Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Former Miami newspaper editor salutes local letter writers

ANNISTON-- For a week of discussions on the “Emerging Mind of Community Journalism” what better way to start things off than with those in the community.

I’ve been to a lot of banquets and dinners, but never one that shined the spotlight on those who talk back to the newspaper. Tonight’s meal was special because I had it in the presence of some of the people born and raised here in Calhoun County, Alabama.

Tonight’s letter writers banquet was about connecting with the people who through their written comments connect with their local newspaper.

“Writing letters to the editor is an integral part of what makes a newspaper a newspaper,” said Bob Davis, editor of The Anniston Star.

Before recently being named executive editor of the paper, Davis served for almost two years as the Star’s Editorial Page Editor. He succeeded John Fleming, who now serves as editor-at-large.

Both Fleming and Davis followed Chris Waddle, who as the Star’s longtime editorial page editor started the tradition of honoring letter writers.

Tonight’s event was the 17th such banquet.

Now Waddle is directing the Star’s new joint venture with The University of Alabama and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The first class of Knight Fellows in Community Journalism won’t arrive here in Anniston until later this fall. But, this week’s conference is the first official event held in conjunction with the journalism graduate program that’s nicknamed COM-J.

Appropriately, the CEO of the Knight Foundation was invited to serve as the keynote for this year’s letter writers banquet. Alberto Ibarguen told lots of war stories about his days as editor of The Miami Herald, an experience that brought him face-to-face with those in a community of exiles where 75 percent of the population was born someplace else.

“This is really what builds community,” said Ibarguen who recounted some of the experiences he had in receiving hundreds of e-mails and letters to the editor.

Tonight he recalled how the Miami community responded with some 8,000 letters to editor after the Herald’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Elian Gonzalez story.

“Almost none of them were about our coverage. They were just citizens expressing their opinion [about the Gonzalez story],”Ibarguen said.

“I hope you appreciate the privilege you have,” the Knight Foundation CEO told the letter writers at tonight’s dinner.

As we look forward to tomorrow’s events, the audience shifts from residents in the Anniston-Calhoun County (Ala.) community to students and scholars as the Star’s Annual Ayers Lecture features Ibarguen in an afternoon address a few miles up the road at Jacksonville State University.


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