What that Twitter Op-Ed Column Did — and Didn’t Do

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…


Written by
Colin Delany
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  • Congrats!

    What do you know about the reason for the different headlines? Do you think that’s an SEO thing, so that the same text appearing in 20 places won’t bring the site’s ranking down? Or is it just that papers each employ their own people to write the headlines to fit the space/come up with their own clever take?

    I have a vested interest in figuring this out, as you can imagine, as a content syndicator…no one seems to know the SEO impact of syndicated substantive content.

  • Hey Paula, that’s a great question. I’ll ask Burt to chime in, but I think it’s been common practice at newspapers for years to give new headlines to stories that come in over a newswire.

    Once papers started going online in great numbers a few years back, you could really see it — the same AP story (usually it was AP) would run in different forms in different places with different headlines. Often the final headline choice was made by a relatively lowly newspaper copyeditor.

    In this case, the piece went out over the opinion wire for a particular chain, so I’m assuming that editorial boards follow a similar practice. Also in this case, note that some of the titles it ended up with distorted the actual point or emphasis of the column by a significant amount!

  • Yup, Colin is right on the nose. It’s really that copy editors at the various papers will change the headline as per their personal style or preference.

    As a general rule they are able to make silent edits (much like in AP pieces) to wire op-eds so in addition to the headline changing you may see slightly shorter versions in some papers. As another example some papers like to post an email where the writer can be reached, but not all.

    Often the editorial and web management decisions at many papers are very removed and indeed many editors have very little control over web layout. So SEO issues usually aren’t going to factor often in many editorial decisions.

    – BTE