Putting together the first New York Times op-ed page

I’m all in favor of getting rid of jargon that separates journalists from the public. A few years ago I stopped spelling “lead” as “lede,” and I explain to my students that it was a conscious decision rather than a sign that I’d just fallen off the turnip truck. (Some background from Willamette Week. About leads, not turnips.)

So I was intrigued that The New York Times has decided to use “guest essays” to describe what we’ve come to know as op-ed pieces. Times opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury (and by the way, her title is itself a move away from the archaic: the person holding her job used to be called the “editorial page editor”) explains it this way:

Terms like “Op-Ed” are, by their nature, clubby newspaper jargon; we are striving to be far more inclusive in explaining how and why we do our work. In an era of distrust in the media and confusion over what journalism is, I believe institutions — even ones with a lot of esteemed traditions — better serve their audiences with direct, clear language. We don’t like jargon in our articles; we don’t want it above them, either.

A bit of history: The Times’ op-ed page is only 50 years old, and it literally means “opposite the editorial page.” With print becoming less and less relevant, the term “op-ed” wasn’t just jargony; it was nonsensical as well. The original idea was to expand the editorial page, with its unsigned editorials, cartoons (but not in the Times!), letters and staff-written opinion columns, by adding a second page devoted to contributions from community leaders, elected officials and the like.

Of course, it also led to the hiring of more staff columnists. But the basic idea survived, and calling something a “guest essay” is clear in a way that “op-ed piece” never was. And yes, someone has written a history of the Times’ op-ed page: University of Maine journalism professor Michael Socolow, whose work was summarized by Jack Shafer, then of Slate, in 2010.

Not long after the Times added its op-ed page, many other daily papers followed suit. It will be interesting to see whether any of them similarly follow the Times’ lead in renaming op-eds. (The Boston Globe doesn’t seem to have a label for outside contributions other than the same generic “opinion” that it also slaps on staff-written columns.)

I’m sure many of us will continue to use “op-ed” for a long time to come. But kudos to Kingsbury and the Times for this sensible step.

Update: Socolow has written an elegy to the op-ed page for Reason, lamenting that the original vision for provocative outside commentary has degenerated into groupthink. “Publishing offensive commentary these days is not simply seen as inflammatory in the old sense; many people consider it intentionally malicious, if not felonious,” he writes. “Any denial to the contrary — any defense of the old-fashioned marketplace of ideas, or calls for widening diversity of opinion — is widely viewed as little more than disingenuous subterfuge.”

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