Editor's note: Has Bridge lost its mind?

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In my nearly eight months as Bridge editor, the articles that have spawned some of the fiercest reaction among readers were written by guest columnists.

There was, for instance, the February guest column asking why department budgets for firefighters are considered sacrosanct, while also – to many readers  – appearing to question firefighters’ valor in the process.

Last week, a Calvin College alumnus questioned why the school accepted donations from the Prince Foundation, whose vice president, Erik Prince, was founder of Blackwater, the private security firm accused of rogue behavior in Iraq.

Then there was the July 3 commentary from Greg McNeilly, our newest Brunch with Bridge columnist. McNeilly, in his familiar pugilistic style, took the Detroit Free Press to task for its recent series on Michigan’s charter school industry. In the series, the paper chronicled the undistinguished performance of charter schools across the state, conflicts of interest and self-dealing, and a lack of financial accountability despite charters receiving roughly $1 billion a year from state taxpayers.

McNeilly would have none of it. He accused the paper of “intentional” deception and being in the pocket of the state’s largest teachers union. He also wrote that the Free Press deliberately concealed that charter authorizers had closed over 80 schools over the years (In fact, the Free Press specifically cited the closing of 88 charter schools).

These controversial columns, and others, spawned complaints among some readers of editorial recklessness. A few wrote that Bridge was doing harm to the Center for Michigan’s stance as a nonpartisan agent for improving Michigan’s future.

Like journalists everywhere, my initial reaction was defensive. After all, our guest columns and Brunch with Bridge Sunday commentaries are clearly marked as the opinions of the authors, and not necessarily those of the Center, or Bridge, the Center’s journalistic arm.

But in hindsight, we can better differentiate opinion pieces from the core work of the Center. This might also be a good opportunity to explain what we’re looking for in opinion columns, and how that matches up with what you, the reader, expect from Bridge.

News vs. opinion

Bridge has two missions. Our primary mission is data-driven, in-depth policy and current events reporting – covering the how and the why of the news in an era of media retrenchment, where traditional journalists don’t always have time to dig deeper. The second mission is very different: to provide a diverse, blunt and vibrant soapbox for smart thinkers in our state.

In recent months, we’ve attached notes to guest columns explaining that these opinions are not necessarily those of Bridge, similar to disclaimers on Brunch columns. We label these writings as “Guest Columns,” to distinguish them from the deep, balanced reporting of Bridge staff writers and our experienced freelancers across the state.

But we can do more.

Part of the problem rests with the current design of our website. As our homepage appears now, every story seems similar at first blush. There is no visual way to distinguish a news story from a guest commentary. Ideally, the design should make it intuitively apparent that our guest offerings are a different beast from our staff reporting. We are working with our web designer to change that, with the results set to appear later this summer.

There are also ways to more clearly mark opinion pieces on social media. In our Facebook posts, for instance, some of our guest columns were marked as coming from “Bridge,” with no obvious label to make clear to readers these are guest commentaries. We are fixing that as well.

The larger question revolves around what Bridge is seeking in opinion writing. We view these columns as an online speakers’ corner, where folks across the political spectrum can sound off on issues of the day, whether they’re policy experts, political leaders or ordinary residents who happen to care deeply about Michigan.

We demand clear writing, delivered with passion. The best columns provoke a response. They address policy issues but in a way that is engaging. If i’m being honest, not every commentary will meet this bar. Some may be less than inspiring, others overly wonky or lacking in fresh perspective. I also believe we must do more to attract conservative voices in our guest writings.

Then there are the columns cited above. Whatever their imperfections, there is something to admire in each of them: taking on sacred cows (the firefighter column); asking schools to weigh the ethical dimensions of fundraising (Calvin), the frontal assault on the Freep’s series on charter schools (McNeilly).

That’s not to say we necessarily agree with them. Personally, the McNeilly column was difficult for me. I spent two decades at the Free Press as an investigative reporter and editor, and worked closely on past projects with the journalists who produced the charter series. I have unlimited faith in their integrity. I think it’s fair to say that Greg McNeilly does not.

But that’s beside the point, isn’t it? Bridge doesn’t run columns because we agree or disagree with the authors. We run them to engage readers and policymakers; to spur debate and challenge perspectives. Some writers do so elegantly. Others deliver with a hammer. And that’s fine with us.

