A really great way to get our message out is by getting opinion columns, sometimes known as “op-eds,” printed in the local paper. Most op-eds in local newspapers these days are syndicated columns by national columnists like Thomas Freidman or George Will, but newspapers can and do run opinion columns submitted by members of the community. A typical op-ed is 600-700 words in length, though your local paper may have specific length requirements.
Sometimes papers like to run opinions that are counter to the unsigned editorials written by the paper, but that’s not usually a requirement. The important thing is that just because a paper leans conservative (or liberal) doesn’t necessarily affect whether they print your op-ed.
1. Decide what papers you will submit your op-ed to
Generally the bigger the newspaper the better, so start by looking for the largest circulation papers in your area. You can get a sense of the largest papers in each state as well as their contact info here: http://www.newslink.org/topstate.html. Also, you should avoid submitting the same op-ed to competing papers in the same media market, although if one paper declines your op-ed, you can then shop it to another.
2. Recruit a good coalition partner to co-sign the op-ed (optional)
You might stand a better chance of getting your op-ed printed if you have another local organization or business signed onto it. For example, if your petition is about clean energy, you might want to recruit a clean energy business. Many potential partners, especially businesses, won’t have any experience with op-eds personally, so you’ll have to walk them through it. It’s best to call them on the phone or meet with them in person. Explain the political value of the op-eds (as summarized above, plus any particular detail you may have on your petition target) and how easy it is (it IS easy—more on that below).
3. Write the op-ed
Probably the best place to start is the text and background of your petition. If it’s not already included, you’ll want to add in some information about why the petition is important to the area covered by the paper, why now, and, ideally, some information on your target. Also, if you have a coalition partner, you can discuss how s/he can localize the story. A more concrete, local story is always more compelling.
4. Find out who is in charge of op-eds at your local paper
Every newspaper has a staff of opinion page editors. Larger newspapers may have someone who deals exclusively with op-eds, while small papers might have one person who handles op-eds, letters to the editor, and also writes the paper’s own editorials. The easiest what to find out who’s in charge of op-eds is to simply call the general number at the paper and ask. It’s not a secret. You’re going to want to get an email address for op-ed submissions as well.
5. Submit the op-ed
Send in your op-ed, using the information you learned in step 4. Make sure to include your phone number and local address as well.
6. Call to follow up
This is the most important part. You can write the most brilliant op-ed ever, and it’s very unlikely to be printed unless you call and make a compelling pitch to get it printed!
A good follow up call will stress that the op-ed is timely, local, and interesting to local readers. Be sure to ask very directly whether they plan to print it or not, because if the answer is no you’ll want to be able to pitch it to another paper in the district.
Attached is a sample script that your clean energy business might use in following up on the op-ed.
7. Once it’s printed, get a copy of the clipping
If and when the op-ed is printed, be sure to get copy of the clipping and share it with us! You should also be sure to share it with your coalition, and even your target.
Op-Ed writer: Hello, is this _______.
Newspaper person: Yes.
Op-Ed writer: Hi. My name is _________, and I’m the creator of [petition]. I’m calling to follow up on an opinion column that I submitted. Do you have a moment to speak now?
Newspaper person: Sure.
Op-Ed writer: Great. The column is about why I support [what your petition is about], which is [why it’s important now]. It would make a real difference in our area because ______. Also, [why your target needs to act on this], so it’s even more locally relevant and timely.
Newspaper person: Ok, sounds good.
Op-Ed writer: Great. Do you think you’ll have space to print it this week? It’s very timely and of great importance for our local economy.
Newspaper person: Well space is always very tight, but it sounds very interesting. I will have a look at it, and if we can use it, we’ll call you.
Op-Ed writer: Great. I really appreciate that. Is it ok if I call you later this week if I don’t hear from you? I’d love if the paper would run it, but if you aren’t able to use it, I may want to offer it to another paper.
Newspaper person: Sure no problem.
Op-Ed writer: Great. Thanks for considering it.
Newspaper person: You’re welcome.
Op-Ed writer: Good bye.