Indiana University

Indiana University School of Journalism

Nickens: Editorials more important than ever

Anne Kibbler | July 12, 2013
nickens
Photo by Ben Wiggins
Tim Nickens of the Tampa Bay Times talked to HSJI students about the power of editorials and the importance of newspapers' editorial boards Tuesday in Ernie Pyle Hall. Earlier in the day, he joined students for lunch and casual conversation.
On Friday, April 13, 2012, Tampa Bay Times editorial page editor Tim Nickens and his colleagues waited anxiously for the Pulitzer Prize board to announce the winner of that year’s editorial writing category.

When the news came, it wasn’t good. The committee not only passed over the Times’ package on Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s anti-public records and other policies, it chose not to award the editorial writing prize at all.

“Instead of congratulations, we got calls about whether editorials were dying or whether they were relevant,” Nickens, BA’82, told High School Journalism Institute students who packed the Ernie Pyle Hall auditorium Tuesday evening. “I have to admit, the evidence sometimes doesn’t look good for editorial pages.”

Yet newspaper editorials have never been more essential, said Nickens, who went on to win the 2013 Pulitzer for editorial writing with colleague Daniel Ruth. As newspapers struggle under financial pressure and face growing competition from the blogosphere, newspaper editorials still serve as trusted watchdogs of democracy.

The best editorials, Nickens said, are well researched, well reported and reflect the consensus of an editorial board.

“Who could say that about so many bloggers today?” he said.

Nickens pointed to his own Pulitzer-winning pieces as an example of successful editorial writing. Nickens and Ruth wrote a series of editorials about the importance of fluoride in local drinking water and the folly of the county commissioners’ vote to remove it. The Times’ editorials resulted in the fluoride being restored.

Nickens said editorial boards must take a stand on important issues, rather than keep to the kind of objective reporting that may neutralize the truth. In the case of the Pulitzer-winning editorials, he and Ruth found arguments on both sides of the issue, but understood that the evidence leaned heavily in support of the benefits of fluoride.

“It took our reporting, our research and our editorials to put scientific research into context,” he said.

The resulting Pulitzer, he said, “was a tribute to the common sense of local voters.”

The kind of context provided in the fluoride series also is critical to reporting on election campaigns, Nickens said. There’s nothing to stop lobbyists or even staff members of political candidates from blogging partisan views, he said. But readers aren’t always aware of those built-in biases.

Newspaper editorial pages, on the other hand, provide informed, reasoned opinions based on the consensus of a board.

nickens and water eddy
Photo by Ben Wiggins
Nickens showed students part of the Tampa Bay Times' editorial series urging the city to restore fluoride to the drinking water supply. The series won Pulitzer Prizes for Nickens and writer Daniel Ruth.
In recent years, some major newspapers have stopped endorsing candidates running for office. But Nickens thinks that’s a mistake.

“With so much misinformation and money behind elections, endorsements are more important than ever,” he said.

The Tampa Bay Times makes candidate recommendations based on extensive research. In the last election cycle, Times staff members interviewed more than 100 candidates at the local, state and national levels. They carried out background checks, studied voting records and positions on issues, and had candidates fill out a questionnaire.

“Who else is going to take the time we do to look into the backgrounds of lawyers running for judge?” Nickens said. “Readers trust the Tampa Bay Times. I’ve seen them go to the ballot box with Tampa Bay Times recommendations in their hands.”

Nickens easily could relate to his audience, high school students from around the country who spend a week in workshops learning skills in a variety of media. He attended HSJI in 1975 and 1976, and served as editor of Jeffersonville (Ind.) High School’s The Hyphen for the two school years.

He told the students that he didn’t see himself initially as an editorial writer. He was a reporter and then editor-in-chief of the Indiana Daily Student at IU, then worked in the newsroom of the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Journal-Gazette. From there, he moved to the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) and the Miami Herald before settling at the Tampa Bay Times.

“To suddenly be told you can have an opinion, that can be a bit intimidating, even for a journalist who’s been in the business for a while,” he said.

Instead, he found it liberating.
nickens and students
Photo by Ben Wiggins
Nickens found himself on the other side of the reporter's notebook as he answered students' questions after his talk. HSJI students in the newspaper workshop covered the presentation as an assignment. 

He advised prospective editorial writers at HSJI to pick their topics carefully, be clear in the opinions, and be respectful but strong.

Emma Diltz, a rising senior at Mattoon High School in Mattoon, Ill., said Nickens delivered an inspiring message.

“If you keep working hard, you can achieve a Pulitzer Prize or your own form of success,” she said.

Dylan Taylor was opinion editor of The Inklings, the newspaper of Crown Point (Ind.) High School, before he became editor-in-chief. He said he was happy to hear someone who still believed in legitimate editorial journalism rather than “blogosphere noise.”

“It’s inspiring to hear someone profess the power of the editorial page,” he said.

The 67th annual HSJI continues next week when a new group of students arrive for workshops in yearbook, graphic design, digital photo, sports journalism, and arts and entertainment journalism.


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