July 15th, 2009
Remember that Twitter op-ed piece I wrote a couple of months ago? Let’s take a deeper look at it now that a little time has passed and see what we can learn, since writing a column for the newspaper is a time-honored way to influence the public discourse, whether to promote an idea, an opinion or your own reputation. But a newspaper op-ed turns out to be a very different animal than most online writing, since not only is the form itself distinct, but the results of publishing in a traditionally print-and-ink medium can be unexpected for someone used to the mechanics of online promotion.
First off, those results: at last count, the column had run in 20-odd outlets, mostly newspapers and associated websites in the McClatchy chain (including the Miami Herald, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Cleveland Plains Dealer) but with some fun extras (Quatar? Smithtown High School East? — here’s the full list). Not bad for the first attempt! All thanks of course to friend-of-e.politics Burt Edwards, who BTW just surrendered and joined Facebook. He had the idea that the world was ready for a Twitter op-ed, got me to write one, beat the results into shape and helped launch it out into the world.
Having a pitch-worthy idea was the first trick, but the real challenge was to produce a piece that an editor would actually choose to run. The constraints: 720 words, a general (i.e., non-technical) audience and no linking. Those last two parts combined to form a real hurdle, since it’s hard to have enough room to explain to a newbie what the hell you’re talking about when you can’t link to anything. No allusions allowed; you need to spell out every reference, but still have enough room left over to say something relevant and vaguely original for the REAL audience, which in my case was journalists, bloggers and online communications folks. Every word counted, and Burt and I squeezed those paragraphs until they bled, but what helped hit the tone was to pretend I was writing for my hometown paper, the Palestine (TX) Herald Press. East Texas — if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere….
The fact that the concept of linking has yet to sink into the DNA of most newspaper websites (whereas it’s second-nature to bloggers) also limits an op-ed column’s practical value as an outreach tool. Yes, my Twitter essay was probably read by tens or (potentially) hundreds of thousands of people, yet the e.politics site barely registered an uptick in traffic over the several days that it was actively run.
The byline I submitted included “Epolitics.com,” but since essentially none of the sites actually hotlinked that little bit of text, no one could click on it, and relatively few people took the time to copy it into a browser or to search for it on Google after reading the print version. By contrast, a single link from National Review’s The Corner blog recently brought in well over a thousand visitors in a single day, with many more following over the next couple of weeks. Plenty of them stuck around, too — RSS subscriptions to e.politics spiked when the link was posted, nosing over 1000 and staying in that neighborhood ever since.
If the Twitter op-ed column DIDN’T draw much direct traffic to the site, it did bring a certain credibility, since newspapers retain a special status as cultural arbiters — getting in the paper is still a Big Deal in a lot of eyes. And of course, it’s always good to have clips to point to when I’m pitching other columns or freelance pieces in the future. All in all, a fun experiment — look Ma, I made the papers!
Twitter Op-Ed Prints and Reprints
One fun extra: note how many different headlines it appeared under! Try to guess which one was the original. Not so obvious: the number times copyeditors misspelled my name, even though it went out correctly over the wire…
- “Why tweets won’t save journalism, or kill it” — Miami Herald
- “Twitter might be all the rage but it won’t replace in-depth journalism” — Ft Worth Star Telegram
- “In Twitter we trust? Why tweets won’t save journalism or kill it” — Cleveland Plains Dealer
- “Time proves: All that twitters is not gold” — Great Falls (MT) Tribune
- “In Twitter we trust? Why tweets won’t save journalism or kill it” — Dailyme.com
- “In Twitter we trust? Why tweets won’t save journalism — or kill it” — (University of) Colorado Daily
- “What’s the future for Twitter craze?” — Athens (GA) Banner-Herald
- In Twitter we trust? Why tweets won’t save journalism , or kill it” — Smithtown (NY) High School East’s The Matador
- “Why is everyone all a-Twitter? Twitter is a versatile service that blends some of the best of the current generation of online and mobile technologies” — Qatar Gulf Times
- “Don’t seek Twitter for deep thoughts” — Myrtle Beach (SC) Sun News
- “Twitter welcomes trivia over substance” — Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
- “In Twitter we trust? Why tweets won’t save journalism or kill it” — Tucson AZ Daily Star
- “So far, Twitter conversations are mostly trivial” — Ventura (CA) County Star
- “For now, Twitter is not future of the media” — Bergen (NJ) News
- “Twitter won’t save journalism or kill it” — St. Petersburg Times
- “In Twitter we trust” — The Frederick News-Post
- “Twitter won’t save journalism or kill it.” — Crikey (Australian blog)
- “In Twitter we trust?” — Ogden (UT) Standard