Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks, and provides training on Community Newsroom Success Strategies. He is the author of “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in a Small-Town Newspaper.” He can be contacted at www.pumarlo.com.

How will the Legislature deal with a record budget surplus, and what will it mean for taxpayer pocketbooks? Are there implications for public safety with the proposal to legalize marijuana? Which communities are the winners and losers in the proposed state bonding bill?

Minnesota lawmakers are addressing these and myriad other issues as they pass the halfway mark of this year’s session. The list is representative of the topics debated and public policy crafted in legislative hallways everywhere.

Newsrooms should regularly check in with state lawmakers. It’s an excellent way to review and interpret what actions – and nonactions – at the Capitol mean to your readers.

The issues often provoke additional explanations by lawmakers, supplementing other news coverage. Many politicians seize the opportunity by writing regular columns that can be informative and engage citizens in valuable community dialogue.

But editors ought to be wary, too.

Lawmaker columns were the subject of a recent online discussion on the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors hotline. In near unanimity, editors emphasized that these reports deliver substance and not just PR.

The advice is especially important during election season as incumbents regularly use columns to their advantage over challengers. They strategically try to place commentaries to supplement – and maybe even replace – paid advertising.

Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, offers excellent advice:

“I have long suggested that publication of such columns should be based on newsworthiness and reader interest, and sometimes might be better used as the seed of a story about an issue the legislator mentions. And I have always believed that if a legislator is on the ballot for the next election, the newsworthiness bar should be raised very high and that no such columns should be published within 60 days of an election unless it’s an introductory column from a legislator elected in a recent special election.”

Read: Self-serving columns should be dead on arrival.

Elected and appointed officials at all government levels frequently press editors for a regular column in the name of advancing dialogue on pertinent t topics. The request is not surprising. What public official has not pledged to open the lines of communication.

Here are some ground rules when contemplating and screening regular contributions:

  • Columns should elaborate on issues facing a particular entity. They should not be a stage to respond to comments expressed through editorials, letters to the editor, or other story comments. Those replies should be handled through normal channels such as letters to the editor.
  • Columns should be a voice for the specific authors – for example, in cases of local government, the superintendent, city administrator or county administrator. If elected officials from those bodies wish to comment, they have the standard avenues available to all readers.
  • Columns should be subject to standard review and editing. That does not mean censorship. The authors should have free reign to express opinions so long as they are within guidelines. 
  • Columns should not be a substitute for press releases from a particular body. For example, it’s fine if a superintendent wishes to expand on a district’s position on legislative funding proposals. But the first public statements appropriately belong in a news story.
  • Columns should not be a tool to give officials and their organizations or political parties “good PR.” Editors and reporters always welcome story ideas to be judged on individual merits.

Aggressive reporting of local public affairs ranks among the prime responsibilities of the community press. Newspapers, especially in today’s fractured media landscape, remain in the best position to provide the most thorough and credible coverage of governing bodies that make decisions affecting all aspects of citizens’ everyday lives.

At the same time, newsrooms are stretched to dispatch reporters to every meeting or track down every story that might warrant coverage.

The bottom line is that newsrooms should have firm criteria for these columns. As soon as the first one is accepted, other individuals and organizations will demand similar treatment. Each request should be evaluated on whether it will enhance the knowledge and debate on issues important to your community.