Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Get Inside the Minds of Editors

Marjorie Pritchard: op-ed page editor, The Boston Globe
Martha Burk, op-ed writer, editor of Money section in Ms. Magazine, founder of NCWO
Denise Zeck: ED of American Forum and the National Women's Editorial Forum

Submit op-ed pieces. Denise is more than happy to help edit them.

Martha: I am a national political writer, but nothing is automatic. It is hard to say whether I'm an advocate first or a writer first at this stage in my life. I certainly started as an advocate. I sorta started at the top because I didn't know any better. This is an important message for everyone in the room: I moved to DC and went to a journalism class at George Washington University. Sarah McClinton, a vertan White House journalist and Barbara Reynolds, founding editor of USA Today spoke. Next day, I called Barbara Reynolds and told her I thought she was a person I needed to know. She invited me for lunch. She was on deadline that day and her editor was unhappy with what she had written and wouldn't let her go to lunch until she got it how he wanted it. I sat for 1.5 hours while she continued working on her article. Gayle Evans, first female VP of CNN had a rule: help another woman everyday.

Barbara said when you get an idea, send it in to the op-ed editor and he'll take a look at it. I sent him 400 words and it got in the paper the next day. I didn't know you don't start at the USA Today and I just did. The politics of the paper changed a few years later and they stopped accepting op-ed pieces from me. Since then, I've written for most major newspapers in the country. It still isn't easy for me because it is still hard for them to make space.

My biggest problem with major newspapers is that you can't afford to allow them to sit on something for 10 days so they can have an exclusive, so you just don't send it to them. Washington Post said a few years ago they don't run female opinion pieces because only men submit. That's true because we got sick of rejection and having our writing be stifled as it's waiting for an exclusive placement.

You reach a lot of people with smaller circulation newspapers. There are feminist editors out there even in the smallest places. That's sort of the back and forth of what I do. I do write for the Huffington Post. I know there's a lot of controversy about free media and not being paid. I do get some speaking engagements out of it and my pieces there get circulated around the net.

Marjorie: I get 700 submissions a week and I read them all. I don't read to the end if I'm not interested. I have space for 13 freelance pieces a week because we stopped subscribing to syndicated columnists. We figured you can read those columnists in a lot of other outlets.

You have to study the media outlet you're submitting to. For example, Boston Globe has already run 2 pieces on octomom and we're probably not going to run a third.

Denise: WaPo has 17 regular op-ed contributors and I don't think they have space for any freelance pieces.

Martha: You're going to find a lot of page editors who are either lazy or overwhelmed.

Denise: We send out like a syndicate and smaller media outlets pick up our op-ed's. Op-ed pages are supposed to be a forum for dialogue.

Marjorie: If you have the same authors up there every week you aren't getting new opinions to the reader and that's a great disservice to the reader, who is the only person I care about.

Denise: George Will is the number one syndicated columnist. Not a lot of women are in the top 50.

Martha: If you look at some of the folks who are on the other pages, there seems to be either one or two women's slots and that's it.

Marjorie: I don't have slots for anything. I care whether we've covered it before and whether it is timely. Right now we have 4 spaces a day available. If I look at the op-ed page, it has a foreign piece, a national piece, a local piece, and a slice of life piece.

Denise: Think in advance about what discussions have already happened at a paper and what bills are about to be passed - getting an op-ed into the paper on the day a bill is passed.

Marjorie: When I first started out, op-ed pieces were 750-800 words, now they're at most 700 words.

Denise: Smaller places like 500 word pieces and a photograph with the piece.

Marjorie: A lot of newspapers are getting rid of their op-ed pages completely. People do trust the Boston Globe, but what sets newspapers apart from other competitors is opinion. When you have a lively opinion page, people will flock to you. Other newspapers are going very local with their freelance pieces. It depends on the market and what the op-ed editor wants to do.

audience question: Do you pay for opinion pieces?
We pay for everything we put in the paper except from elected officials. It's only $200, but at least it's something.

audience: How do you understand the demographics of a small paper?
Denise: You don't necessarily need to know the demographics of a small paper because they have a hole to fill. Just send it to us and we'll distribute it. You can send it to a lot of smaller papers at the same time. They're not going to pay, but you can get your voice out there.

Marjorie: A good op-ed page goes against the grain of who your demographics are. That's what makes thought-provoking pieces.

Martha: What subject line should people use?

Marjorie: Write that it's an op-ed piece in the subject line. "Op-ed on WAM." Or even "Time Sensitive" (and make sure it actually is time sensitive) so that if I can't use it you can submit it elsewhere.

Denise: Some women's issues can't get past spam filter. E.g. sex education.

audience: Should you send a pitch or the full piece?
Marjorie: I prefer getting the full piece.

audience: Cynthia from PBS. I'd like to get the head of the ICC to write a piece, but how do we get it placed if you're saying not to start with a pitch?

Martha: That's an exception. That would be a credible author who will be seriously considered.

Marjorie: There aren't a lot of women writing on foreign policy. [Editor's note: WILPFers listen up! We have the expertise! Let's get to writing!] There are a lot of military issues that are in the news.

Denise: The space is enormous right now for international pieces.

Marjorie: We are in two wars and everyone should be interested in what you have to say about those wars.

Denise: On foreign policy issues, they're not necessarily looking for a local angle.

audience member: The women in Afghanistan are organized and risking their lives for peace. They created an action for International Women's Day and wore blue scarves and stood in solidarity for an hour in 7 provinces.

Denise: Editors want to hear from young people. You have to think mutlimedia: audio commentary can be picked up by radio stations. Young people, please write.

audience: I'm a professor and study 19th century media and have been trained in writing in a way that isn't readable. What makes a piece more engaging?

Marjorie: It's how you write it. You can take things you're an expert in, but just bring it up to the present.

Denise: Have friends who aren't academics read it.

Martha: I often ask myself how to pep this up a little bit?

Marjorie: Make sure you grab the reader right away. You have to make it as interesting as possible.

Denise: The key question is answering "so what, why should I care?"

Marjorie: You have to include facts in your piece, but you not spend the entire piece on numbers.

Denise: Many times people don't research enough to peg their opinion pieces to the current news. Sometimes you're breaking state news on the op-ed page because papers don't cover the state legislature as much.

Martha: If you do a bit of work, you can anticipate things that are coming up. For example, unemployment figures come out every month. You can write about women losing jobs and slug in the numbers the day they come out.

Denise: Op-ed can lead to a lot of other media. A lot of senior producers for primetime shows are women. We had Hardball, Charlie Rose, and Talk of the Nation. They get ideas on who to bring on the shows by reading the op-ed pages.

Women need to get hooked on writing op-ed pieces. Women should be thinking about weighing in on public policy issues. Spanish language media is really hungry for translated pieces.

audience: Women's Media Center accepts submissions and pays for content on their website.

audience: If the newspapers aren't covering your subject (e.g. US-Latin American relations), how do you get a timely hook into the op-ed pages?

Marjorie: Call your local newspaper and ask to attend an editorial board meeting to lay out why they should cover the story.


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