The Gray Lady (aka The New York Times) this week declared on its editorial page that the newspaper is no longer going to run op-eds; instead they are going to call them “Guest Essays.”
No more op-eds indeed. The term is vintage; it dates from 1970 when The Times picked up the shorthand word for reader opinions that appeared on the page opposite the editorial page. The original idea, as Times Opinion Editor Kathleen Kingsbury explained on Tuesday’s editorial page, was to (ahem) “stimulate thought and provoke discussion of public problems.”
Kingsbury boasts that the op-ed notion, putting out a welcome mat for many points of view, had great success over time. As an essay that ran in 1990, the 20th anniversary of op-eds, remarked: “It was as if the Gray Lady had hit the dance floor.” After the op-ed kickoff at The New York Times, contributions and interest poured in.
Other publications quickly adopted the term and the positioning. By 1974 when I joined the staff of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s editorial page, I was assigned to edit “op-eds” (mainly just for grammatical mistakes). It was the year of Richard Nixon’s resignation and I edited a bumper crop of pro and con opinions, along with a multitude of letters to the editor. Like at many other publications, it was one of the best read sections of the paper.
Kingsbury argues that op-ed is no longer a good term for a couple of reasons. First, with digital editions, the physical placement of such viewpoints (on an opposite page) is no longer valid. She also argues that op-ed is “clubby newspaper jargon.” That, too, is undeniable. The term must apparently take its place along with such in-house words as typo, scoop, obit, and lede. She says, continuing grandly to lay down the law, “We don’t like jargon in our articles; we don’t want it above them either.”
There may also be another reason — an unstated reason — Kingsbury might want to change the op-ed nomenclature to the prissy-sounding “Guest Essays.” According to Politico’s Jack Shafer, it’s likely a prelude to a big change ahead: the debut of an opinion today newsletter you can pay to subscribe to. The New York Times is no stranger to selling dozens of newsletters, paid apps like “Cooking” and “Games.” Shafer sees it as the real, mercenary reason behind the name change, the better to monetize opinion (and as another hello to digital and goodbye to print).
Nevertheless, it still seems a shame to dump a lively sounding term like op-ed, substituting (drum roll, please) “Guest Essays.” That sounds like a college student try-out, which we might decide to forgo and live without.