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Columbia Missourian

Opinion writing teaches students to write real persuasive commentary

By Clyde Bentley
October 31, 2008 | 12:00 a.m. CDT

Dear Reader:

OK.  I admit it.  My journalism students are biased, outspoken and openly opinionated.

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They'd better be.  Mine is the one class in the Missouri School of Journalism where that will earn you an "A".   And for the next few weeks, thousands of people across Missouri get to tally up my grade book.

As you have undoubtedly heard, the Missouri School of Journalism insists that its students learn by doing — a process called "The Missouri Method." Critics and costs be damned, it is the best method ever devised of stoking the fires of a free press.

This fall I teach editorial writing, which gives me license to use opinionated terms like that.  I am, after all, trying to do the near-impossible. I have to get 18 of the J-School's finest to violate journalism's revered Second Commandment:  Thou Shalt Not Take Sides.

I have the World Wide Web advantage on Walter Williams and my other predecessors in this task.  I had my students dip their toes into the opinion pool of the MyFox-STL blogging system in St. Louis.  The Internet is both a domain of endless commentary but also a medium of  interactive criticism.  The students are learning to live with their opinions in the face of 30 to 40 often nasty online responses.

In so many pixels, they came to realize how hard it is to maintain the First ("Tell The Truth") and Third ("Be Fair") commandments while ignoring that middle rule about involvement.

As much as I love exploring the Web, I know that traditional dead-tree newspapers are still quite alive and still quite powerful purveyors of news and opinion.  So with the help of Doug Crews at the Missouri Newspaper Association, papers across the social and political spectrum of the Show Me State are letting my young editorialists find their voices in black and white.

Editors and publishers at 18 papers agreed to pair with a student, give that student a topic to ponder and then to coach them as they developed a persuasive commentary focused on that particular community.

Nate Birt's take on the gubernatorial race ran in the Springfield News-Leader Tuesday and immediately sparked a hot online debate.  Leslie Grissum had the added pressure of writing for her hometown paper - the Boonville Daily News.  Missy Boyer found out what it is like to be a staff opinion writer - she maintained the liberal stand of The Odessan despite her own conservative leanings.

Other pre- and post-election commentaries from Tigers will hit the presses at the Gasconade County Republican, the Hannibal Courier-Post, the Bethany Republican-Clipper, the Waynesville Daily Guide, the Lake Gazette, the Northeast News, the Cedar County Republican, the Newton County News, the Boone County Journal, the Independence Examiner, the Centralia Fireside Guard, the Sweet Springs Herald, the Sedalia Democrat and the Washington Missourian.  Some will be traditional editorials that reflect the opinions of the publisher, others will be signed columns that explain the student's own views.  But no two will be alike.

That's a lot of opinion.   But better yet, it's a lot of real opinion.