Jack Shafer: “The real reasons The New York Times gave the Op-Ed appellation the shove.”

From a Jack Shafer Fourth Estate column on politico.com headlined “The Real Reason the Times Has Quit Using the Term ‘Op-Ed'”:

On Monday afternoon, New York Times opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury retired the paper’s Op-Ed rubric, which only just passed 50. As she showed the old man the door, thanking him for his service in a 900-word announcement that was posted to the web and will appear in Tuesday print editions, Kingsbury actually avoided explaining the real reasons for giving the Op-Ed appellation the shove.

Opinion has never been more important to the Times’ journalistic mix, Kingsbury averred, and stated that the paper remains committed to running a wide range of views. So why was she ditching the Op-Ed rubric for a new label, “Guest Essay,” that will run above the headlines of pieces by outside writers? To hear Kingsbury tell it, readers seem not to have fully grasped after half a century that pieces appearing in the Times’ Op-Ed space were not expressions of Times sentiment and that the “Guest Essay” tag added needed clarity for readers. This is hardly revolutionary. Newspapers in all corners have long called their sections “Opinion.”…

Two explanations come to mind. The first is cosmetic. The second indicates yet another transformation of the paper from its old print form to a primarily digital one.

The diplomatic reason for the renaming is that the Times wants to avoid a reprise of the internal and external uprising fomented in June 2020 by its publication of an Op-Ed by Sen. Tom Cotton, (R-Ark.), advocating the invasion of U.S. cities with military troops. The fallout from the piece forced the resignation of Kingsbury’s predecessor, James Bennet, and her ascension.

In the previous Times order, the paper’s news and opinion editors put great care and toil into building and maintaining a fence demarcating “news” from “opinion,” but that still didn’t prevent readers from confusing the two journalistic genres and attributing contributor opinions to the paper itself. In the new arrangement, it appears the editors hope the “Guest Essay” label will erect a sturdier fence for the Times between “us” and “them,” and give the paper greater deniability should it publish something that’s as contentious as the Cotton piece. Will Kingsbury ever assign such Cotton-like pieces? Probably not. As she writes in her announcement, “we have our thumb on our scale in the name of progress, fairness and shared humanity.” Progress, fairness and shared humanity aren’t the first words you’d associate with Cotton.

The digital reason for the Op-Ed page’s rebranding arrives in a boxed solicitation after the third paragraph of Kingsbury’s announcement, which invites readers to subscribe to the Times’ “Opinion Today” newsletter. Every digital publisher from POLITICO to the New York Times to Substack to Forbes to the smallest alt-weekly has embraced newsletters as a way to build paying audiences online. The commercial potential of a Times opinion newsletter is real, as Adam Piore argued in a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review last year. “The opinion section was producing less than 10 percent of the Times’ total output, yet opinion pieces represented 20 percent of all stories read by subscribers—which meant that the takes were punching well above their weight,” Piore wrote.

By corralling opinion inside the “Guest Essay” definition and serving it via newsletter as a pure opinion product for subscribers, the paper hopes to drive subscription sales as it has with its Cooking and Games apps….

Consult internal Times studies, such as the January 2017 “Journalism That Stands Apart” report, or listen to Times executives talk, and you’ll hear the constant refrain that the paper is now a digital-first, subscriber-first enterprise. “We are not trying to win a pageviews arms race,” the 2017 report stated. “We believe that the more sound business strategy for the Times is to provide journalism so strong that several million people around the world are willing to pay for it.” Separating the opinion section from its old Op-Ed moorings and rechristening it as a subscriber-only digital product places it in a flow with the paper’s other successful digital products….

It would be a mistake to think of the newsletterification of the Times as a reaction to the recent success places like Substack have reaped and others hope to replicate. No Johnny-come-lately to the form, the paper has been pushing newsletters so hard and so long it now publishes more than 71 of them, according to a recent Digiday story, and now reaches about 28 million subscribers. In 2020, readers opened more than 3.6 billion Times newsletter emails. The strategy here is to use the newsletters to upsell subscriptions to new readers. Of the Times’ 7.5 million subscribers, 6.69 million are digital only, but the newspaper hopes to grow that number tenfold….

Today’s play by the Times can be read as the company’s latest arrivederci to its print form as it continues its digital metamorphosis. Oh, you’ll still be able to read opinion pieces in the paper, but the real story isn’t about the Times going from Op-Ed to Guest Essay but from Op-Ed to ultradigital.

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