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Comment Q&A

Published Wednesday, Jul. 22, 2009 12:18PM EDT

Last updated Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012 11:17AM EDT

Guy Nicholson: Hello, I'm Guy Nicholson, the online editor for Globe Comment. Have you ever wondered how Globe and Mail editors choose guest contributors or evaluate letter submissions? How editorial board writers come to a position, or where illustrators find their cartoon ideas? Comment editor Natasha Hassan and editorial board editor John Geiger were with us on Wednesday, July 22, to field reader questions about their sections.

Natasha Hassan is Comment editor of The Globe and Mail. She joined The Globe in early 2005 as bureaus editor for the Report on Business, where she was responsible for the section's national and international news coverage. Ms. Hassan came to The Globe from the National Post, where she held numerous positions, most notably Comment editor from the paper's inception in 1998 till 2004. She was also a senior editor and editorial writer with the former Financial Post before the launch of the National Post. Prior to her career in journalism, Ms. Hassan worked as research co-ordinator for the Centre for International Studies.

John Geiger, The Globe's Editorial Board editor, won a 2008 National Newspaper Awards Citation of Merit. He studied history and political science at the University of Alberta, and is the bestselling author of The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible, which is being published in 14 countries this year. His four other books of non-fiction include the international bestseller Frozen In Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition. Mr. Geiger has lectured widely, including presenting talks at the Wellcome Centre for the History of Medicine - University of London and the 2009 ideaCity conference. He is a Senior Fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto, as well as being a Governor of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

A transcript of our discussion:

Guy Nicholson: Perhaps we could start by asking our featured editors about the essence of what they do. Natasha and John, what misperceptions do the public generally hold about your sections?

John Geiger: Thanks Guy. I oversee the Editorial Board, which is made up of editorial writers Sean Fine, Gerald Owen and Adam Radwanski. I also write editorials regularly. Occasionally, the board will borrow writers from other sections of the newspaper, to fill a vacancy or bring a particular expertise to the table. The editor-in-chief, John Stackhouse, is part of the board and participates in its meetings, particularly when major issues are being discussed. As readers know, editorials are unsigned. They represent the view of the board collectively, and speak for the newspaper.

In answer to the second part of your question regarding misconceptions, I am often surprised that some readers will take issue with the "right" of newspapers to take editorial positions. This complaint is usually registered when The Globe makes a political endorsement, such as in support of Stephen Harper's Conservatives in the last federal election. There is a view that newspapers should only be non-partisan observers. Of course that's true in terms of news coverage, but there's a long and proud history of newspapers weighing in with editorials. The editorial board often campaigns on certain subjects, and on occasion seeks to lead national debates.

In terms of a lesser misconception, I am often offered "editorials" by freelancers. The Globe and Mail does not accept freelance submissions for editorials, and in fact this is a common error. These freelance pieces are intended as columns, and they fall under Natasha, who edits the Comment (op-ed) page. Editorials are not the opinion of an individual but of the newspaper, and these are matters that are obviously decided in house, by the Editorial Board.

Natasha Hassan: Well Guy, the essence of what we strive to do every day is create the most compelling page of commentary for our readers - both in terms of substance and style.

The Globe and Mail is aided in this effort by our regular columnists. Margaret Wente never ceases to provoke and enlighten. The authority of Jeffrey Simpson and mischievousness of Rex Murphy keep readers alert and informed. Lawrence Martin, Rick Salutin, John Ibbitson and Lysiane Gagnon add spice and variety with their weekly contributions.

Around these columnists we build an op-ed page with submissions from outside contributors. We receive around 40 unsolicited submissions a day and we also commission columns so the competition is fierce for a very limited amount of space on the printed page. What do we look for in these 750-word submissions? Variety and timeliness, a strong argument, a fresh opinion, clear writing. News-worthiness is a plus. Credentials help. What we don't look for is ideological boilerplate, bureaucratic jargon, convoluted thinking.

As for misperceptions, one of the common ones about the op-ed page is, in fact, its name. Readers talk of submitting "opinion-editorials." "Op-ed" is an abbreviation of "opposite editorial page." This does not mean the op-ed page is necessarily a forum for views that oppose those of the editorial board (although, interestingly, many newspapers do use the page in this way). It merely means that the page finds itself physically opposite the editorial page. So there you go, a bit of "op-ed trivia."

