Opinion pages play a vital role for community newspapers

St. Augustine Record – USA TODAY NETWORK

September 25 will mark the 332nd anniversary of this country’s first newspaper: Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, published in Boston in 1690. And September 29 will mark the 332nd anniversary of his untimely death — a footnote in the story ; a four-page publication in a single issue; a thorn in the side of the British colonial government.

Although very few copies were published and only one remains in a museum, Publick Occurrences was a true community newspaper. Significant political news was featured, but it also included reports of a successful harvest, a smallpox epidemic, a murder, a fire, and other items that Benjamin Harris, the publisher, thought would be of interest to his readers.

The publication of this first journal also saw the birth of a section for readers’ comments –– an early version of what is now called the Opinion Page; the page you are reading.

Harris deliberately left the last page of his small 7 1/2 inch by 11 1/2 inch journal blank. The purpose of the white page was to provide a space for readers to comment on what Harris had written, as well as to report news of their own — news from the community. Then, once they added their thoughts and possibly a short news story or two, they passed the journal on to someone else, who would add their comments before passing it on to the next reader, until – like a 21st century email that bounces with a message saying “Sorry, the recipient’s mailbox is full” –– the blank page was filled with reader comments and briefs.

Well, that was the plan until Publick Occurrences was shut down in Massachusetts by the British colonial governor who opposed that bold first attempt at press freedom.

Today, the Opinion Page serves the same purpose as the Benjamin Harris Blank Page and often generates considerable community feedback. Some comments come from online comments, some from direct contact with the columnists who write the op-eds, and some from comments on The Record’s Facebook page.

Reader comments are a barometer of community interest, and that’s important. It’s a process that began 332 years ago and continues to engage readers to the extent they are able or interested. Of course, without the opportunity for you to be part of the discussion, community newspapers are less than they should be.

And that takes us from September 1690 to September 2022.

In last Sunday’s edition of The Record, a brief notice informed readers that there would no longer be an opinion page, but stressed that comments were still possible via the newspaper’s Facebook page. So why are you reading this in a section that would have been scuttled? Best Answer: All business decisions are subject to change.

The men and women responsible for this daily work long hours, drink lots of coffee and go out of their way to provide you with as much local information –– and opinion –– as possible. But adapting to the vagaries of print journalism these days can be difficult. Very difficult.

Before the ruthless pandemic, The Record had an opinion page every day; a few months ago it was reduced to Sunday only. As it stands, this section will remain a Sunday feature, but letters to the editor will be posted here in favor of using the newspaper’s Facebook page for readers to post comments – making Facebook page a 21st century version of Publick Occurrences. page.

Depending on Facebook to provide space for reader comments may not be ideal –– especially for non-Facebook members and those who don’t receive The Record’s digital edition –– but it is what it is, and the space is essentially unlimited. At least that’s the plan for now. This is all part of management’s ongoing efforts to find feasible ways to operate a community newspaper in 2022 and beyond.

Former Daytona Beach News-Journal reporter Michael Connelly, now a best-selling author with more than two dozen crime-related fiction books to his name, nailed it a few years ago when he said, “A newspaper is the center of a community, it is the tent peg of the community, and that will not be replaced by websites and blogs.

Everyone associated with The Record is doing their best to fit in –– some daily and some more than once a day –– so keep your fingers and toes crossed as they tend to the hand that was distributed to them. And if all goes well, you will find the Opinion Page here next Sunday, and for many Sundays to come.

Steve Cotrell

Steve Cottrell is a former small-town mayor, president of a chamber of commerce and editor of a weekly newspaper. Contact him at [email protected]