Understanding Online Roles

As the newspaper world evolves, so do the roles of the opinion section and its writers

The job of editorial and commentary writers, like that of the newspapers in which they publish, is changing as quickly as the Internet is changing the overall information environment.

In his March 2008 keynote address to the participants in the Best Practices - Editorial and Commentary in Cyberspace seminar, Bill Densmore of Media Giraffe and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst outlined several variations of the traditional role of the editor in the information business.

At it simplest level, the role of the online editorial or commentary writer will evolve to include, to a much greater degree, the functions of Information Filter and Community Catalyst.

As an Information Filter, the editorial writer will provide the reader with a credibility check on information resources they provide, and those provided by others. This new watchdog role will be a significant adjustment to the traditions of journalism, but an important one in the environment of multiple information outlets.

As a Catalyst for the Community, the editorial section will spark debate, facilitate discussion, propose change and monitor its progress. No longer a one-way information conduit, the evolved editorial/commentary section will now become the center of reader discourse and resume its position of leadership in the community it serves.

Information Filter

As in the past, the professional journalist has been an information filter, bringing orgainzation and context to the mass of content flowing through media channels. As the information consumer moves from one to many sources, the news product and its editors will become what Densmore calls an "information navigator" who helps the users find what they need in order to be "informed, participatory citizens."

Credibility remains a primary strength of the information offered by professional journalists, yet the volume of information now available on the Internet means users will naturally seek other sources of information – both to broaden their understanding and to confirm information found elsewhere.

In addition to providing their own credible information, future editorial journalists will serve users as a resource, connecting them with other reliable information, regardless of its source.


Community Catalyst

An additional role of the editorial section will be to expand its function as a facilitator of conversations – a catalyst for effective communication in communities growing increasingly diverse in populations and ideas.

Civil discourse often requires an outside referee to negotiate the differences of opinion and keep the discussion focused. Likewise, communities often need the help of a benevolent visionary to move toward progress. 

In its position as a leader of community ideas, the editorial/commentary section of local media is ideally suited to actively satisfy this role.


Best Practices: Editorial and Commentary Online

About the REPORT

Photo of Michael WilliamsMichael Williams is an associate professor of interactive media and the chair of the News-Information track of the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas. 

He has been a tenured faculty member at the University of Maryland at College Park, the School of Visual Communication at Ohio University, where he was also the director of graduate studies and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has also been a visiting professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Ural State University in Yekaterinburg, Russia.

Williams began his professional journalism career as a staff photographer for the Salem (Ore.) Statesman-Journal where he was later promoted to Photo Director. He has also been the Graphics Director at the Albuquerque Tribune, Assistant Managing Editor at The Clarion-Ledger and Jackson Daily News in Mississippi, and Director of Internet Development for Kalmbach Publishing Company, in Milwaukee, Wisc. There he was founding editor of Trains.com, publisher of Astronomy.com and oversaw the development of web sites for other Kalmbach publications.

In addition to his teaching responsibilities, Williams has done extensive visual communication work throughout the U.S., Europe and Russia.

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Phone: (785) 864-7638


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