Alex McPherson: Are there any issues that have seriously split the editorial board in the past? Things that come to mind might be decriminalizing a drug or a particular war. What happens when issues such as these, where editorial opinion is closely watched, splits the board so deeply that it cannot comment in a united front? Does it work like the federal cabinet, where ministers in public disagreement are expected to resign their post?

John Geiger: That's a very interesting question, Alex. There are certainly disagreements among editorial writers, and it would not be a healthy sign were it otherwise. The majority of these involve relatively minor issues, and are simply resolved: Those who object to the board's position are excused from writing that particular editorial. In cases of more strenuous objections, there have been occasions when dissenting writers have been invited to write a signed column that sets out their position. Obviously, if those issues come up frequently, then the person may be a bad fit on the board. The split would only ever become potentially serious over the sort of issue you allude to, endorsement of a war, or perhaps a political endorsement. There, the editorial board operates by consensus, but to be clear, there is no consensus reached that does not include the editor-in-chief, John Stackhouse. The editorials, after all, are the newspaper's opinions.

[a reader]/b>: Recently, following one of Margaret Wente's columns, there was a request for submissions for the editorial pages. I can't recall the exact word used, but I was surprised to read that one of the criteria had to do with being argumentative. (I recall thinking a better spin would have been to use a word such as provocative.) In any case, I was disappointed. I believe most G&M readers want intellectual and reasoned articles, but it seems that with increasing frequency the selection of columns is aimed to polarize issues, rather than analyze them. Can you explain the rationale for the wording of the submission request?

Natasha Hassan: Thank you for your question. You are referring to an occasional submissions notice that appears on the op-ed page inviting readers to send in their articles for review. This brief notice also provides a few details regarding submissions criteria. You are quite right, the word "argumentative" is used.

Now, not to be argumentative, but we chose the word argumentative to suggest contributors "use methodical reasoning" in their columns, to quote the Canadian Oxford Dictionary's definition, not to encourage them to be "quarrelsome."

You would be surprised at the number of submissions that find their way to our inboxes that don't fit the definition of a column. They have no thesis, no point of view, no particular line of argument. Suggesting submissions should be argumentative is one of way of directing our contributors to a certain type of writing that can be both forceful and of high quality.

Byron Perry, Burlington, Ont.: You have guest columnists from many religions who talk about their faith, and that's what I love about The Globe and Mail. However, I wonder why you never have a column from a Roman Catholic representative?

Jane Ng: The Globe and Mail may have articles from local Muslim perspective, but it seems articles from local Chinese perspective are very rare. Do you have Canadian Chinese in your list of guest contributors?

Natasha Hassan: Both Byron and Jane touch on something we strive for on the op-ed page - a diversity of views and a diversity of voices. But this is not just about diversity for diversity's sake. We think of the page as a broad forum for informed debate. The greater the variety and "mix" on the page, the more engaging, lively and authoritative the page becomes.

So, Byron, I would like to draw your attention to a semi-regular contributor to our pages, who writes from a Roman Catholic perspective. In fact, Michael Higgins, the president of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, is a much sought-after Vatican specialist. (See his articles here and here, for example.)

And then, Jane, there is Wenran Jiang, the Mactaggart Research Chair of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, who was practically first out of the gate in explaining the background to the recent Uyghur riots in Xinjiang. (Another example is here.)

Guy Nicholson: A question for John Geiger now. John, many people read deep meaning into The Globe's editorial positions - the paper is described as extremely right-wing, extremely left-wing and everything in between. How would you characterize our general editorial stance?

John Geiger: I doubt there is evidence of extremism of any strain in Globe editorials. I hope they are often passionately argued, that they take strong, provocative positions, yet are respectful of opposing viewpoints. But the newspaper is not extreme right or left. On certain issues, the editorial board is what some might see as conservative. It is market oriented, although not dogmatically opposed to all government intervention, respectful of the rule of law, and supportive of a strong international role for Canada and the Canadian military, such as in Afghanistan. Yet the Globe also has a long tradition of being socially liberal and concerned with civil liberties. In other words, the Globe fits firmly in the mainstream of Canadian debate, not its thorny fringes.

