Elegy for Op-EdRoundup
tags: New York Times, media, newspapers, journalism
MICHAEL J. SOCOLOW is director of the McGillicuddy Humanities Center at the University of Maine, where he teaches in the Department of Communication and Journalism.
When you're a kid, you love the comics. A few years later, you read the sports or the style section first. As you age and mature, browsing the "A" section every morning becomes routine, as it becomes more pressing to learn the vital news that orients the world. Soon thereafter, reading favorite columnists on the op-ed page becomes habitual. Then, once you've ripened to a certain age and mortality's horizon draws near, you check the obituaries first. They're the only newspaper stories that wrap up neatly: All obits have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
I found myself pondering the classic progression in newspaper readership after I learned The New York Times would be discontinuing my favorite newspaper feature: the op-ed. Henceforth, opinion pieces submitted by outsiders will be known as "guest essays." I heard of its demise shortly before it became public, because I once researched and published a brief history of the feature, and the Times's editorial page editor, Kathleen Kingsbury, was kind enough to notify me of its demise. Employees at the Times had used my scholarship for historical context as they deliberated the feature's future.
So now the story of op-ed has a beginning, a middle, and an end. But what follows isn't an obituary, because I'd rather celebrate the promise of this idealistic newspaper feature by reconsidering its hopeful origins rather than recount what it actually became. For the op-ed page that's being dropped by the Times after 50 years isn't the op-ed page as originally conceived.
I've always loved, and been fascinated by, the op-ed as a genre. Though I study other aspects of media history, years ago—when I discovered nobody had ever written a history of op-eds—I decided to research its origins as a side project. Over several years I found time to "collect string," as they say in journalism. I made occasional side trips to archives, where I took photos of documents or hastily transcribed old memos, and on the web I would bookmark interviews and relevant digital sources.
The results were published in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly in 2010. My article traced the origins of The New York Times's op-ed page, which was more of an innovation than an invention; it resolved some debates about the feature's origins by crediting John B. Oakes, the legendary Times editorial page editor, who first envisioned the page approximately 15 years before it came into existence in 1970.
Oakes's original plan was not the op-ed page to which we've grown accustomed. It had no house columnists. He proposed four central elements: a daily poem, provocative but thoughtful avant-garde artwork (distinct from traditional editorial cartooning), excerpts from overlooked speeches and legislation, and essays contributed by outsiders. Regular employees of the New York Times Company would be excluded from Oakes's page. This was Oakes's primary innovation, for the old New York World had an op-ed page (called "Op. Ed."), but it was populated by famous house columnists such as Alexander Woollcott, Franklin P. Adams, and Heywood Broun. By curating space reserved only for outsiders, and cultivating new modes of communication and composition unavailable elsewhere in the Times, the newspaper's corporate distance from the op-ed page would be obvious—and reconfirmed daily.