Contributed op-ed case study (1): The pitch

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From page of the Globe Ideas section, 20 Dec 2020

Five weeks ago, I hatched the idea to place a prominent contributed opinion piece, or “op-ed,” in the Ideas section of the Boston Sunday Globe, a major daily newspaper. Yesterday, the piece appeared, and I started to hear from people in positions of power.

If you are a writer or thought leader, this is the kind of interaction you are likely seeking. We want our ideas to make a difference. Today and in the posts that follow, I’ll share what happened, in the hopes that this case study may help you as you prepare your own op-eds. I’ll describe the methods I took to pitch, conceive, research, write, and respond to edits on the piece and how the Globe responded at each stage.

Conceiving the idea

I conceived the idea for this piece in late November. These were the elements that came together in my mind:

  1. The presidential election is over, so the election hysteria is dying down. Now is a good time for a retrospective view on what happened. (Timing is important for a piece like this; a news hook makes it more likely the target publication will become interested.)
  2. It seems as if liberals and conservatives in America not only disagree about policy, they act as if they live in separate realities. This is unhealthy and makes it difficult for the country to move forward, regardless of which party is in power.
  3. I write publicly about social media and have for more than a decade. Social media algorithms reinforce our separate realities by showing conservatives mostly conservative content, and liberals, liberal content. Social media sites contribute to the problem. So this is an appropriate topic for me to write about.
  4. The solution has to be some way to break the filter bubbles, so people can be exposed to content from across the divide and some of them, at least, can return to a shared sense of reality and a shared idea of what we’re doing in this country.
  5. In the past, the FCC applied a regulation called “The Fairness Doctrine” to TV and radio stations to promote balance in opinion when the number of news sources is limited. A similar argument can be made to justify regulating social media.

That may seem vague, and it was. But it was enough to conceive a pitch.

I targeted the Boston Sunday Globe Ideas section since it is a widely read part of the Globe’s opinion coverage. I have written pieces about technology and social media for the Globe’s daily editorial pages in the past, so I have contacts who are familiar with my ability to write and reason on this topic.

ROAM analysis of the op-ed

Every writing project should start with a ROAM analysis. Here’s the ROAM analysis of this piece:

  • Readers. My target readers are people in Boston interested in technology regulation. I had a particular interest in reaching influential people at technology companies, at government agencies, in politics, or in media who would want to amplify my message.
  • Objective: Convince readers that breaking up social media companies is insufficient to solve the biggest problems — like disinformation and filter bubbles — so additional regulation is necessary.
  • Action: I wanted general readers to simply think more broadly about regulation. But I wanted government regulators and politicians in particular to consider acting in accordance with my proposed solution. I also wanted radio, television, and print properties to consider booking me to talk further about the idea.
  • iMpression: I wanted people reading this to think of me as an influential person in the area of social media analysis and regulation.

If you are considering writing an op-ed (that is, a contributed opinion piece), you should do a similar analysis. Who do you most want to read what you wrote? What do you want them to think? What do you want them to do? What do you hope they will think of you? Think about this first, to determine not only what to write, but which publications to pitch.

The pitch

Every newspaper has a place where you can submit pitches for op-eds. They get hundreds, but publish very few.

To maximize the chances that you get a chance to publish, you must succinctly state what you want to say and the expertise that proves you’re worth listening to. It also helps if you have a contact who knows the editors personally.

Here’s what I wrote to the contact at the Globe with whom I’d worked previously, identified here as “G”:

Subject: Proposed piece of the Ideas section: How to Fix America’s Fractured News Feed

To: G

I’ve enjoyed contributing to the Globe’s editorial pages over the past few years on tech topics. And I’ve been excited to read your continuing contributions on the election.

I am now at work on a bigger topic that is appropriate for the Ideas section. Please let me know if you’d consider it for publication. The piece will be 2500 words, ready for submission on December 7.

While the election is (hopefully) resolved, the division in America remains. Part of the reason it is so difficult for us to feel part of one America is that we see such different collections of news. I’m not just talking about Fox vs. CNN. Social media increasingly determines what we read, and each of us gets a filtered news feed based on our previous biases and our friends. Liberals see liberal news sources, conservatives see conservative sources.

This is the root of the problem, and we have it within our grasp to fix it. Up until 1987, the FCC’s “Fairness Doctrine” required over the air broadcasters to present a balanced set of viewpoints. The role of those local broadcasters is now taken up by Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. So I’m going to make a bold proposal: that regulators create a new Fairness Doctrine that requires news feed algorithms to present a more balanced set of news, rather than one that is skewed towards what people already believe.

This is a far more practical solution than the plans that folks like Elizabeth Warren have to break up the social networks. Breaking up these companies won’t solve the problem, it will just create a set of smaller, still biased, social networks.

To research this topic I will interview social media, media, and politics experts including the following:

– Elizabeth Warren, US Senator, Massachusetts
– David Cicilline, US Congressman, Rhode Island
– George Colony, CEO, Forrester Research
– Diane Hessan, Boston Globe op-ed writer
– Jonathan Taplin, author of “Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy”
– Brianna Wu, former congressional candidate and executive director, Rebellion PAC
– Bill Bishop, author of “The Big Sort”
– Eli Pariser, author of “The Filter Bubble” and president of the board of MoveOn.org
– Charlene Li, author of “The Disruption Mindset” and social media expert.
– John Villasenor, senior fellow, Brookings Institution
– John Matze, CEO, Parler
– Spokespeople from Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

Let me know if you’d consider this piece for publication. Thanks.

G forwarded this on to the editors at the Ideas section. They asked a few challenging questions to vet the idea. I addressed their issues based on my past knowledge of both traditional media and social media, and then they greenlighted the piece.

We also agreed to payment for it.

The day after I sent the pitch, G responded. I heard from the Ideas section editors five days later. It took two more days to resolve questions about the piece and come to agreement. The total time from pitch to acceptance was eight days.

Tomorrow I’ll share how I researched the piece and how it came together.

2 responses to “Contributed op-ed case study (1): The pitch

  1. Nicely done!! I can’t wait to read the next installment! And bravo for the idea of applying the Fairness Doctrine to social media. It’s a solid idea that I’m sure someone in congress will swat away because there’s no money behind it.

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