Opinion journalism has been subject to unrelenting pressures in recent years. The political environment has become more toxic. There is confusion about what’s news and what’s opinion. People’s opinions today can be influenced as much by random posts on social media as by a well-crafted editorial.
Less discussed is the relationship between opinion content and revenue. And, like most everything else in digital publishing, the financial calculation is becoming a necessary part of the conversation about the future of opinion journalism.
Opinion section leaders are not shying away from the conversation. Eager to prove that their content contributes to their news organizations’ financial health, they are experimenting with formats like newsletters, video, podcasts and events. To drive engagement and widen their audiences, they’re bringing in more voices from the community, sometimes writing or recording first-person narratives, and in the process de-emphasizing the omniscient tone — the editorial “we.” They are also organizing their teams to ensure that opinion content is getting attention from audience and engagement editors so that they can measure — and demonstrate — opinion content’s contribution to their organizations’ overall financial sustainability.
Opinion sections have been evolving for several years. In 2019, API explored this evolution, noting a new urgency brought on by rapid changes in the industry and a polarized political environment. That work continues today. At a recent API local news opinion summit in Austin, more than 50 opinion editors came together for a frank and searching conversation about their roles in their communities and the sustainability of their institutions. Some participants agreed to be quoted here in follow-up interviews. Insights are drawn from those conversations as well as with others in or adjacent to the publishing industry.
Sustainability in opinion
Today’s generation of opinion editors operates in an environment quite different from that of their predecessors, who were largely immune from the messy business of subscriptions. They generally existed in a rarefied setting, situated close to the news organization’s publisher both ideologically and physically. They were seen by some, and saw themselves, as pillars of the community, and they had the resources to match their ambitions.
In recent years, the re-examination of opinion content has been driven partly by necessity. Financial constraints mean that some small publishers who once had robust opinion staffs are now down to one or two people. Regular staff-written editorials and columns became harder to sustain. Many opinion sections have been cut, particularly in print.
At the same time, editorial page editors realized that the voices they commonly turned to had been neglecting entire segments of their publications’ potential audiences, and that the editorial boards and writers often did not reflect their community, prompting self-examination.
A good example is in New Jersey, where NJ Advance Media — which operates NJ.com –— looked at how it was covering communities of color, particularly involving public safety, after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. The result was a staffing shift that not only helped the site grow, but brought in younger readers, Robin Wilson-Glover, director of digital opinion at NJ Advance Media, wrote in an essay for API.
“Eighteen months later, we’ve learned that opinion content may not drive nearly as many page views as news or sports but we’ve found that it does have an audience and — importantly — that readers will pay for the content,” she wrote.
At the Dallas Morning News, Editorial Page Editor Rudolph Bush approaches his section almost like its own business, tracking metrics carefully and “trying to generate interest at every point of the funnel, from page views to conversions.”
In time, he said, he expects his opinion department to be not only self-sustaining but to also help support the broader mission of the Morning News.
“Readers reward us with their views and their membership when we provide content they find valuable,” he said. “I feel responsible for ensuring we are providing the highest quality opinion content that drives readership and leads people to convert and to stay with us for the long run.”
A consensus among opinion editors interviewed for this article was that informing the community, engaging in meaningful discourse and influencing outcomes was their primary mission — not making money. But they also see reader data, and reader revenue, as a window into their work and a useful tool that can help them understand what resonates with their audiences.
“The idea is to have impact and reach lots of readers with strong, engaging, well-written, well-reported and well-argued pieces,” said James Dao, the editorial page editor of The Boston Globe. “And if the journalism is good, I believe that that leads to more people buying the newspaper.”
Opinion editors feel varying degrees of pressure from their publishers to produce content that leads to subscriptions. While some organizations, like The New York Times, have added to their opinion sections, others have made deep cuts. Many opinion editors say they are conscious of the industry’s financial challenges, and therefore feel a need to show that they are helping to drive the business.
