Whatever You Call Them, Op-Eds Are an Opportunity to Lead

The recent move by The New York Times to retire the term op-ed has people talking about this venerable — but often misunderstood — forum. While the name has changed, one thing hasn’t: The value of a soapbox for those looking to lead on public opinion.  

In its explanation for eliminating the term op-ed in favor of guest essay, the Times noted the expansion of newspapers into non-print forms of journalism in which no “opposite-the-editorial page” (op-ed) real estate exists. However, this reframing of terms is only that, leaving intact the marketplace of ideas as it exists on the Times opinion pages.  

For more than a century, news organizations such as the Times have included commentary pieces by nonjournalists out of a commitment to diversity of thought. Such pieces can add an important layer of context to the news by helping audiences understand how an issue impacts them or those with needs different from their own. At their best, opinion pieces — whether you call them op-eds, guest columns or guest essays — bring influential readers along to a new way of thinking, helping the author gain support in arguing for or against the status quo. 

We’ve written before that commenting on a controversial issue can present risks, especially for a business serving audiences with diverse opinions on social issues. But an op-ed or guest column need not be controversial, only provocative. In other words, can you say something new or interesting in a way that will make others think differently than they otherwise might? 

When it comes to op-eds or guest essays, news organizations want three things:An author who is credible on the subject. 

  1. An author who is credible on the subject.
  2. An author who has something important to say.
  3. Arguments that will be of interest to readers. 

Thought leadership, of course, can take many forms, from e-blasts, to speaking engagements to social media posts. An op-ed, however, is an opportunity to add credibility by communicating through a respected third party. A well-reasoned opinion piece can bring light to important issues, sway prevailing assumptions and contribute to the public conversation about how to solve vexing problems. In the end, a good guest essay is not only a gift to the author, but to the reader.