Vanity Fair has a fascinating look behind the scenes at the New York Times’ Opinion section. Staff at the newspaper are apparently “embarrassed” by some of the columnists it has recently hired, including a climate change denier.
Editing opinion pieces is an interesting task. Depending on the editorial sensibilities of your publication, you’ve usually got to accept that you won’t agree with everything you publish, and that ‘hot takes’ (timely, sensationalist opinions) will often get the most attention, even if they’re not always the best. That said, if you can find a really good writer who can do those hot takes well, hang on to them with all your might.
The New York Times isn’t just any publication, of course, and its readers are particularly sensitive to any indication of creeping Trump appeasement.
With all this in mind, here are my guidelines for editing opinion well:
- You’ll never agree with the central argument in everything you publish. What you should focus on is logic. Does it make sense? Does it stand up to the scrutiny or just leap to ridiculous conclusions? I’ve often sent articles back that simply didn’t make sense if you thought about them for more than a minute.
- Does it depend on facts? It sounds ridiculous, but many op-eds I’ve rejected hinge on assumptions that are either out of date or are simply not true. Sometimes this can be down to poor research, no research, or worse - a disingenuous attempt to fleece readers to make a point.
- Equally important is 'does it tell us something new?’ Arguing that Donald Trump is at risk of pushing the USA into authoritarianism is a tired point now - people have read that piece a thousand times, and even if they haven’t, there are lots of places they can read it. What do Trump’s latest actions tell us that moves that narrative forward? That’s what readers want.
- Finally, hiring climate change deniers is a bad look unless you’re Breitbart. That said, if they have useful things to make beyond that, you might want to let them loose once in a while - as long as they’re making logical, factual points, that is. Experience tells me that’s sometimes a tall order!