[pullquote text=”Publishing experts caution against drawing broad conclusions about the conversion or retention performance of opinion content compared with other sections, like news or sports.”]
There is also an underlying recognition that sometimes content that doesn’t draw a lot of readers might still be important. Some opinion pieces, especially unsigned editorials with an institutional voice, might not always drive readership (and thus, subscribers) because they focus on what the opinion editors believe is necessary for the community, as opposed to what people may want to hear. Or some pieces might focus on an individual community’s needs instead of a larger audience.
But overall, opinion editors say, their content needs an audience. To get subscribers, they say, the winning formula will include quality and sound arguments that show people why an issue matters.
What works: Local, helpful, accessible
Opinion sections are almost always separated from the newsroom. But like their counterparts in news, they now have audience analytics to see how their content is performing, which kinds of opinion pieces work — staff columnists? unsigned editorials? guest essays from the community? — and which do not. It can help them focus their work on what engages people, a goal many see as worthy regardless of its financial impact.
In general, publishing experts caution against drawing broad conclusions about the conversion or retention performance of opinion content compared with other sections, like news or sports. Content type, they say, is less of a driver of subscriptions or retention than behavioral factors such as whether readers keep coming back or whether they view the content as indispensable. A recent study by Medill IMC Spiegel Research Center of data from 106 outlets in a variety of markets is consistent with that, concluding that reader regularity is the most important factor in getting people to pay for news. Experts say they have seen anecdotal cases where high-profile columnists can drive subscriptions because of the loyalty they have built.
Grzegorz Piechota, researcher in residence at the International News Media Association, said studies by his organization show that variables involving readers’ behavior, like frequency of visits, are more predictive for subscribing than context variables, such as topics of articles people see during their visits.
“Academic researchers often see similar patterns, and this applies as much to conversion as to retention of subscribers,” he said in an email interview. “People who are visiting regularly, spending more time reading, and reading content on a range of topics are more likely to buy a subscription and to renew it.”
Piechota cited a 2020 study by three Boston University researchers who analyzed data provided by a large regional newspaper to gauge how in-house versus wire content affects online readers’ decisions on whether to subscribe. Opinion content did not affect readers’ willingness to subscribe, whether it was from a wire service or locally produced.
Piechota also said that conversion data is dependent on the publisher and the brand. Anecdotally, he said, legacy publishers with more established and affluent readers are more likely to see readers of opinion journalism converting at higher rates than readers of other types of content.
[pullquote text=”Pieces focused on local issues — and produced by local writers — are more likely to perform well, and lead to subscriptions, than nationally focused pieces.”]
So while some publishers might find that certain types of opinion, like candidate endorsements, do well, others might have the opposite experience. Publishers are generally hesitant to share hard data, for competitive reasons. However, they say some themes stand out when they look at what drives engagement and subscriptions.
Local opinion content and authentic voices
Among opinion editors at local and regional papers, one consistent theme is that pieces focused on local issues — and produced by local writers — are more likely to perform well, and lead to subscriptions, than nationally focused pieces like syndicated opinion or even local people commenting on national issues.
“Generally, the best-performing opinion pieces in terms of conversions are on subjects of local concern that have clear points of view backed by personal experience and/or original reporting,” said the Dallas Morning News’ Bush.
Some opinion editors are doubling down on local content. At The Tennessean, a video/podcast series born during the Covid-19 pandemic called “Tennessee Voices” has proven to be a driver of engagement and subscriptions, said David Plazas, the opinion and engagement director for the USA TODAY Network in Tennessee.
Plazas said his video series was created out of necessity during the pandemic. Events were out of the question, face-to-face interviews were risky and meetings were canceled. “Suddenly I was in a situation where I had to figure out what am I going to do to stay relevant during this time,” he said.
With Tennessee Voices, Plazas struck a formula that combines several elements that tend to drive engagement: local content, video, currency and consistency — people come back to it. The people he interviews are not always high-profile names, but he tries to keep the conversation focused on the community and its concerns.
