Opinion writing just got harder & smarter

June 17, 2022

For more than a century, newspaper opinion sections have influenced lawmakers, community leaders, and the general public. Op-ed writing has been the heart of hundreds of legacy writers’ careers, such as the late Charles Krauthammer and longtime Washington Post columnist George Will.

But as news consumers tire of op-ed pages churning out redundant partisan drivel, Gannett is changing the model. USA TODAY’s parent company is prioritizing local voices at 250 regional and local papers to improve the quality of dialogue.

A trending model

This is a model that’s been in use at other media outlets for years. The Washington Post is a top-tier national media outlet, but its robust local division focuses on the Washington, D.C. area. Ruth Marcus, the paper’s Deputy Editorial Page Editor, told me that “Local Opinions is an important and continuing part of our opinions coverage.”

And as InsideNoVa publisher Bruce Potter – who runs a series of independent regional media outlets, and declined to comment on Gannett’s decision – put it to me about his company’s years-long local focus: “If readers want to read opinions about Roe v. Wade, they have plenty of other sources to turn to.”

For would-be opinion shapers, there are three ways to take advantage of Gannett’s decision to put readers first.

Tailor to your readers

Make sure your issue matters to readers. General political opinionating is now more likely to be rejected, so it’s important to either tie a national hook to local/regional readers, or tie a local/regional hook to a national trend.

For example, during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, my firm worked with a healthcare policy group that wanted policymakers to make emergency licensing and telemedicine policies permanent. The pandemic was the national trend, and we had two hooks: the specifics of emergency policies, and bills which had been introduced to make those policies permanent.

Teach, don’t tell

Treat readers like intelligent people who can come to their own conclusions. You probably know a lot more about taxes, Medicare, or immigration than your reader. Help them see what you know, give them reasons to care, and provide action items for them to make change.

Don’t talk down to people. That’s what typically arrogant political writers do when they know nothing about people’s problems in the real world.

Don’t be redundant

Be unique and counter-intuitive, using messages, data, and stories that stand out. This is really hard; but with national discourse in the gutter, local opinion writers must be part of the solution. Getting a few great pieces published is more valuable for your position than writing a bunch of mediocre pieces which get rejected.

A pregnancy resource center, for example, can use client stories to counter supporters of legalized abortion about the downsides of Roe v. Wade being overturned. Sharing stories about helping women and children thrive during difficult circumstances are positive, and will stand out. Additionally, the pregnancy resource center’s stories and message will be unique.

Student loans are another example. They are in the national spotlight, and have significant local and regional implications across the country. Most opinion pieces on the subject battle over the wisdom of loan forgiveness. But your unique piece could focus on how the local high school’s Career & Technical Education program benefits employers, families, and recent graduates. You could sing the praises of the value of the region’s community colleges, or demonstrate how to think about the value of student debt when compared to long-term earning potential.

The public square just got a little smarter

Partisan talking points abound at hundreds of media companies and tens of thousands of social media accounts. But Sean McCabe, a partner at the public relations firm Pinkston, told me that “op-eds remain an important vehicle for thought leaders to weigh in on critical issues. With all the noise in the news and on social media today, it is important to have fresh and unfiltered perspectives expressed in the public square.”

Gannett’s decision makes participating in the public square harder. But as cable news and social media drive us apart, Gannett’s reader-friendly model of opinionating is likely to improve the quality of that public square.

A version of this piece was originally published by Dustin Siggins at Real Clear Policy.

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