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  1. Opinion

Nickens: More space for more opinions

Here's some good news.

Beginning Monday, we are expanding our space for columns, graphics and other commentary on the op-ed page. The Monday op-ed page is returning, which will also give us more space that day for editorials and letters on the editorial page. Monday through Saturday, there will be more space on the op-ed page for commentary. And yes, the crossword puzzle will stay right where it is.

This page is referred to as the op-ed page for a reason other than that it's on the opposite page from the editorials. The editorial page features unsigned editorials written by members of the editorial board that represent the institutional voice of the Times. The op-ed page is for commentary from a variety of sources, from staff members to community leaders to politicians to recognized national columnists to bloggers with interesting views on topical issues.

Most importantly, the op-ed page offers viewpoints all along the political spectrum, from liberal to centrist to conservative. In fact, we don't want it to be an echo chamber of the Times' editorials every day. We want it to feature views that aren't shared by the editorial board. A smart op-ed page should offer a variety of voices with different takes and observations.

There may be days when your particular viewpoint isn't reflected on the page. But over the course of several days, nearly all readers should find commentary on the op-ed page that generally reflects their view of the world. The idea is to stimulate an informed, lively discussion about politics and public policy that is more than a shouting match. It might even prompt you to re-examine your views on a particular issue rather than reinforce them. The page should not be all spinach but a little dessert as well. Either way, you just may learn something new that helps inform your own opinion.

It has long been our practice to provide space on the op-ed page for views that are different than the Times' editorial position. For example, there have been recent columns by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Rick Homans, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership, defending Gov. Rick Scott's jobs incentive program — which we opposed. A former secretary of the Florida Department of Health wrote a thoughtful column supporting the state surgeon general after our editorial suggested he should be replaced. The op-ed page also recently has featured a condensed version of one of Donald Trump's victory speeches, a roundup of endorsements of Republican presidential candidates from other newspapers (we recommended former Gov. Jeb Bush) and columns from a Republican legislator, consultant and area member of Congress. Former Republican state legislator Paula Dockery and former Republican U.S. Sen. George LeMieux also are regular contributors to our pages.

The competition for the op-ed space is keen, and we have some general guidelines. Most columns are limited to 750 words or less, and we often find writers can make their point just as well in a letter to the editor of 300 words or less. We generally avoid columns from political candidates merely advancing their own campaigns, although we publish columns from incumbents writing about issues related to their work in public office. We generally avoid columns that do little more than endorse a favorite candidate. And while columnists are free to take a position different than our editorials, they cannot make up their own facts.

Some writers insist that their work be published exactly as they submit it, without a word changed. That almost never happens. Every writer, including this one, needs an editor. Columns — and letters to the editor — are edited for accuracy, clarity and length. It's often best to first suggest a column idea before submitting it to Perspective editor Jim Verhulst, a member of the editorial board who helps me ensure the op-ed page is lively, timely and provocative. Jim can be reached at jverhulst@tampabay.com.

With the additional op-ed space, look for more conservative voices on a more regular basis. Look for more local leaders writing about issues important to Tampa Bay. And look for more charts, graphics and other alternative ways of offering provocative commentary. Let me know what you think at tnickens@tampabay.com.

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