By dropping the phrase ‘op-ed,’ The New York Times strikes a blow for clarity

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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Did David Brooks’ former superiors know about his conflicts of interest?

The New York Times posted David Brooks’ Friday column last night without any suggestion that something was amiss. Meanwhile, Paul Farhi’s report in The Washington Post raises the possibility that Brooks had let his superiors know he was drawing a salary from Weave, the civic-engagement project he’s affiliated with at the Aspen Institute, but that the new regime, led by opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury, may have been unaware:

People at the Times said Brooks informed at least some of his previous bosses about the details of the Weave project. But last summer saw the departure of the Times’s top editorial-page editors, and Brooks’s current editors were unaware of the arrangement. Officially, the Times has declined to say whether it knew about Brooks’s outside employment.

Needless to say, it would be interesting to go back and see if he wrote any columns about Facebook and other organizations with which he had a financial relationship while James Bennet was the editorial-page editor. Bennet might have known, but those ties weren’t disclosed to readers. Which is, after all, what really matters.

Earlier:

The New York Times has a David Brooks problem

David Brooks. Photo (cc) 2011 by the Miller Center.

The New York Times’ David Brooks problem has ratcheted up from “uh, oh” to “holy cow.”

Craig Silverman and Ryan Mac of BuzzFeed News reported on Wednesday that Brooks, a prominent Times columnist, is getting paid for his work at Weave, a civic-engagement project that’s part of the Aspen Institute. Among Weave’s funders is Facebook.

A week earlier, BuzzFeed reported that Brooks had written a post on Facebook’s blog singing the praises of Facebook Groups without letting his editors at the Times know about it. That was bad enough. But now that there’s money involved, the Times is going to have to take action.

It’s unclear whether the Times knows he’s been getting a second salary. If they do, then perhaps Brooks can avoid being disciplined. But whether they know or not, what about the rest of us? Every time Brooks writes about an organization in which he has a financial stake, that needs to be appended to the bottom of his column. Needless to say, the problem with that is it would look ridiculous. I’m sure the Times doesn’t want to run a piece by one of its own staff columnists that reveals he’s in the tank to someone else.

As someone who has worked in opinion journalism for many years, and who teaches it, I feel like I have a stake in calling out Brooks’ misbehavior. I stress to my students repeatedly that we have the same ethical obligations as straight-news reporters. We don’t make political contributions. We don’t put signs on our lawns. And we maintain our independence.

One of the four tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is to “act independently.” The code explains further: “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.” Brooks’ conflict seems avoidable enough, but at the very least he should have disclosed it.

A summary of Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s “The Elements of Journalism” has this to say about independence and opinion journalism:

Journalistic independence, write Kovach and Rosenstiel, is not neutrality. While editorialists and commentators are not neutral, the source of their credibility is still their accuracy, intellectual fairness and ability to inform — not their devotion to a certain group or outcome. In our independence, however, journalists must avoid straying into arrogance, elitism, isolation or nihilism.

I assume the Times is going to take this seriously. It may be bad for Brooks that the Times’ opinion editor, Kathleen Kingsbury, is just a few weeks into her job and may want to send a message to the rest of her staff.

But I’m troubled by a statement BuzzFeed got from Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy. Silverman and Mac write: “Murphy said other Times columnists have roles outside the paper. When asked for an example, she cited Paul Krugman, who was a professor of economics at Princeton and is currently a distinguished professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.”

Seriously? Krugman is not a columnist who scored an academic gig. He’s a professor who was so highly regarded that the Times hired him as a columnist. The Times is his second job (or was; he seems to be semi-retired now), just as the Aspen Institute is Brooks’ second. And everyone knows about Krugman’s academic background. It was hardly a secret when he won the Nobel Prize in Economics.

I hope this can be resolved. Brooks is reviled in many circles, but I value his work. He often shows himself to be out of touch, and he can drive me crazy sometimes. But at his best he’s very good, and I’d hate to see him go, or set up a Substack.

It will be interesting to see what happens when Brooks and Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart kick the week’s news around on the “PBS NewsHour” tomorrow evening. Brooks should address it.

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Kathleen Kingsbury: Endorsing two candidates confused Times readers

Kathleen Kingsbury. Photo via The New York Times.

The Nieman Journalism Lab’s Sarah Scire last week spoke with The New York Times’ recently named opinion editor, Kathleen Kingsbury. It’s an interesting conversation that defies easy summary, but I was struck that Kingsbury now says she and the Times “ended up confusing people” when they endorsed two presidential candidates, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, in last year’s Democratic primaries.

