Op-Ed Takes Wing

Op-Ed Takes Wing

THE SOURCE: “A Profitable Public Sphere: The Creation of the New York Times Op-Ed Page” by Michael J. Socolow, in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Summer 2010.

Read Time:
2m 40sec

In the body politic’s circulation system, in which opinion and analysis are the blood that gives life to policymaking, the New York Times op-ed page is the heart. What is printed there courses through blogs, magazines, and cable TV, shaping how Americans understand the news. But just a half-century ago, the paper of record had no such page. (Other papers, including The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, at various times had had pages they called “op-ed,” but unlike the op-ed pages we know today, these had relied entirely on staff writers for their content.) Across from the Times’ editorials was a different popular section—the obituaries.

A New York Times editorial writer, John B. Oakes, began a campaign to establish an op-ed page in the early 1960s following an incident in which he received a piece of commentary from a Suez Canal Company representative about the Egyptian government’s seizure of the canal. But the paper had no space for an essay by an outside source. Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger was not keen on Oakes’s idea, not wanting to mess with the popular, revenue-generating obituaries page. Others felt that the op-ed page would “encroach on the interpretative analysis then appearing in the news pages,” and were doubtful that “outside contributions would be of sufficient quality.”
But Oakes would not be deterred. “The function of newspapers and newspapermen,” he said, was to “interpret [the] age to the general public.” Newspapers had the same responsibility to their readers that colleges had to their students: to make them think. (Oakes, a bit of an idealist, was opposed to devoting any of the page’s space to advertisements.)
Oakes’s plans got a boost when, in 1966, TheNew York Herald Tribune—which occasionally published outside contributions of the sort Oakes envisioned—folded. The Tribune had provided a conservative counterweight to the Times’ more liberal outlook, and some on the Times staff felt, as assistant managing editor Harrison Salisbury put it, that the newspaper must commit to “providing a platform for responsible conservative opinion.”
Sulzberger soon convened a study group to flesh out Oakes’s idea. Would the page need its own editor and staff? Would they use syndicated material? Would there be political cartoons? How would advertising fit in? Over the next two years, the group continued to tweak the concept, but it wasn’t until the fall of 1969, when Sulzberger decided to raise the newsstand price from 10 to 15 cents, that he put the plan in motion, hoping that the new feature would preserve readership despite the higher cost. He appointed Salisbury as editor and, in July, publicly announced the page’s impending arrival.
The effort was a quick success, and the paper never looked back. Within its first six months, the new section brought in $112,000 in advertising profits. Lou Silverstein, one of the page’s designers, later remarked that the 1960s were “a bad time for the country but a good time to start the op-ed page.”
Photo credit: Colin Dunn via flickr

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