The Op-Ed Takes Some Sharp New Directions

In 1921, Herbert Bayard Swope, the editor of The New York Evening World, created the first-ever page in a newspaper that would be devoted strictly to opinions. Previously that page, appearing opposite editorials, ran book reviews, updates on high society and, yes, obituaries.

“It occurred to me that nothing is more interesting than opinion when opinion is interesting,” Swope wrote. So he “decided to print opinions, ignoring facts.”

Talk about starting something big. Today, the industrial opinion complex is exploding, with opinions delivered daily via newspapers, magazines, blogs and websites.

Still, the op-ed has undergone a major makeover in the 96 years since, with certain trends unfolding. As someone who has teamed up with clients to develop op-eds over 20-plus years, I’ve noticed that opinion pieces have taken three decidedly new directions. Herewith, some advice:

1. Do your homework. That edict from Mr. Swope about “ignoring facts?” Forget it. Your average op-ed today is more intensively reported and more rigorously researched, than ever before. And arguably no research is more highly regarded than original research, ideally presented as an exclusive. Opinion alone is no longer enough, so no authors merely pontificating from Mount Olympus need apply. Indeed, opinion pieces in some instances resemble reportage. For any opinion piece to be regarded as reliable, much less persuasive, it must be assembled from facts.

2. Download some data. No, this is a different proposition from simply doing research. With algorithms and predictive analytics ever available, everything in the universe is suddenly regarded as quantifiable. The mantra is metrics. Sometime soon I fully expect someone to claim that top-tier op-eds last year contained, say, 37% more data than in the previous year.

3. Get personal. Nothing is more convincing than first-person testimony, a this-happened-to-me scenario. Back in 2005, John Whitehead, former chairman of Goldman Sachs, took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal to accuse New York attorney general Elliot Spitzer of threatening him by phone. Memorable. Shortly after, a former Goldman broker came out in The New York Times to chronicle the culture of greed he perceived that motivated him to quit the firm. Equally unforgettable.

While we’re at it, one last tip here: aim for perfect. Standards for top-tier opinion pieces are more exacting than ever. The op-ed you submit for consideration should be as close as possible as good to go, or else nobody will even give it a second look. On the whole, editors at important national outlets accept pieces that require only minimal editing. A good rule of thumb is to shoot for love at first sight.

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