More than anything, I think Kingsbury represents steady leadership after the tumultuous James Bennet era, often caricatured as coming to an abrupt end over the infamous op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton but that was in fact — as Scire points out — punctuated by numerous lapses in judgment. Kingsbury demonstrated that steadiness last week when she killed a piece by columnist Bret Stephens. If the commentary, an n-word-filled defense of Don McNeil, had run, critics would be wondering if Kingsbury were up to the position. (Stephens’ point, such as it was, is that it ought to be considered acceptable to quote others using the n-word as long as there was no racist intent.)

I was also interested to see that Kingsbury and publisher A.G. Sulzberger “tend to talk daily.” The rule of thumb for good publishers is that they should stay out of the newsroom but that involvement in the opinion section is appropriate. John and Linda Henry are certainly involved in The Boston Globe’s opinion operation. On the other hand, Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos is known to be as hands-off with opinion as he is with news coverage. Sulzberger is entitled to have his say, but maybe he ought to back off and let Kingsbury do her job.

I had a long interview with Kingsbury several years ago, when she was the Globe’s managing editor for digital. She struck me then as capable and creative. The Times’ gain was definitely the Globe’s loss.

Correction: Kingsbury objected to my original characterization that she had said the Times made a mistake by not endorsing just one of the Democratic candidates. “I still believe choosing the two candidates was the right thing to do,” she says. I’ve updated this post to reflect that.

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Kathleen Kingsbury named opinion editor at The New York Times

Some pretty big news from The New York Times: Kathleen Kingsbury will become the new opinion editor, a position she’d been filling on an interim basis ever since James Bennet was pushed out for running a terrible op-ed that he later admitted he hadn’t read. From publisher A.G. Sulzberger’s announcement:

For those who have worked alongside Kathleen, this announcement will come as little surprise. She’s a natural leader, fearless journalist and creative innovator. She has a wide-ranging intellect, with a passion for exploring the ideas and arguments shaping the world today. A former foreign correspondent, business reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer herself, Kathleen is known in the department for championing her colleagues and elevating their work.

Kingsbury is smart and accomplished, having won a 2015 Pulitzer for editorial writing when she was with The Boston Globe.

A few thoughts on the 2016 Pulitzers

Congratulations to my former Beat the Press colleague Farah Stockman and to Jessica Rinaldi, both of whom won Pulitzer Prizes earlier today for their work for the Boston Globe.

Rinaldi won the Feature Photography award for her photo series of Strider Wolf, a boy in rural Maine trying to overcome a harrowingly dysfunctional upbringing. Amazingly, Rinaldi was also one of two runners-up in the same category for her photos of a Massachusetts drug addict caught up in the opioid epidemic.

Stockman, who is now a reporter with the New York Times, won in Commentary for a series on the legacy of Boston’s school-desegregation turmoil in the 1970s and ’80s. Stockman’s award is the third fourth Pulitzer recognition in a row for the Globe‘s editorial pages: last year Katie Kingsbury won for editorials that shed light on the harsh world of restaurant work; in 2014 Dante Ramos was a runner-up for writing about how to revive Boston’s less-than-vibrant nightlife; and in 2013 Juliette Kayyem was a finalist in Commentary.

The Globe covers its Pulitzer wins here.

Among the other Pulitzer winners, I was especially pleased to see the Washington Post win the National Reporting award for its deep investigation of fatal shootings of civilians by police. Not only is it an important topic, but it was based on a meticulously detailed database that the Post built in-house.

Last October, FBI director James Comey lamented that the Post and the Guardian, which assembled a similar database, had better data on police-involved shootings than law-enforcement agencies. “It is unacceptable that the Washington Post and the Guardian newspaper from the UK are becoming the lead source of information about violent encounters between police and civilians,” Comey said. “That is not good for anybody.”

The Post‘s coverage of its Pulitzer victory is here.

The Globe drags its opinion pages into the 21st century

Of all the hoary traditions of 20th-century newspapering, few seem quite so hoary as the editorial and op-ed pages. Mixing editorials (unsigned because they represent the institutional views of the newspaper), cartoons, columns by staff members and outside contributors, and letters from readers, the opinion pages often seem anachronistic in the digital age — a bit too formal, more than a bit too predictable and way too slow off the mark.

Starting today, The Boston Globe is attempting to bring that nearly half-century-old construct up to date. No longer is the left-hand page labeled “Editorial” and the right “Opinion.” Instead, both pages are unified under “Opinion.” Content — some of it new, some familiar — is free-floating.

