Critical Thinking

Should Newspapers Retire the Term 'Op-Ed?'

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Grace Snell, 20, junior, Berry College, Rome, Ga.

Snell is a junior, where she is majoring in digital storytelling with minors in German and studio art. She has worked in journalism for the past two years, serving as a videographer and a reporter at Viking Fusion, Berry’s student-run multimedia news outlet.

Although change can be difficult, The New York Times’ decision to retire the term “Op-Ed” promotes clear communication with a new generation of readers and is a step which other newspapers should consider taking. Originally derived from the piece’s location opposite the editorial in a newspaper, the designation “Op-Ed” no longer makes intuitive sense to readers who increasingly look to digital platforms for their news. To be honest, I had to Google the meaning of “Op-Ed” for this essay. Data from a Pew Research Center survey in 2020 shows that more than half of Americans prefer to get their news on a digital platform, compared to only 5 percent who prefer print. Replacing “Op-Ed” with the more readily understood “Guest Essay” adopted by the Times will reduce the need for this type of explanation. In an era of fake news, alleged fake news, click bait, and confusion, anything that increases clarity should be welcomed.

Changing this term also furthers the Op-Ed’s purpose of presenting viewpoints different from the newspaper’s official position. According to media historian Michael Socolow, the modern Op-Ed’s architect, John Oakes, devised the idea because he believed newspapers have a social responsibility to act independently and invite dissent. This can only be accomplished if readers understand that Op-Eds are written without the censorship of a paper’s primary editorial board. A term such as “Guest Essay” would help audiences quickly perceive this distinction.

For the sake of readability, it makes sense for newspapers to start replacing the term “Op-Ed” in their publications. In this process, however, it is unlikely that a one-size-fits-all solution will be most effective. For small town newspapers still relying primarily on hard copy circulation, such a change may not be necessary for years. Ultimately, this decision is, and should be, left up to individual publications. Still, as the epicenter of the news industry shifts online, it would benefit newspapers to consider any adaptations that may help them succeed long-term.

Brendan Clarey, 25, opinion editor, The Detroit News, Detroit, Mich.

Clarey is an opinion editor and award-winning writer for The Detroit News. He has also worked for opinion sections at USA TODAY and the New York Post.  

With The New York Times “retiring” the term “Op-Ed” because the news industry is changing away from print pages, other publishers and editors may be tempted to also ditch the term to keep up with the Times. But they shouldn’t follow the editors of the Gray Lady in updating the typographical language that readers have understood clearly for years.

Even if Op-Eds today are not physically opposite the newspaper’s editorial page (which led to the term’s inception), the designation marks the opinion is not one of the papers’ points of view and from a guest writer.

The Times posits the word is inextricably linked to the news industry and not accessible enough for general audiences.

“Terms like ‘Op-Ed’ are, by their nature, clubby newspaper jargon,” Kathleen Kingsbury, opinion editor at the Times, recently wrote in their pages announcing the decision to retire the term.

But this is not true.

Unlike many other words in our business, such as lede, graf, sidebar, deep background, hed, and kicker, the public knows what “Op-Ed” stands for even if it doesn’t know where exactly the word came from.

It’s also baffling that the Times thinks labelling content as an Op-Ed would make the complex policy or legal issues that drive local and national conversations more difficult to understand. 

One recent Op-Ed—excuse me, guest essay—from the Times had a Flesch reading ease score of 29.4, according to Microsoft Word’s built-in readability analysis.

The creator of the test would categorize that grade as somewhere between “difficult” and “very difficult.” Plain English, in his view, has a readability score of at least 60 or higher.

This at least suggests readers can handle words and phrases that may not be accessible to everyone. It seems like they can continue to understand words like Op-Ed.

After all, it’s plain English at this point.

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