The unpolished production value, in fact, could be part of the appeal: Plazas said he also thinks the videos’ authenticity helps draw people in. In April of 2020, for example, just after the start of the pandemic, he interviewed the head of a hospice center in Nashville. He found the interview timely because she was talking with clarity and calmness about grief and uncertainty during one of the most trying times for the public. The series has proven its value: Plazas recently recorded his 358th video, an interview with Andrea Conte, the former first lady of Tennessee who started a victims’ rights organization called You Have the Power after she was kidnapped and assaulted in the 1990s. (That video will air on Tennessean.com on June 12.)
Content that helps people with their lives
One reason that local stories may get more audience traction is that they are more relatable and help people understand the issues that affect their lives.
This is consistent with research showing that news organizations are more likely to win subscribers if people feel they are getting help sorting out facts and understanding their role in democracy.
“The more emotional trust in news, the more empowered Americans feel to navigate a complex information environment. The more emotional trust in news, the more willing Americans are to pay for it,” the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation said in a February 2023 report on trust in media and democracy.
At the Los Angeles Times, Editorial Page Editor Terry Tang says pieces that help people understand their communities perform well, especially given the metropolitan area’s vastness. The sprawling region is made up of many communities, all of which have varying needs and problems. “People are hungry to read opinion pieces that drill down into the challenges of their lives,” she said.
[pullquote text=”News organizations are more likely to win subscribers if people feel they are getting help sorting out facts and understanding their role in democracy.”]
The approach is validated, she said, when the Times makes political endorsements for local offices like city council, judgeships or ballot measures. Because people can’t get those deep dives into candidates for such offices anywhere else, they subscribe or renew. The utility of endorsements to readers, she said, makes them worthwhile even though they take a great deal of time and effort.
“It is a perfect marriage of both our mission in public service, our aim to serve our readers, and also increase subscriptions and revenues because people appreciate the work we do,” she said. “It is the opposite of any kind of, you know, news that you could get for free.”
At the Dallas Morning News, the editorial board makes “recommendations” for offices, which Bush said perform well. That is consistent with the news organization’s experience that the content that leads to conversions are pieces that are relevant to issues readers care about that they cannot get elsewhere.
“Recommendations have shown over time to be the strongest type of editorial for conversions,” said Bush. “Readers appear to value our recommendations in local and state elections especially. When we make recommendations, we do so after interviewing candidates, requesting that they respond to a questionnaire and reviewing their backgrounds, experience and positions.”
Accessible and relatable
Outrage may fuel clicks, but not necessarily the kinds of clicks that lead to loyalty, opinion editors say. In fact, it could turn people off. This could also explain why people are more likely to value local content — they see the national debates as more toxic and can identify less with national issues.
In today’s divided environment, opinion editors say they are more interested in informing the public than appearing to “take sides” just for the sake of having an opinion. That has led some to downplay or eschew the institutional voice. If opinion content starts to sound like a politician, it will come across as more partisan noise to readers. Pieces that assume or demand that people are on one side or another of an issue are seen as less relatable, they say.
For some opinion sections, endorsements have fallen into that category, and they have stopped doing them on the theory that they could alienate readers who disagree and lead them to cancel.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was a pathfinder in the solutions-focused approach with its Ideas Lab, and in engaging with its audience through events and other interactive tools.
Content that deliberately avoids hostility toward the opposing side of an argument can actually draw people in. At the New York Times, conservative columnist Bret Stephens said a feature called “The Conversation” that he does with liberal Gail Collins, in which they bring their respective views to an issue in a civil way, is “by far the single most popular opinion column in the paper” and that the number of people who read it from start to finish “is mind-bogglingly high.”
People tell both him and Collins that they appreciate that the two “know how to disagree agreeably,” he said at a recent talk with Janine Zacharia at a Stanford McClatchy Symposium on “opinion writing in a polarized age.” Notably, he said, The Conversation does not do particularly well on Twitter.
