MEDIA ROUNDUP: Op-eds remain a coveted voice for news analysis

Those seeking issues analysis still value the op-ed page highly. But as cable TV, talk radio, and the web create more outlets for sharing views, pitching this section has become more challenging.

Those seeking issues analysis still value the op-ed page highly. But as cable TV, talk radio, and the web create more outlets for sharing views, pitching this section has become more challenging.

With the rise of the internet, talk radio, and 24-hour cable programming, there is no shortage of outlets for news, nor is there a dearth of subjective analysis of that coverage. Yet despite the myriad pundits on radio and TV offering their takes on everything from the economy to Baghdad, the opinion and editorial pages of newspapers remain the most high-profile places for issues of the day to be debated and interpreted. "Op-ed pieces have got third-party credibility to them," says Alan Marcus, founder of The Marcus Group, "whereas talking heads are just that - a sound bite for the masses. They are effective, but they serve a different purpose than editorials and op-eds. A New York Times editorial carries more weight than any talking head." Increasing relevance It can even be argued that the proliferation of on-air pundits has made op-ed pages more important as readers and viewers - as well as the "experts" themselves - gravitate toward sources they trust to sort through the analysis clutter. "A lot of influencers read those columns," notes Ernest Gibble, VP with MS&L's Chicago office. "One of the best ways to get your views to a congressman is to have an op-ed piece in the newspapers in his or her district." Most newspapers realize the important dual role op-ed pages have as representing both the voice of the local community and the combined conscious of the nation. As a consequence, many of the best writers in journalism, such as The New York Times' Maureen Dowd, can be found penning editorials full-time. At many outlets, the editorial page director is considered the best steppingstone to the editor-in-chief job. "The editorial page is a sacrosanct page," notes Peter Boyle, senior associate with Washington, DC-based Widmeyer Communications. "It's probably the only section of the newspaper to not diminish in size in recent years." But the rise of the notion of news analysis as entertainment has had its impact on print outlets. "When we go to an op-ed editor, they'll say you need to take a strong opinion, and it needs to be one way or the other," says Boyle. "That's where you've seen the effect of talk radio and the 30-second sound bite. You need to get to your opinion faster and quicker. It needs to be right there at the beginning because studies have shown that not all of an op-ed piece will get read. A lot of people just read the first and last paragraphs." Unlike other newspaper sections - where objectivity is at least the publicly declared goal - opinion and editorial pages often have a distinct ideological slant. For the most part, op-ed pieces in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, and the New York Post are generally conservative, while outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, New York Daily News, and The New York Times are considered more progressive. But William Murray, SVP with the public affairs practice at the MWW Group, stresses that even with an outlet with a decided political leaning, you can never guarantee what stance an editorial board will take on any given issue. The debate over Iraq gives clear evidence of that. A recent LA Times article noted that during the period leading up to military action, traditionally conservative papers such as the Orange County Register (CA) and Peoria Journal Star (IL) were skeptical of US action without more international support. On the other hand, normally progressive outlets such as The Washington Post were in favor of going to war. Swaying opinion "You pretty well know their editorial leaning going in, but you look for the reason that would move them toward your position," Murray says. "One such example is tort reform. If you go in with just tort reform you may lose, but if you pitch it only in terms of the rising costs of medical malpractice, you may get a better response." The good news for PR professionals is that most editorial boards - or in the case of smaller regional outlets, a single op-ed page editor - can be pitched, although Murray notes, "It is often fairly bare bones. You just call up a member of the editorial board with an idea, and tell them why you want your people to come in. While you can do the full argument over the phone, Murray adds, "the preference is to get you, your client, or your spokesperson in there to have a face-to-face with the editorial board so they can see the passion in your face." Most PR people prefer editorials without bylines, but stress that columns by either syndicated writers or guest editorialists carry almost as much weight. Gail Gardner, account supervisor with St. Louis-based Adamson Public Relations, says most clients jump at the chance to pen an opinion piece. "The op-ed page gives them a chance to put a lot of substance in, to get their full message in," she says. "We might be pitching the same angle to business or news editors offering an executive as a source, but there, you're probably only going to get in a few quotes." But the success you can have in getting your client somewhere on the op-ed pages depends on a lot of factors, including the size and location of the media outlet. "Certainly at the big-name papers, it feels like a closed shop, particularly The New York Times," says David Lerner of New York-based Riptide Communications. "If you're not the head of the Harvard School of Government, The Brookings Institution, or a former politician, it can be hard. We spend more of our time pitching the columnists to write about our issues than we do trying to send editorials to the editorial page editor." But Lerner says you can have better success in more regional outlets, especially if you can somehow get your client's editorial on a syndication service. "The Progressive Media Service, run by The Progressive, has a relationship with Knight-Ridder and Scripps-Howard," he adds. "So that can be a good strategy to get editorial pieces in papers like The Miami Herald and Kansas City Star." Other avenues for sharing views Even if you can't get your client's viewpoint covered either by the newspapers' own editorials or bylined opinion pieces, Widmeyer Communications VP David Frank says you can still influence readers through letters to the editor. Noting that surveys have shown that letters to the editor remain one of the most read sections of any newspaper, Frank says, "It's an excellent opportunity for a client. If something appears that you or your client thinks is flat-out wrong, you have an opportunity to craft a cogent response." But as with everything, a fast turnaround on letters is key. Frank says The New York Times and other newspapers have a policy that all letters must be published within seven days of the original article, adding, "That ends up working out since it ensures the letters are timely enough to be part of the debate." ----- Where to go Newspapers: The New York Times; The Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Chicago Tribune; The Wall Street Journal; New York Post; The Boston Globe; Newsday; San Francisco Chronicle; USA Today; Christian Science Monitor Magazines: The Progressive; New Republic; The Nation; The Weekly Standard; Time; Newsweek Television: CNN; CNBC; CNNfn; Fox News Channel; MSNBC

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