Diversifying voices: Op-ed editors share tips for finding that ‘diamond’ perspective

Diversity doesn’t look the same from community to community. Op-eds can help, because they can be powerful expressions of thought leadership that amplify fresh voices and reach new audiences, according to a panel of op-ed newsroom leaders.  

The following tips come from panelists: 

Slow down: Bringing in original voices takes time and patience. 

The search for new op-ed contributors is a balancing act between relationship and trust building.

“That first piece might not be the best piece, but over time, if people feel like they are supported, listened to, they will grow into a more powerful voice,” Woodsome said. “And then when others see themselves on the screen, on the pages, it’s a modeling exercise where we’re saying, you count.”

Follow through by reminding people that they have degrees of lived experience and are the right experts for the job. 

“We help them identify the core of their expertise, what they know stone cold, and then explore the metaphorical potential for that,” Douglas said.

Commission work from people who blend personal experience with specific expertise. 

“I do a lot of cold calling. And convincing people that their voices are not just valued but deeply needed,” Tang said.

“A lot of it is really just reaching out to those communities, finding writers who otherwise wouldn’t be thinking this is their newspaper and inviting them.”

Set up expectations in advance by letting your audience members understand how journalists work.

“A lot of people think that: Oh, we must be in fancy offices and we’re sitting on a throne or something because we have this platform. We get to put our name on our work for the world to see,” Douglas said. “But if you just take a beat in an intimate one-to-one sort of way, walk them through the process of helping them see how to make your story better. Then that’s where the trust develops.”

Be mindful about the rotating cast of “usual suspects” your newsroom turns to … and always be recruiting.

“I don’t … underestimate the usual suspects when you need a quick comment,” Ancrum said. “[But] it’s not all about being quick. It’s about slowing down and being thoughtful about it.”

“Do an annual audit on who your usual suspects are,” Douglas added. “Because you’ll surprise yourself and realize: Oh yeah, we kind of lean on that person too many times.” 

Conduct pre-interviews to help bring out new, thoughtful views.

“I have a conversation, and very often it is a wide-ranging conversation in which I’ll hear something that the subject doesn’t fully know is a diamond, that aha moment for them and for me,” Woodsome said. “ And then I’ll help them articulate, figure out what is their … lived experience that we want people to understand.”

Recognize that diversifying voices is in a news organization’s economic interest.

“Mainstream newspapers really need to connect with their communities to stay economically viable, healthy, and to thrive.” Tang said. “You have to bring in people who have, in communities in the past, felt that … media didn’t reflect them. And so they weren’t going to put their dollars behind the media, they weren’t going to subscribe.”

Watch the video to hear from the panelists about pitching op-eds.

This program was made available at no cost to participants thanks to a generous grant from the Gannett Foundation.

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