Guy Nicholson: We have several questions today about online comments, which are both similar to the printed newspaper's letters page and yet a completely different animal. Our online section has started The Fifth Column, a blog that's meant to highlight some of the best and most provocative reader comments, which we hope can serve as a jumping-off point for good discussions, as well as a model for more inspired commenting by readers. But how about we ask Jim Sheppard, executive editor of globeandmail.com, to weigh in on some of your other questions about online comments.

Jim Sheppard: Thanks, Guy. I think it's fair to say that there's no single issue about globeandmail.com that prompts more internal debate than the question of how we handle reader comments on articles. Our policies are constantly evolving to meet the needs of our readers and our ever-evolving technology. Right now, about 99 per cent of all articles on globeandmail.com are open for comments. These comments are published automatically - without prior review by one of our editors. We believe that fosters needed national debate on serious issues as well as offering our writers and editors a valuable perspective on their work.

Robert Tombs, Ottawa: Why are the "comments" sections after articles so frequently disabled with The Globe saying: "Editor's Note: We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. We appreciate your understanding"? Is it because you are continually being threatened with lawsuits? Or because people are often libelous in their comments? If the latter, do you have the manpower to sift through every comment for a legal evaluation? Is it really necessary to disable the entire comments section rather than refuse to post selected comments?

Dr. John M. Clearwater, Ottawa: Why are almost all stories about Israeli military activities and Israeli actions in Palestine closed to comments?

Jim Sheppard: Mr. Tombs and Dr. Clearwater, you both ask good questions about those relatively rare occasions where we close comments on specific articles. There are certainly occasions where we close comments for legal reasons. Most of these relate to stories about arrests and trials. While there is some concern about potential libel, the bigger issue is contempt of court. This is oversimplifying a bit but Canadian law does not permit the media to print or broadcast in advance of a trial any details of the crime or of the alleged role of the people arrested that might prejudice potential jurors at a trial. All media organizations have developed detailed internal policies for such stories in traditional print or broadcast formats. For example, neither The Globe nor any other major newspaper would ever print a letter in advance of a trial allowing a reader to declare the person facing trial guilty of the offences with which he or she is charged, or revealing details of the crime. In most cases, those details are also under separate publication bans imposed by the courts. I can assure you that when a globeandmail.com editor slips and accidentally allows reader comments on such stories online, we are inundated with readers declaring the person on trial guilty before the first piece of evidence is heard and then suggesting that capital punishment is too good for the accused, long before he or she has been convicted. That's simply illegal.

Mr. Tombs asks if we have the manpower to vet each comment and determine whether to publish it or not. Sadly, sir, we do not. Other media organizations which do require editor approval before comments are published hire dozens and dozens of staff members to do that. We simply don't have those resources. Dr. Clearwater has touched on one of the most vexing issues for our readers. Previously, our policy on all Mideast stories was to close comments because of the massive volume of racist submissions urging violence against one side or another, and because of the manpower issues I cited earlier. For the past two months, with the introduction of our new look and our comment technology, we have been more flexible in that regard. Keep an eye on it. (More on our new technology in a minute.)

Daryl Gray: I like to read the comments after stories to gauge how other Canadians are reacting to specific stories. However, as you know, the comments often become nasty, disrespectful, pointless and sometimes hateful.

Louis Crust: I don't really have a question. I like the changes to the comments. Being able to sort by "most thumbs up" helps separate the chaff from the wheat. And the fact that dumb comments are edited out. Love it.

Ian Gunn, Minneapolis: Reading just a few comments at a time before having to do a next page does not allow me to keep the flow of the comments. Will we be seeing an option to view all comments on one page (like it was)?

Courtney Quinn: Newspapers in Houston, Seattle and San Jose all have forum sections where discussions in certain areas can creatre more of a thread type dialogue. As in, the conversation continues longer in a forum then comments posted on certain articles that disappear after a few days. Granted, the forums set up by those newspapers are currently lacking both in quality and quanity of posts/posters ... but the idea is a good one.

