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WRITING OPINION PIECES FOR MAJOR US NEWSPAPERS
The feature for this issue is on how New Zealanders can break into the major US newspapers as op-ed (opinion piece) writers. It includes very specific guidelines on what the editors of these publications are looking for, how they prefer to be contacted (fax or email), and their contact details.
Our writer is Jennie Phipps, a US-based freelance writer and editor who contributes regularly to publications such as United Press International, MSNBC.com, Editor & Publisher, Free Paper Publisher, MediaInfo.com, Bridge News, Electronic Media, Photo District News, Vocational Biographies Inc., Old-House Journal, Country Journal, Strategic Healthcare Marketing, ICS Learning Systems, CBSMedscape.com, and BankRate.com.
WRITING OP-EDS REQUIRES BEING ON TOP OF THE NEWS
by Jennie Phipps
Living in the United States isn't a prerequisite for selling your opinion to its national and major regional newspapers.
It helps to have strong ideas and expertise is a good thing to offer as well, but you can be successful if you're a good researcher, know how to write tight and quickly and are sufficiently aware of US news to target topics where a foreign perspective will be a plus.
While small newspapers usually don't pay anything for opinion submissions, larger publications offer an honorarium that may go as high as $1,000 US -- not bad money for an essay that is rarely longer than 700 words.
Here are some other things to consider:
1. Pinpoint your market. The US is a big country with a lot of diversity.Having a little geographic knowledge will help you target topics toward the most likely publication. For instance, The New York Times is on the densely populated East Coast, while the Los Angeles Times is in California near Hollywood and Silicon Valley, where computer innovators hold sway. Atlanta while a big city, is also an agricultural capital.
2. Don't bother to query. Virtually every editor wants to see the finished product first. With few exceptions, if you've never written for a publication before, send in the completed essay.
3. Write well. A newspaper op-ed is not really a conventional essay. The structure is more rigid, the opinion expressed more narrow and the length shorter -- varying from 400 to 750 words. Nobody wants more. Start with a catchy lead paragraph that is about 30 words. Use the second 35 or 40-word paragraph to explain further what you said in the first graph. The third graph is the nut graph -- that's the place where you make your point, preferably in a sentence or two. Use the next half-dozen or so paragraphs to support your point -- logically and with verifiable statistical information and quotes from experts. Go easy on the I word, and banish the phrase "I think" altogether. Throw in humor whenever possible. Wrap it all up with a concluding graph or two that clearly ties back to the nut graph. And you're done.
4. Be timely. Bob Berger, editor of the op-ed page at the Los Angeles Times, gets more than 100 submissions every day. When news breaks, his fax and email go into overdrive. Within 15 minutes after CNN has the story, Berger has a half-dozen relevant submissions sitting on his desk. The picture is similar at the Chicago Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Washington Post.
5. Sail it over the transom. If you want to enter the fray, figure out which delivery method works best at your target newspaper. Berger's assistant gives him paper copies of everything, so he's more likely to see a fax before he does an email, since she has to print out the email. The same is true at the Chicago Tribune. Marcia Lythcott, opinion page editor, only takes the time to read email submissions three times a week, her secretary says, but she peruses fax submissions daily. It's exactly the opposite at the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and USA Today, where email holds sway.
6. Let them know you're a pro. Op-ed pages usually don't pay people who are spokespeople for special interests. Say upfront that you're a free-lance
writer, otherwise you may be working for free. Don't expect a contract and do expect that your piece will be on the paper's web site and in its archive. On the other hand, with a little revising and retooling, your piece will be fresh fodder the next time a similar subject comes up at a non-competing newspaper.
6. Work to build relationships. This may not be easy, but if you want to succeed, it's probably critical. There's inherent arrogance in editorial page editing. After all, editorial page editors' whole lives revolve around telling other people what to do. It's also probably true that editorial page editors are busy, and it's certainly true that they're inundated with submissions. You'll have more success getting answers and getting on a first-name basis, if you work through their assistants and secretaries. In some places, that's the person who really makes the decisions anyway.
7. Make yourself a resource. Once you've established contact and a successful track record, make it clear that you'll be available if the editor or (more likely) his assistant wants to call and commission a piece. That's the way editorial page editors often prefer to work and would do so more frequently if it were convenient. When the first call comes, that's the time to renegotiate the pay. Virtually every editor pays significantly better for pieces that they commission.
Here, venue by venue, are some of the more lucrative and prestigious national newspapers.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution (www.accessatlanta.com).
Boston Globe (www.boston.com).
Chicago Tribune (www.chicagotribune.com).
Christian Science Monitor (www.csmonitor.com).
Intellectual Capital (www.intellectualcapital.com).
Los Angeles Times (www.latimes.com).
The New York Times (www.nytimes.com).
The Wall Street Journal (www.wsj.com).
The Washington Post (www.washpost.com).
Jennie L. Phipps
Independent writer & editor
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