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April 30, 2021, 2:05 p.m.

Not just “elected officials and policy experts”: Top editors are trying to refocus the opinion pages on regular people

Editors at The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post (and one opinionated Substacker) discussed the rapid growth of opinion in online journalism.

“It’s not the old op-ed page anymore!”, declared The International Symposium on Online Journalism while promoting an event with opinion editors. As it turns out, it’s not even an op-ed page anymore.

The conference gathered top editors — and one prominent, opinionated Substacker — to discuss the growth of opinion in online journalism. There to talk about the proliferation was Karen Attiah, global opinions editor for The Washington Post; Sewell Chan, editorial page editor at The Los Angeles Times; Katie Kingsbury, opinion editor for The New York Times; and Matthew Yglesias, a writer and editor who left Vox to launch his Substack, Slow Boring. ISOJ said it was the first time the conference had explored online opinion journalism in its 22-year history.

“Ours is a very narrative era,” Chan said in opening remarks. “The power of storytelling is driving everything that we’re seeing in media, regardless of the medium — the podcast boom, newsletters, video. The voice and the opinionated voice are more powerful than ever before.”

Here are a couple of our takeaways.

“Why don’t we let people speak for themselves?”

The editors each called a particular subset of op-ed contributor something different — “professors,” “the interpreter class,” “think tankers” — but agreed they were actively trying to create more space for different types of writers, who draw on different forms of authority, than have been featured in the past.

The impulse is not entirely new. Early feedback on The New York Times op-ed page singled out the section’s “propensity towards ‘names'” and running too “much junk by the famous.” (The New York Times editorial page editor John B. Oakes, who first envisioned the op-ed page, warned specifically against scholars and professors. “Ivory tower equals ivory head,” he quipped.) Resisting the temptation to publish “names” hasn’t gotten easier, but with the ability to publish more perspectives online, it may make for a richer section as a whole.

“I think op-ed pages have become more interesting, in part, because, at least at our page, we are trying to move away from the traditional reliance on elected officials [and] policy experts,” Chan said. “There’s still room for professors and scholars — they are a big part of what we publish still — but we’re increasingly searching for the real voices of people’s authentic, lived experiences, which is oftentimes as important a form of authority, as traditional research scholarship.”

At The Washington Post, Attiah said she was stacking her section with bylines from people actually living in the countries they were commenting on.

“There was a push on my part to push back against what I would call the interpreter class, particularly in Washington, where you have foreign correspondents and think tankers tasked very often to explain [foreign events] to us,” Attiah said. “Why don’t we just let people from the countries, from these cultures, speak for themselves about what’s going on in their country?”

Going local, going global

There was a divide between the regional news organization focused on serving the country’s most populous state and county – and the national publications eyeing an international audience.

Like other regional papers, The Los Angeles Times is moving toward “an ethos of community and service,” Chan said.

“Here at The LA Times, I’m really focused on trying to promote and publish the broadest array of California perspectives as possible, knowing that nationally-known politicians and characters and commentators are already amply reflected in the pages of national publications, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal,” Chan said. “What we can do to try to restore trust and community at the local and state level is an issue that interests me a great deal.”

Attiah said that, at The Washington Post, they were casting the net much wider, and trying to “cultivate and court and appeal to international audiences,” including English speakers in India, Europe, and Africa.

“The digital marketplace is a global marketplace,” Attiah noted.

Attiah — who edited the late Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi journalist and Virginia resident who was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul — said her section could be “a refuge” for activists and writers barred from speaking freely in their own countries.

“Being an American newspaper, we’re trying to be a home for international writers,” she said. “We often are getting writers who have not had opportunities or a voice in their countries, whether it’s due to authoritarian governments or something else.”

What readers want

Kingsbury presented some reader research that had driven recent changes at The New York Times’ opinion section, including renaming op-eds “guest essays” and expanding biographies for contributors.

“[Readers] crave more differentiation, clarity, and context,” she said. “In particular, they want to better understand when and why we’re publishing outside writers.”

Opinion content — whether “guest essays” or editorials written in-house — have long drawn on original reporting and sources cultivated by the opinion writers. But readers, Kingsbury said, are starting to see more of that themselves.

“When I arrived, the Times very, very rarely quoted people in [editorials],” she said. “We have to gain trust with readers at every turn, so that is something that we emphasize: showing our work and trying to be more transparent.”

Readers also want a certain amount of curation, the group agreed. The acceptance rate for outside op-eds at major publications hovers in the low single digits, and opinion sections spend a lot of time and effort on standards given the flood of pitches coming across their desks.

“I wouldn’t suggest that anybody, like, browse Substack,” Yglesias said, at one point. “It’s a lot of people out there op-ed-ing and writing and doing whatever.”

Both legacy and independent writers have to work to differentiate themselves from commentators on cable news and armchair experts on social media, Yglesias noted.

“Our question as people who are trying to be professionals and trying to build businesses that are grounded in opinion, is, ‘How do you differentiate yourself from this maw of opinions that are constantly being voiced out there on social?'” he said. “I think you hear all of us on the panel talking about different ways to do that.”

Fact-checking, editing, and elevating different — and differing — opinions are all part of “a business strategy,” Attiah said.

“Our pages, in many ways, are facing competition from right-wing media, individual Facebook accounts, social media accounts, and other alternative forms of voices and viewpoints,” she said. “I think our challenge is to add value. We add value to the conversation with fact-checking, editing, and inclusion. I think we’re realizing that inclusion of various voices is not only a luxury, but an imperative. If we are going to remain relevant and [continue] adding value, we have to continue to uphold these standards.”

Looking ahead, Attiah also said an important shift for opinion sections would be thinking not just about developing writers, but developing audiences.

“There’s a lot more understanding of the importance of digital communities and audiences, what those conversations are like, and how our journalism fits into them,” she said. “It’s more of an audience-first ethos. I think legacy [media] is sort of like, ‘Oh gosh, audience editors really matter? Social media really matters?’ We’re catching up — quickly, I think — to what people are interested in that doesn’t have to do with traditional left-right politics.”

If you want to listen to the entire panel, ISOJ is posting recordings of its events on YouTube, including the one headlined by opinion editors.

POSTED     April 30, 2021, 2:05 p.m.
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