan Kennedy: Where did the idea for an editorial like this come from?

Ellen Clegg: 2016 was an extraordinary year for news, marked by a brawling presidential campaign and the horrifying Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando. To cut through the clatter, we added new op-ed voices and tried new forms of editorial writing: the Ideas section front that speculated on what a Trump administration might look like and the “Make It Stop” wraparound section urging readers to take a stand against assault weapons. We wanted to step back and take stock, and to look forward at the same time.

Keven Ann Willey, then the editorial-page editor of The Dallas Morning News, had done a new year’s resolution package, and John and Linda Henry brought me a hard copy of that section after a trip to Dallas. [John Henry is the Globe’s owner and publisher; his wife, Linda Henry, is the managing director.] We all thought it was a format that could serve as a guidepost for our own readers.

To state the obvious, something like this doesn’t happen overnight. The editorial board met periodically during the year to develop ideas and discuss how we were doing against our 2017 goals. Beginning in the summer, we also had full-board discussions to shape 2018 goals. It’s a great way to organize our thinking and to be more transparent with readers — with the caveat that the news cycle is unpredictable, so we have to be flexible and willing to incorporate changes as the year unfolds.

Kennedy: Other than showing you the Dallas package, to what extent were John and Linda Henry involved?

Clegg: Both John and Linda were very involved from the start in terms of idea generation, in the shape of the package, and in the editing. They’re advocates for new approaches and new ways to engage our readers, in print and digitally. And they’re also champions of curating an essential civic conversation in our region.

Kennedy: Have you received much in the way of a reaction from Globe readers? What are they telling you?

Clegg: We’ve gotten a lot of reaction, and the tone is somewhat different this year. In early 2017, the comments were, perhaps unsurprisingly, centered on the 2016 presidential race and on the direction of the country. Everything felt a little raw. This year, people wrote in with lots of ideas for local and regional improvements. The MBTA, education, coastal sea-level rise and health care costs were key themes.

Kennedy: How do you imagine this will play out during 2018? To what extent have you planned to revisit these issues over the course of the year?

Clegg: In 2017, we hoped that the mayor’s race in Boston would galvanize a broader discussion about the city’s public schools and how to better serve kids and parents. But the campaign didn’t play out exactly that way. In 2018, we anticipate that the governor’s race and the national midterm elections will raise important issues, but we were somewhat less apt to predict what those issues might be.

New year’s resolutions shouldn’t fade by February. We’ll meet regularly as a board to track our progress, but many of these issues are in the news every week, so the goals filter into our daily board discussions, as well.

Kennedy: How does a project like this fit in with any ideas you have for reinventing newspaper editorial pages?

Clegg: We wanted to let our content — editorials, opinion columns and letters — guide our layout and design, rather than the other way around. Opening up the design allowed for a multi-layered approach, where text, illustrations, cartoons, photos, and informational graphics can work together to enhance or emphasize editorial points. This translates more adeptly to digital — and that’s often how a majority of readers come to us these days.

Our “Make It Stop” package after the mass shooting in Orlando showed the power inherent in digital presentation — readers could tweet or email lawmakers who were swing votes on gun control, and could see in real time how fast an assault weapon can shoot. We learned how important it is to have writers and editors and digital producers working collaboratively, near each other. It’s a model for the future.

Dan Kennedy is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a panelist on Beat the Press, a weekly media program on Boston’s WGBH. His next book, The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century, will be published in March.

Photo of the Globe on an iPad by Dominico Bettinelli used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 17, 2018, 9:36 a.m.
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