Now it’s time to ask, what do you think? How can we improve our guest offerings? What can Bridge do better? We’d love to hear from you.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Jerry Lindsay
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 9:51am
Excellent explanation of an issue that I've been concerned about.
John VanOphem
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 4:16pm
Agreed Jerry! I've had same concern and this helps a great deal.
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 10:29am
Bravo, David, for attempting what my years as a reporter taught me is virtually impossible: explaining the difference between news and editorial/opinion pieces. Of course opinion pieces by guest columnists make people uncomfortable, concerned, even angry. That's what they are supposed to do--to spark thinking and debate. How else is society going to tackle its thorniest problems? Certainly not by publishing wishy-washy commentary that motivates no one, and not by preaching to the choir. Good for Bridge. Keep it up. Jennifer Donovan, Director of News & Media Relations, Michigan Technological Univeresity
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 10:46am
Why the big deal? Bridge has always been a very conservative, sometimes far right, publication.
Dan F
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 11:36am
Conservative publication? Nonsense! It was started by the Left to counter the success of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the impact they continue to have on exposing the complete waste of tax payer money by our state and the Left. It's like today's article talking about the jobs being created by government grants. Those aren't jobs. The funds are not the result of the creation of goods and services between willing buyers and sellers. It's the result of confiscation of private property ( or in many cases, borrowed from some foreign entity, like the Chinese in the issuance of debt) through taxes for some purpose which generally speaking has some dubious benefit but left to its own without a grant would not exist.
Chuck Perricone
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 11:50am
A thoughtful, informative insight as to the difference between "news" and "opinion." Given the crisis in so-called "media" today, I welcome both. Regardless of any perceived partisan slant, I applaud you for stepping up and out to drive introspection and conversation. We need much more of both. As one who had the privilege to serve in public office--and publishes today--I wish to personally thank you for what you do!
Jim Storey
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 12:31pm
I think that the Bridge columnists should be selected from all over the state, especially smaller cities where much success in reinvention is occurring. Too many of the opinion columnists area from the predictable Lansing -- Ann Arbor -- Detroit corridor. A few are from Grand Rapids, but that city does not speak for the rest of West Michigan. Geographical diversity should be reflected by The Bridge if it wishes to be considered an independent, non-partisan organ. Certainly, with 15 state universities spread from Houghton to Wayne State and from Sault Ste. Marie to Western Michigan U., there are English-able columnists that can present a variety of thought.
Nancy Derringer
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 1:18pm
If you know anyone who would make a good columnist, Jim, please let us know. We're always looking.
Sun, 07/20/2014 - 2:31pm
Ms. Derringer, What is your criteria for a good column? What is your criteria for a good columnist? What do you feel would be a good topic for a good column? Many, especially the non-professional writers, maybe hesitant because of a lack of understanding on what the Bridge is interested in and what is expected.
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 1:49pm
I enjoy all the columns, even the ones I don't agree with. There is not enough investigative reporting In newspapers, and that is a niche that Bridge and certain quality blogs have been able to make up for. I take strong issue with the ranking system you have created for schools. It is about as futile as trying to count the stars. You will solve our school problem by solving our poverty problem, and that is not something that can be done by educators. Overall, I think Bridge is very well done, and I look forward to reading more in the future.
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 1:50pm
Should have read cannot be done by educators.
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 1:54pm
The premise of Bridge is that there's value in the center. The difficulty with recent columns has been their divergence from this broader philosophic approach. The center is not simply a midway point between partisan talking points, but a commitment to informed insight, a matter of approach as much as of content. Thus, when an opinion provides little more than an ad hominem argument such as that about Calvin College (Erik Prince bad, therefore Prince Foundation money bad) or charter schools (MEA is bad, MEA opposes charters, therefore article critical of charters is bad like MEA), something important gets lost: credibility. Opinions are not simply a piece of entertainment (that's why we have Huffington and Daily Caller), instead they should be of the same caliber as its reports: reasoned, supported, insightful. And since it's an opinion piece, also delivered with style. For Bridge, you give away something of your own credibility when you let your opinion writers mouth foolish arguments.
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 1:59pm
I enjoy various points of view and try to read an entire article rather than just a few lines to draw a quick conclusion. Sometimes, the article piques my interest and I research the issue further. I agree with Jennifer Donovan 's point about articles and opinion columns: "That’s what they are supposed to do–to spark thinking and debate. How else is society going to tackle its thorniest problems?"
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 2:54pm
" The second mission is very different: to provide a diverse, blunt and vibrant soapbox for smart thinkers in our state."- stay calm and keep it moving- ijs
