A press scholar explains how the New York Times op-ed page got started.

Media criticism.
Sept. 27 2010 6:54 PM

The Op-Ed Page's Back Pages

A press scholar explains how the New York Times op-ed page got started.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

Upon turning 40 years old last week, the New York Times op-ed page threw an 18-page party for itself in its print edition (Sept. 26) and staged a weeklong—Sept. 20-27—celebration on the Web. As self-lionizing shindigs go, the Times affair was fairly sedate. But it revealed, once again, newspapermen's weak spot for 1) anniversaries of any kind (D-Day, 9/11, the JFK, RFK, and MLK assassinations, Earth Day, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the retreat from Vietnam, Tiananmen Square, various Beatles mileposts, decennial reissues of important books, records, movies, and so on) and 2) commemorating their own.

As a Slate employee, I live in a glass house. Slate publicly toasted itself when it turned 10 in the summer of 2006, and I'll bet you anything there will be cake, Champagne, firecrackers, and shouting next year when it turns 15. Still, I hope that individual Slate sections and columns resist the allure of such auto-editorial stimulation. Or at least wait until they hit 20.

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But if the back story of the Times op-ed page arouses you—and I'll admit a tiny surge of blood—you must read scholar Michael J. Socolow's entertaining article "A Profitable Public Sphere: The Creation of the New York Times Op-Ed Page" in the summer 2010 edition of the Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. Socolow, an assistant professor in the University of Maine's Department of Communications and Journalism, excavates the page's history and places it in context. (Socolow's piece is not on the Web, so get thee to a library.)

Times editorial board member John B. Oakes began to envision the page in the late 1950s, proposing the idea to Times publisher Orvil Dryfoos. * No luck. Then, in the early 1960s, he proposed it again to Dryfoos' successor, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger. He even talked up the concept in a series of seminars at the Columbia School of Journalism.

The idea of a commentary page had been around since at least the 1920s, with the New York World producing one of the first. But the World didn't publish outside contributors, just house columnists. The name "op-ed page" also predated Oakes' inspiration. Socolow writes that the Washington Post used the phrase as early as the 1930s to describe the commentary page facing its editorial page, as did the Los Angeles Times in the 1950s and '60s; and the New York Herald Tribune had also long used short essays on its editorial page.

In the mid-1960s, Oakes, who had become editor of the editorial page in 1961, began experimenting with the existing "Topics of the Times" with editor and writer Herbert Mitgang to bring the classical essay form to the paper. "Under Mitgang's guidance, the feature started to welcome humorous, ironic, and thought-provoking pieces focused on timeless themes rather than contemporary news analysis," Socolow writes. Diplomats, professors, and fiction writers were asked to contribute to the column. In early 1969, Noam Chomsky was invited to write for the column but withdrew his contribution—"reluctantly," in his words—because he couldn't cram his views into the 700-word space.

When the Herald Tribune folded in 1966, the op-ed idea returned to the menu at the Times as Assistant Managing Editor Harrison Salisbury arguing that the Times had a responsibility to present "responsible conservative opinion" to fill the gap left by the Trib. Discussions, meetings, and reports, of course, followed, as did dummy pages to prototype the concept. Office politics (Oakes was Sulzberger's cousin), disputes over whether ad space should be reserved on the page, and inertia kept it from happening until 1970. Socolow writes:

[T]he key sticking point in the implementation concerned supervisory authority, not the page's composition. [Publisher] Sulzberger appeared indecisive and, at times, managerially incompetent, when forced to intervene in the conflicts between the editorial department and the news department.

When finally launched, the Times page became a much-imitated hit. "Contributions from outside the field of journalism drew attention and sparked controversy. Surveys showed the page being read more than any other part of the paper," Socolow writes. The Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, and other papers added their own Times-ish op-ed pages over the next two years.

In its first six months the page produced a net profit of $112,000 on $264,000 in revenue. Although paying as little as $125 for contributions from scholars and writers seemed cheap—Arthur Schlesinger Jr. bellyached about it—the money was actually pretty good, seeing as $125 was $700 in today's dollars.

What the page expected from its contributors was not easy to communicate. Socolow quotes from a note from Mitgang to novelist Walker Percy: "The most successful pieces have been highly individualistic, opinionated and pungent. … [Y]ou will not get arrested if the piece is also witty."

One early criticism of the page was that it was too devoted to "name" authors. In a 1971 internal report about the page, David Schneiderman (who would go on to serve as editor and publisher of the Village Voice) griped about having to "run so much junk by the famous." As proved by the drool of Bono's narcissism, the impulse to recruit names for the page is unkillable.

Socolow's piece wouldn't be a complete work of journalistic history unless it included a huge pissing match, which it does. John Oakes, who battled the paper's bureaucracy for more than a decade to start the page, took a proprietary interest in it. In 1976, after hearing a rumor that Harrison Salisbury had told the Los Angeles Times that he, Salisbury, had created the page, Oakes blasted his former colleague with a letter. In a 1978 oral history conducted by Columbia University Libraries, Oakes flies off the handle. He was very willing to credit the New York World's contribution to the form, but he said, "I'm sick and tired of the distortions regarding origins of the op-ed page."

The wound was still festering in 1996, when James "Scotty" Reston wrote in Deadline: A Memoir that the page had emerged "by slow growth, like flowers from the sea." You can almost hear Oakes growling in the oral history transcript:

The point that I'm trying to establish is that the originator of this idea and the guy who fought for years—beginning in the very early '60s, during the time when Orvil was still publisher—was myself. While I've never tried to grab the spotlight of credit for that, I do resent the idea of other people taking, either by inference or directly claiming, the credit for what has undoubtedly been one of the great newspaper innovations of the century, as far as newspapers go.

Socolow calls Oakes the "prime mover" behind the page but writes that others "took his outline and filled it with ideas of their own."

For all the influence the Times' op-ed page has had on other newspapers, I don't find the writing to be as memorable as the page's brilliant use of type, art, and design. I feel a strong affection for its "Op-Art" and "Op-Chart" features and admire the page for having refused to run editorial cartoons. When you've got a few minutes to kill, view the documentary produced by the Times about the page's art. Or better yet, use Amazon's "Click To Look Inside" feature to browse Jerelle Kraus' 2009 book All the Art That's Fit To Print (And Some That Wasn't): Inside the New York Times Op-Ed Page.

Better still, buy Kraus' book. And one for your friend. And his friend.

Addendum, Sept. 27, 2010: This piece was updated at 7:35 p.m.

******

And one for me. E-mail me (slate.pressbox@gmail.com) for my mailing address. And I don't care what Oakes said. I invented Twitter. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Correction, Sept. 28, 2010: This article originally misspelled the last name of Orvil Dryfoos. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.