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.