Tue, 07/15/2014 - 7:21pm
Thank you for sticking to journalistic standards in a big, chaotic blogosphere that increasingly has no idea what they are.
Wed, 07/16/2014 - 10:04am
As posted ever since ancient times, Know Thyself . I kind of cringe when I see "We label these writings as “Guest Columns,” to distinguish them from the deep, balanced reporting of Bridge staff writers and our experienced freelancers across the state." while I enjoy reading it, Bridge and Center for Michigan, come largely from a perspective favoring, a larger more involved state or public sector in almost every instance. I am not sure this is even recognized for what it is hence the statement as I quoted. Much, almost all (excluding some of the nice touchy feely stuff) of the writing consists of portraying a problem (real or imagined) and then clamoring for a law or laws, more tax revenue or government action or program to solve it. Recognize it or not, this is a perspective and point of view from largely one side of the political spectrum. The rhetoric and follow able logic in your articles runs the gamut, which stands to reason but in general is worth reading along with many of the commenters. My only regret is that Bridge and CfM doesn't really look at current governmental functions, structure and programs (not just Charter Schools) with a more critical line of reasoning and questioning, do we really need to do this, can we streamline or do this better?
Richard McLellan
Sun, 07/20/2014 - 6:05pm
This is a very good analysis of the Bridge editorial philosophy and Phil Powers world view.
Leslie Murphy
Wed, 07/16/2014 - 12:15pm
Great explanation and definition of proactive steps to avoid future confusion. You are right. The point if it all is to start conversation and thoughtful examination of difficult issues. Good for you!
Jon Blakey
Thu, 07/17/2014 - 9:32am
I don't mind opinion pieces as long as they don't spout falsehoods. When they cross that line, I consider them harmful because they reinforce people who believe in fantasy over facts (immunization phobia is a prime example). I believe any publication who expects to be credible should expect documentation of claims made and confront authors who make inflammatory statements about other people or organizations. Publishing opinion pieces filled with falsehoods to simply create arguments, is counterproductive. We have enough of that already. Bridge is a regular part of my reading list because they provide news about Michigan that I have difficult finding elsewhere. It seems to be factual and well researched which is what I want. If I only want information that confirms my perception of reality, I can go to Fox News or MSNBC. Keep up the good work.
Sun, 07/20/2014 - 6:42am
Good explanation with new defined direction appearing to be headed in a better direction. Good stuff!Keep up the good work.
Jane White
Sun, 07/20/2014 - 2:45pm
I so look forward to reading the Bridge and to have ability to hear of the expertise of those contributing. I may not agree but that is not the purpose. This column however further supports the rationale of what makes it unique. The clarity of necessary changes will be beneficial and makes sense. Your attention to integrity is most appreciated.
Mon, 07/21/2014 - 8:45am
I enjoy reading the bridge. It is very informative and controversial at times, just as the real world is. We live in a world that is very diverse in culture and thinking, the adults who read these articles should recognize that. The bridge has articles that assist me in understanding whats goining on requires me to shift to a higher level of thinking, whether I come to the conclusion that I agree or not. When I grew up, there was a show we always listened to that said " This is just one Black mans opinion". In other words, you can take it or leave it. In my church, I was told listen, chew on it and spit out what does not agree with you and keep moving. Everything is not for you. Thank you Bridge for allowing debate in a constructive way. I'm looking and listening. As the saying goes... This is just one Black Woman's opinion.
Mon, 07/21/2014 - 10:01am
I remember a quote from a tape I purchased from the teaching company. Quote: If you think education is difficult try ignorance. I did not receive a basic education mainly because of the lack of direction from my parents and very little support from classmates.(I do not fault my parents or classmates it was just a fact) Since I graduated in 1960 and jobs were plentiful and a person could make a good living without further education. Since I had a lot of natural skills I was able to secure a skilled trade’s job as a tinsmith at GM. I worked at GM for about 13 years and left to see if I could make it in business. I was not able to make a living at that mainly because of my lack of knowledge of what it takes to run a business. I ended up going back to work at several different businesses and was able to greatly improve my skill set. I never made much money but was able to provide for our family because I forced myself to do things myself because I couldn’t afford to hire someone to do for me. To make a long story short we were able to raise 7 children that completed their college education and are working in their chosen profession. Two engineers one teacher one physician’s assistant one finance director one marketing manager one purchasing agent In conclusion in my opinion it would be very difficult if not impossible for someone to make an honest living in this economy without at least a basic education. So whenever you see a young person now that needs some direction spend the time to mentor them it could produce a lifetime of rewards. Sincerely Dale
Sat, 07/26/2014 - 8:44pm
One thing the Bridge must do is to make sure you provide transparency on your 'columnists'. Greg McNeilly is a good example - we deserve to know who pays his salary/who he represents and if there's a conflict of interest built in to his 'arguments'. We need that for political ads - what companies and individuals are behind them? The usual 'Citizens for XXX' is such drivel - esp. when it's some phony astro-turf 'grass roots' group that is paid for by some group or rich corporations.