Opinion sections in newspapers are changing.
Since the 1970s, opinion articles published in newspapers were called “Op-Eds” because they were located on the page opposite of where editorials and letters to the editors were published. (Not because Op-Eds were articles that expressed opinion opposite to those of the editorial board.) But last year, the New York Times announced that it was retiring the term “Op-Ed.”
The reason: digital readers, who represent the future of newspaper consumers, access the paper via app or website and no longer access the printed edition, and therefore don’t see the opinion articles are located on the page opposite of the editorial page. The Times still publishes op-eds but now calls them “guest essays.” (By the way, it’s not just the opinion pages that are changing; it’s also the comic section, too, but our focus is on the op-eds because we help clients write and place op-eds; we don’t help clients with comics.)
Recently, the Washington Post shut down its Sunday “Outlook” section — though articles that might have once found a home in “Outlook” may now appear in the Post’s Editorial section — for the same reason: to appeal to digital subscribers.
Whatever they’re called, writing and placing opinion articles can be a good thought leadership tactic. But it’s important to understand how opinion sections — including editorials, columnists and guest opinion essays — are changing, and why.
- Opinion articles are more likely than newspaper editorials to go viral. Every day on Twitter, one can see columns cross-posted and commented on.
- On the other hand, the last editorial we saw on social media was months ago from the Wall St. Journal that both sides of the political chasm did not like. But mostly, we don’t see many editorials go viral these days. Not surprising considering that we’ve heard for some time that that political endorsements by editorial boards, for example, no longer have much impact on would-be voters.
- In fact, Alden Capital, the country’s second largest newspaper publisher after Gannett with more than 200 papers, has decided that with the exception of three of its papers — the Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post — the rest will stop publishing political endorsements on their editorial pages. This follows “Gannett (which) announced earlier this year that it would radically shrink opinion pieces in its newspapers. And Lee Enterprises is distributing what appear to be canned editorial pages to its publications,” according to MediaPost.
- Keep in mind what opinion editors are looking for:
- Articles that make a clear argument about a topic usually (but not always) in the news. The Post says, “750 to 800 words is ideal” but many other outlets prefer articles to be as short as 500 words.
- “An op-ed should serve readers, not the interests of the author,” notes the Post. That means the article should have a clear thesis and a clear takeaway for the reader. The thesis is critical but it also most address a topic or issue that is relevant to most readers. To be successful, the topic must have broad appeal; if it’s a very specialized issue, the article must make the case for why readers care. This has always been true for opinion articles but it’s even more important because the articles are shorter and the opinion sections publish fewer articles.
- Compelling and relatable content. That said, personal essays may be okay but they need to make an argument, which can sometimes get lost in a personal essay. Again, according to the Post but this is true for other publications, “Even if the op-ed includes a personal story, it should have a point to make — something readers can engage with and think about.” By the way, opinion sections used to publish humor pieces but those have become increasingly rare these days.
- Articles that challenge and engage audiences, according to the Times, even for readers “who do not necessarily agree with the writer’s point of views.”
- Articles that give “insight into complicated problems… (and) start conversations, influence policymakers and have an impact far beyond” the opinion section, according to the Times.
- Original and exclusive articles. Opinion editors don’t want to see the same article in another paper’s section.
- Sources to go along with any facts cited in the article.
- Timely and relevant.
The competition, along with response time, make scoring acceptance on a newspaper’s opinion section even more challenging than ever. But opinion articles can be helpful in shaping the conversation about a key issue, and position the company as insightful and smart and sharing values important to its community.
We do expect the trend of smaller newspaper opinion sections along with fewer and shorter articles to make this tactic more difficult but still something to consider.