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Limited space, tough choices.

My turn came to speak. I looked out at a hundred faces, many of them with courteous smiles for their guest speaker. I wondered how fast the smiles would fade when I got into what I planned to say.

The scene was a meeting last fall of public relations practitioners. A radio talk-show guy and I had been invited to talk about something called access. Specifically, we were asked to explain how public relations practitioners might make effective use of "their" access to talk radio and the op-ed pages.

My lot thus became to inform them that there is no such adjective as "their" when referring to op-ed access.

The talk-show guy kicked off with a few war stories and ended with the message that we can all get along if we take time to communicate. I started my remarks with a semi-jest. The surest way to get your material onto the op-ed page, I said, is to contrive to have your client lambasted in an editorial and then demand space for rebuttal.

That drew a chuckle. Then we got down to business as I told them about the vast numbers of potential op-ed pieces that every day chase after a very limited number of potential op-ed slots.

To help illustrate the point, I tried to remember a philosophical approach from my time as an editorial page editor.

It started with the idea that the op-ed page has a primary duty to provide opinions not ordinarily found on the editorial page. Secondarily, it provides a variety of opinions selected as being, in the editors' judgment, useful to readers. Often, of course, these came from a regular line-up of syndicated columnists--columnists with a following that limited the editors' ability to simply dump them to make room for more non-regulars.

Vying for the remaining handful of slots were a cascade of unsolicited articles made ever more voluminous in the 1990s, with the wider use of fax machines and e-mail.

In the shop in question, a rebuttal by a person or institution criticized in an editorial got top priority (this wasn't just an equal-space vehicle; we expected the response to address points raised in the editorial). An article by a public official going behind or beyond the news was usually a good bet. We also looked for scholarly analysis of public policy and the all-too-infrequent pieces in which a regular reader found a fresh and creative voice and dealt authoritatively with an issue worthy of general reader attention.

To get to these gems, lots of less-usable stuff had to be discarded. We routinely canned the ghostwritten white papers churned out by elected officials. Most material from outside the region got extra-tough scrutiny, particularly if it appeared to have been gang-mailed. Letters to the editor that exceeded the 200-word limit did not become op-ed pieces; the letters column was the place for the general readership to discuss any subject it chose. Most assistant professors and all graduate students had an uphill fight for space. Promotional pieces churned out by businesses and, yes, their public relations representatives, were seldom used. And we refused to allow anyone to respond on the op-ed page to something that had appeared in the letters column.

A touchy subject with the public relations practitioners, I knew from private conversations, was their assumption that they are encouraged to use the op-ed page for the redress of perceived grievances in the news columns. This was rarely allowed on my watch. A PR person who felt her client was misrepresented was told to take it up with the appropriate news editor and return to the op-ed page only if the news editor provided no satisfaction. If she returned to editorial row to renew the request, the burden was on her to demonstrate that op-ed publication would right a significant wrong.

Finally, we had a "prime directive" to cover the danger of becoming rule-bound: Never let a rule keep a good piece out of the paper. As I told the public relations people, the impulse was always to find voices that were true and natural rather than voices enhanced through a public relations megaphone. So yes, there is access; no, there is no special access.

Different newspapers have different policies, indeed, different goals. We're not here to make judgments. But in all cases, it's wise to have a designed approach. This issue's symposium offers a look at how some of our NCEW colleagues make the hard choices.

Frank Partsch retired as editorial page editor of the Omaha World Herald in 2001. E-mail fpart74465@aol.com
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Title Annotation:op-ed page space in newspapers
Author:Partsch, Frank
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2003
Words:761
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