Jim Sheppard: Personally, I often agree with Mr. Gray and I thank Mr. Crust for his comment. I would prefer a higher level of dialogue. But as I said earlier, we publish comments automatically without prior review by an editor, so what you read on our comments is a reflection of the views expressed daily in the real world, not the views expressed in Parliament or polite society. That having been said, our new comment technology offers our readers and our editors a variety of ways to improve the reading experience. As has long been the case, our readers can "flag" for an editor's review any comment they find to be racist, offensive or some other violation of our printed guidelines. In addition, our new technology allows readers to give comments a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down and then to sort the comments be most thumbs-up, as well as by the oldest first, or newest first. We can block users who are repeat offenders. We try to limit that to severe cases. But it is an option. Mr. Gunn and Ms. Quinn raise some good ideas. We are currently working on both of those - as well as other improvements - and we hope to roll them out over the next weeks. Personally, I have great hopes that our new forums will be popular with our readers.

Guy Nicholson: With that cleared up (I hope), let's return to Natasha and John.

Gideon Forman, Toronto: When The Globe is selecting letters or comment articles, which considerations are pre-eminent: geographical diversity, ideological variety, or inherent interest?

Natasha Hassan: Good to hear from you, Gideon. I would say the first hurdle any comment submission has to clear is "inherent interest." Thereafter, things like geographical diversity and ideological variety are factors to be taken into consideration when building the op-ed page.

When it comes to letters to the editor, I asked our letters editor, Emilie Smith-Bowles, broadly speaking, what factors play into her decision-making process. Here's what she had to say: "On average, we receive 300 letters a day, as well as faxes and snail mail, and we have room to publish about 15. As you can appreciate, a lot of variables decide a letter's fate - its subject, its news value, its timing, its brevity, its construction, its being in the right place at the right time. There's also the intangible factor - does it light up our interest? So letters are or are not published for all sorts of reasons. In fact, it is much easier for us to tell a reader why we published a letter than why we didn't. What we can say is: Keep writing to us, keep it under 200 words, make it topical. Everyone loves wit - where appropriate, add it."

Ken DeLuca, Arnprior, Ont.: Natasha, do you accept the 750-word submissions you spoke of for review by the whole Editorial Board or just yourself as editor of the Comment page? You say credentials help, but are such submissions welcome from your general readership as well as journalist colleagues? Assuming anything I submit met editorial standards as you detailed ('Variety and timeliness, a strong argument, a fresh opinion, clear writing'), can I assume my 750-word offering might be considered?

Natasha Hassan: Ken, you can rest assured that I read all unsolicited submissions - either e-mailed to me directly, or to comment@globeandmail.com - and that they are all given serious consideration.

As my colleague John mentioned earlier, a common error is that readers send him column submissions for the op-ed page. Just to be clear, the editorial board and op-ed page are separate domains, and so Editorial Board members do not review submissions.

Josh Turner, Toronto: I notice that you have semi-regular contributors on the op-ed page such as Timothy Garton Ash and Irshad Manji (two of my favs). Do they submit articles to you regularly or do you request pieces from them to see if they have anything of interest?

Natasha Hassan: Josh, you will be happy to hear that both write exclusively for The Globe and Mail in Canada. Irshad is wonderful to work with: She is a nimble and smart commentator and we collaborate very well together, often on breaking news stories, with requests and pitches flowing in both directions. Timothy, meanwhile, writes a weekly column for his UK audience and so I have less input into the subjects he selects for his columns. That being said, his thoughtful, European perspective on the issues of the day is always a welcome addition to the page.

Guy Nicholson: Time is running short, so I'll put one final question to our editors before they go back to their day jobs. This one comes from a regular contributor to the op-ed page.

J.D.M. Stewart, Toronto: I would imagine that being an editor can be a lonely job at times. What is the best part about your job, Natasha and John?

Natasha Hassan: "Lonely," James? How could I be lonely when I get to work with some of the smartest thinkers and writers in the country? Exhausted is more like it. And yes, that is the best part of the job.

John Geiger: It's not lonely on the editorial board. What I like about the job most is the sense of camaraderie. In former incarnations I've worked as a national editor, a news features editor, a foreign editor, a reporter, a columnist, but there is no other job at a newspaper quite like being on an editorial board. The meetings are invariably the best part of the work day; it's a chance to talk about important ideas with a group of intelligent people. And then there's the sense of responsibility that comes with having meaningful input into some of the important questions of the day.

Guy Nicholson: That's it for today. Thank you to everyone who submitted a question - including those we couldn't get to - and to John, Natasha and Jim for taking time out to help readers better understand how this part of The Globe and Mail works.