“I think what it tells you is that the algorithm of outrage … is not necessarily what audiences really want,” he said. “They want a really different kind of conversation. They want to be reminded that a certain kind of sweetness in tone and levity is something that should be part of their media diet.”
“I think there is a hidden demand for a totally different way of approaching argument. And it’s not agreeing, but it’s disagreeing without bitterness,” he said.
[pullquote text=”If opinion content starts to sound like a politician, it will come across as more partisan noise to readers.”]
At the Detroit Free Press, Executive Editor Anjanette Delgado said pieces that don’t tell people what to think but rather how to look at an issue or a candidate are more likely to find traction. She shared an example of a recent column from a guest contributor, John Lindstrom, about the race next year for a Michigan U.S. Senate seat.
“His point was forget labels, ignore parties, what kind of leader will this person be and what will be their first priority in office? He set the stage for the race and said, here’s how you might think about it,” she said.
Expanding the audience through innovation
A broader range of topics and points of view can also bring in a broader range of readers, some of whom might not have engaged with opinion in the past.
The Free Press has added Lindstrom as well as a number of other new voices to its opinion lineup, according to a recent note to subscribers from its new opinion editor, Nancy Kaffer, who said she’s committed to “bringing diverse viewpoints to the Free Press opinion page that I hope will win new readers.”
The Tennessean extended its “Tennessee Voices” brand with two newsletters, Black Tennessee Voices and later Latino Tennessee Voices, which were aimed at a part of its community that the news organization had not sufficiently engaged. The goal, Plazas said, was not to tell stories about these communities but to tell stories for and with them.
The newsletters in 2022 won an Online News Association award for excellence in a portfolio of newsletters.
Newsletters, which tend to be more conversational than traditional articles, allow writers to move away from what one editor calls the “stentorian” voice and toward content that can explore issues while also having the freedom to propose or endorse solutions or even make a judgment on which way a policy decision should go.
That genre of journalism isn’t always available to the news side, which generally doesn’t take positions on issues.
At the Boston Globe, the opinion section last fall launched a newsletter called “Are We There Yet?” that explores the state of transportation in the region and how it might look in the future.
The Globe’s Dao said the transportation newsletter grew out of a journalistic need when a major line of “the T,” as Boston’s subway system is known, was shut down last fall. “We were simply trying to provide what was a somewhat service-oriented newsletter, but with a little bit of edge and opinion to it,” he said.
It then grew into a weekly take on all things transportation. “Trains, buses, ferries, cars, bicycles, gondolas, hyperloops, and your own feet — if it gets you around, we’ll write about it,” the Globe says on the newsletter’s landing page.
The newsletter is free to non-subscribers of the Globe, but the model is effective because it links to stories behind the Globe’s tight paywall, so people who want to dig more deeply into the issues it explores have to subscribe.
“A way of thinking about newsletters, if you’re purely analyzing it from a business point of view, is that they’re an engagement tool. And the more you keep people engaged with your content, whatever the platform, the more likely they are to come back to you and the more likely they are to subscribe or resubscribe,” Dao said.
The fact that opinion sections are a place for innovation is reflected in structural changes at some news organizations. Opinion staffs have learned to work with audience teams to know which pieces are resonating, and at larger publications, the opinion sections have their own audience teams.
At the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the opinion section was recently put in the department of Rodney Gibbs, the senior director of strategy and innovation. He is moving to broaden the section’s offerings and sees an opportunity to innovate in the section “not just from a community engagement standpoint but from a revenue standpoint.”
Gibbs, who is in charge of other formats like video and audio, plans to bring more digital expertise and innovation to the opinion section.
At the Miami Herald, Editorial Page Editor Nancy Ancrum blends an “old school” and “new school” approach, she told a panel on the future of opinion journalism at the International Symposium on Online Journalism, sponsored by the University of Texas’ Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, in April.