Much of it is what you’d expect: a pro-Olympics editorial (sigh) as well as staff columns by Joan Vennochi and Dante Ramos. Some is new: a roundup of opinion from elsewhere called “What They’re Saying,” a very short take by staff columnist Joanna Weiss on a much-delayed skate park, and an amalgamation of letters, tweets and online comments rebranded as “Inbox.” (The changes are outlined here.)

“You could look at this as a meal where you want snackable content and meatier content and the occasional dessert,” says interim editorial-page editor Ellen Clegg. Some of the ideas, she adds, were developed by experimenting with the opinion content of Capital, the Globe’s Friday political section.

Globe Opinion pages

Regular columns have been cut from 700 to 600 words. But op-ed-page editor Marjorie Pritchard says that the new Opinion section will also be more flexible, with pieces running from 400 to 1,200 or more words. (Coincidentally, this article in Digiday, in which Kevin Delaney of Quartz calls for the demise of the standard 800-word article, is the talk of Twitter this week.)

The Globe’s opinion operation has been on a roll under Clegg and her predecessor, Peter Canellos (now executive editor of Politico), with Kathleen Kingsbury winning a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing last month and Ramos being named a finalist in 2014. But the look and feel of the pages haven’t changed much since the 1970s.

And then there’s the whole matter of print in the digital age. Globe editor Brian McGrory recently told his staff that a print-first mentality still prevails, writing that “too many of us — editors, reporters, photographers, graphic artists — think of just print too often.”

McGrory does not run the opinion pages, as both he and Clegg report directly to publisher John Henry. But the redesigned print section, with its careful attention to art and graphics, has the look and feel of a print-first play. In fact, Clegg is pursuing a two-track strategy — an improved but tightly curated print section and a larger online Opinion site. “Brian as usual captured it beautifully,” Clegg says. “I think that captured the ethos of where we’re all going, where we’re all headed.”

For some time now Clegg herself has been writing an online-only “Morning Opinion Digest” with summaries and links to provocative content elsewhere. Opinion pieces often run online before they appear in print. And some pieces are Web exclusives, such as this commentary by editorial writer Marcela García on the cultural stereotypes surrounding Cinco de Mayo.

Says Pritchard: “We’ve run a lot of online exclusives in the past, and we’re trying to beef that up.” Clegg adds that “we certainly don’t want to shortchange the print reader, but we want to enhance the digital experience. There has to be a balance.”

It was a half-century ago that The New York Times developed the modern op-ed page. Times editorial board member John Oakes, the Ochs-Sulzberger family member who was largely responsible for the idea, once called it “one of the great newspaper innovations of the century,” according to this Jack Shafer piece.

By contrast, the Globe’s new Opinion section should be seen as a modest improvement. But at a time when newspapers, both in print and online, are fighting to maintain their relevance, the Globe deserves credit for trying something new.

Also posted at WGBHNews.org.

Globe’s Pulitzer-winning editorials target income inequality

Over the past few years The Boston Globe has been quietly nurturing some talented editorial writers. Last year, Dante Ramos — now an op-ed columnist — was a Pulitzer finalist for a series of editorials on revitalizing Boston’s night life. On Monday, Kathleen Kingsbury won a Pulitzer that is especially timely given rising concerns over income inequality: eight editorials on the harsh realities of restaurant work, particularly in the fast-food industry.

Like Ramos, Kingsbury has moved on — she’s now the editor of the Sunday Ideas section. Still, Kingsbury and Ramos have showed that there’s life in those unsigned voice-of-the-institution editorials, derided by some critics (including me on occasion) as obsolete.

The Globe came close in two other Pulitzer categories, including the prestigious public service award. Its “Shadow Campus” series on shamefully inadequate and dangerous housing for the city’s thousands of college students was a finalist, coming in behind the surprise winner of the 2015 awards: the smallish Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina, which shone a light on the state’s high death rate from domestic abuse. The Globe last won the public service award in 2003, for its reporting on the sexual-abuse scandal within the Catholic Church.

In addition, the Globe’s Sarah Schweitzer was a finalist in the feature-writing category for her story on a scientist’s quest to save a rare North Atlantic right whale. I thought it was notable that the Pulitzer judges specifically cited the article’s “disciplined use of multimedia,” an acknowledgment that the full experience is available only online.

Finally, I can’t avoid noting that restaurant workers are not the only people facing harsh realities. Kevin Roderick of LA Observed reports that Rob Kuznia, who shared a Pulitzer on Monday for his work with the Daily Breeze of Torrance, California, had left the paper a while ago to take a job in public relations.

“I spoke with him this afternoon,” Roderick writes, “and he admitted to a twinge of regret at no longer being a journalist, but he said it was too difficult to make ends meet on his newspaper salary while renting in the LA area.”

Also online at WGBHNews.org.