Editorial | An Explanation of the Exponent’s Opinion Section

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stack of newspapers
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Update: The original article was corrected on January 24, 2020 to clarify a quotation. 

This week we’re doing something a little different on our opinion pages. Rather than run editorials or op-eds, we’re going meta — we’re presenting items and essays that expound upon the nature of opinion writing.

First we define some terms and feature some salient quotes from newspapers known for their opinion sections. Then we have two staff perspectives on opinion: one from Editor-in-Chief Liz Spikol, a member of Generation X, and one from Staff Writer Jesse Bernstein, who’s somewhere between a millennial and Generation Z.

As we move forward in 2020, we hope to engage more local writers on these pages, and more subject experts, as well as open our figurative doors to voices that haven’t been heard here before. We hope this section will spur ideas and excitement. To submit an op-ed or share general ideas for our opinion pages, email Liz Spikol at [email protected]

Defining Terms

Opinion writing has been found in the Jewish Exponent since its debut issue in 1887. By 1888, the paper was regularly featuring what we’d now call editorials, and by the turn of the 20th century, the paper was publishing columns. As the years passed and Jewish journalism — and journalism at large — evolved, the paper increasingly incorporated new opinion voices.

Throughout this history, one thing has been consistent, both at the Exponent and at other newspapers: The opinion section has always been distinct from the other sections of the paper, such as news, community or lifestyle. Op-eds serve a different purpose than news articles, and have different standards for sourcing, quotes and even pronouns. To readers, the difference may not always be obvious. Below, some helpful distinctions based on the Exponent’s practices and generally accepted newspaper practice at large:

Editorials — These are short, unsigned opinion pieces that typically take a strong position on timely matters of public interest, whether local or national. The opinion expressed in an editorial has an implicit institutional imprimatur.

Op-eds — These are opinion pieces that often run on the opposite page of the editorials, hence the term op-ed. Written by members of the community, organizational representatives, thought leaders, elected officials and others, op-eds represent the opinions of their authors. Publication of an op-ed does not imply agreement or endorsement by the paper’s staff or owners. Rather, publication of an op-ed suggests that the editorial staff thought it represented an opinion held by a significant number of people in our community, and was therefore worth sharing with readers, or was an unusual point of view shedding new light on the preponderance of opinions held by members of our community.

Columns — Columns run regularly and are popular with readers due to a single writer with a definitive voice and, often, a consistent political orientation. Jewish writers have a long history as columnists, from the late I.F. Stone and Charles Krauthammer to Bari Weiss and Jonah Goldberg. Like op-eds, columns represent the opinion of the author and not the staff or owners of the paper.

Letters to the Editor — Published letters must respond directly to content the paper has published. They are edited lightly for space and clarity but the voice of the letter writer should come through. At the Exponent, when we receive more letters than we have room for, we publish a proportional selection that represents overall reader response. It’s not a precise calculus, but the idea is to provide a window into communal response.

Major News Organizations on Opinion Page Practices

The New York Times basically pioneered the opinion section as we know it today, but plenty of newspapers and publications have their own thoughts about opinion writing. Below, a handful of quotes from a number of key players in Pennsylvania and the U.S.

“The purpose of the Op. Ed. page is neither to reinforce nor to counterbalance The Times’s own editorial position. The objective is rather to afford greater opportunity for exploration of issues and presentation of new insights and new ideas by writers and thinkers who have no institutional connection with The Times and whose views will very frequently be completely divergent from our own.” — The New York Times statement on newly minted
Opinion section, 1970

“We’ve retained the ambition to have a really wide range of voices there, to create an environment of collegial combat among different points of view dealing with consequential questions. The goal is to supply readers with a steady stream of big ideas and provocative arguments, and to entertain them. It should be an exciting experience and often a challenging one.” — James Bennett, current New York Times editorial page editor, 2017

“The world today is awash in opinion. … No one expects to see just one opinion on a subject. Op-Ed writers express their own points of view, which are not necessarily consistent with those of the paper’s editorials. We publish authors who will challenge, provoke and even affirm the wide range of views held by our readers.” — The Wall Street Journal, opinion.wsj.com

“It’s all about conversations. Readers having conversations with their neighbors. Editorial writers having conversations with their readers. A newspaper having conversations with the community.” — Tom Waseleski, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Inside the Opinion Pages”

“The goal of the opinion pages is to provide a platform for a variety of voices and viewpoints — including our audience and civic leaders. … Readers should feel like they can find pieces that affirm as well as challenge their points of view. The value of this is that it allows readers to gain a deeper and richer understanding of how the news impacts people’s daily lives and to explore viewpoints that they might not have previously considered.” — Erica Palan, deputy opinion editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, in an interview with Tauhid Chappell

“An Op-Ed by a Republican criticizing the Democrats, or vice versa, is easy to come by and not that interesting. But a Democrat who takes issue with his or her party, or a Republican who does that, is more valuable.” — Andrew Rosenthal, former editorial page editor, The New York Times

“We are looking for: Insightful commentary and opinion on the issues of the day; well-written essays, both weighty and whimsical; well-reasoned, expert analysis. We are not looking for: ax-grinding, spleen-venting tirades; direct rebuttals of or responses to news stories or other op-ed articles; self-serving advocacy pieces.” — Chicago Tribune, op-ed submission guidelines

“The separation of news columns from the editorial pages is solemn and complete. This separation is intended to serve the reader, who is entitled to the facts in the news columns and to opinions on the editorial and ‘op-ed’ pages. But nothing in this separation of functions is intended to eliminate from the news columns honest, in-depth reporting, or analysis or commentary when plainly labeled.” — The Washington Post, “Policies and Standards”

Op-ed by Liz Spikol: https://www.jewishexponent.com/2020/01/23/opinion-no-longer-agreeing-to-disagree-a-worrisome-change/

Op-ed by Jesse Bernstein: https://www.jewishexponent.com/2020/01/23/opinion-community-journalism-every-paper-a-portrait/

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