“The new school part is we also have an audience growth producer dedicated to the editorial board, and she makes sure that our editorials, our columns and op-eds are pushed out, picked up by, say, Smart News, Yahoo, whatever and bringing in the page views, bringing in the subscriptions. It’s new for us on an editorial board: Oh, I have to worry about subscriptions?”
The Herald’s opinion team – including its engagement editor – won a Pulitzer Prize this year for editorial writing.
[pullquote text=”One role of an opinion section, after all, is influencing outcomes. But that influence grows only when the public knows the arguments you’re making, and when politicians, institutions and other community leaders are aware that the public knows it.”]
The editorial page at the Herald, Ancrum said, is mission-driven, giving as an example the approaching 2024 election and the paper’s need to explain what Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis (who has since launched his candidacy for president) has done in Florida and what he stands for.
But she also noted that the Herald’s owner, McClatchy, expects opinion to raise revenue and increase readership and subscriptions. “That’s another mission that’s driving us,” she said.
McClatchy continues to “look for opportunities to tell stories that no one else in our markets have told,” said Peter St. Onge, who oversees opinion content in McClatchy’s 29 markets across the country. “Readers want something fresh — new information, a new perspective on issues and topics, or just a new story they haven’t seen.” In 2019, McClatchy’s Colleen McCain Nelson explained for API how opinion journalism can attract readers and drive subscriptions.
Opinion sections at some papers are also experimenting with new formats like TikTok to lure younger audiences. The Boston Globe is an example.
At NJ.com, Wilson-Glover noted in her essay, new investments are bringing in younger audiences. A new columnist, Daysi Calavia-Robertson, who focuses on issues affecting communities of color, engages with audiences on Facebook, TikTok and Instagram, where she has nearly 12,000 followers, Wilson-Glover noted.
Meanwhile, some opinion editors say they are also intrigued by models that include philanthropic support, like at the Seattle Times, or reader donations to specifically support opinion content, as is done by The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, California.
A holistic view
The last decade has seen a number of cutbacks in opinion content, particularly in print.
In 2013, the Pew Research Center documented the ways that news organizations were cutting opinion pages. In 2017, the Poynter Institute’s Rick Edmonds wrote about the Milwaukee experiment, with the headline, “Are daily opinion pages headed to the morgue?”
In places that hadn’t adopted a digital-first approach, the problem with cutting print opinion content was that it inevitably meant less digital opinion content. And the less digital content there is to measure, the less ability you have to prove its value online, meaning a vicious circle can take hold.
News organizations, including opinion editors, are now more digitally oriented, meaning they can look at not only what works but who’s reading, viewing or listening to what kinds of pieces. And while opinion editors are now watching their digital performance closely, some editors say they want to put that data in context and look at how those readers view their content in the big picture of their overall consumption.
At the Free Press, for example, Delgado said she’s interested in the “whole reader,” and in the crossover readership between opinion pieces and other kinds of content. An avid reader of certain kinds of opinion articles might also be interested in sports or gardening or any number of topics, for example.
“Nobody’s just an opinion nut,” she said. “They might also read baseball coverage and all sorts of other things. So, I’m curious about the whole human being. Because then you’re getting at whether they consider the opinion content as another reason to keep their subscription.”
That data not only helps them understand their audience, it also helps them know which issues the public cares about. One role of an opinion section, after all, is influencing outcomes. But that influence grows only when the public knows the arguments you’re making, and when politicians, institutions and other community leaders are aware that the public knows it.
“There’s no crowbar to make public institutions change except by educating the public about the phenomenon that they’re witnessing, and drilling down,” said the Los Angeles Times’ Tang.
“Back in the old days when everything was in print, you had no idea if anybody was reading any particular thing. What you knew was that they subscribed to the paper and that was it. Whether they liked your feature coverage or your editorials, you would never know,” she said. “But now we know.”