America’s political opinions just got a little bit better

June 15, 2022

Getting clients into the press just got a lot harder. Gannett, USA TODAY’s parent company and the owner of 250 regional and local newspapers around the country, just announced it is urging local and regional outlets to reduce the presence of opinions in those papers. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds reports that Gannett determined readers prefer content from “expert local voices” on issues that actually matter to them instead of lecturing, redundant, partisan drivel.

That’s great news for media consumers and writers with a local message. It’s bad news for writers, corporate PR teams, and PR firms who have gotten used to the existing model of op-ed commentary.

Gannett’s op-ed editors are going to be a lot more selective. Every submission to them will have to be top-notch. Here’s how to get through this suddenly narrower gate.

Follow the new editorial preferences closely

Don’t let your communications team waste their time and your money by going outside Gannett’s guidelines. The company’s opinion editors aren’t likely to care about national data, news, or events unless they are locally relevant. Readers know they can get opinions about those data, news, and events elsewhere.

InsideNoVa publisher Bruce Potter oversees several regional publications in the Washington, D.C. Virginia suburbs. He declined to comment about Gannett’s decision, but said his company has prioritized a robust opinion page focused on local topics for years.

“Most of the content on our largest outlet’s opinion page is local columns, letters to the editor, and reprints of selected, intelligent comments made online about local issues we have covered,” he wrote in an email. “We do not consider columns or letters about national issues; we think the local focus is critical because nowhere else can residents of Prince William County, for example, find a variety of opinions on whether the Board of Supervisors should approve the county budget.”

I’ve used this tactic for my own writing. I don’t have any specific expertise on education, and I’m not a recognized thought leader in the space. But The Baltimore Sun published me in 2019 because I localized the Operation Varsity Blues college bribery scandal, and used the region’s community college and four-year state school costs as the core of my piece. The use of regional data was also probably why a number of Virginia outlets republished the op-ed.

Also, don’t forget the basics

Craft succinct pitches to convince an editor to read your op-ed. Take no more than three short paragraphs to explain what the piece is about, why the readers will care, and why your client or employer is the right person to offer the opinion to the editor’s readers. Read existing opinions and any submission standards in advance. Don’t waste the editor’s time, or your next pitch is even less likely to be considered.

Be even more careful with your subject line. It’s “everything” when it comes to getting in the press, The Intercept’s Ryan Grim told me three years ago. This is more accurate than ever as Gannett’s opinion editors tighten the screws – and remember, you only have eight words to get their attention.

Here are some best practices we use for subject lines:

  1. Research the relevant gatekeeper(s). Do they prefer formal or informal language? What is their viewpoint on the world and the issue you are addressing?
  2. Turn conventional wisdom on its head or offer unique spin on a subject. Be eye-catching and inventive, not insulting.
  3. Make the topic relevant to the news cycle or calendar. For example, pitch an op-ed written by a CPA during tax season, not August. Irrelevance means your email is going in the trash.

As the owner of a media relations firm, it’s easy for me to grimace at how tough Gannett’s decision will make placing clients. However, as a media consumer and a former journalist, I applaud the company’s leadership for putting readers first. Redundant partisan drivel has driven the national political discourse into the trash. It’s my job, and your team’s, to help Gannett’s papers raise the bar on public discourse.

A version of this essay ran first on PrNewsOnline.com. It is authored by Proven Media Solutions founder Dustin Siggins.

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