Q&A with Betsy O’Donovan, editorial page editor at the Herald-Sun

by andybechtel

Betsy O’Donovan is the editorial page editor at The Herald-Sun newspaper in Durham, N.C. Except for a five-year diversion to work at ESPN Outdoors, she has built her career at community newspapers in in North Carolina, Alabama and Idaho, and she has worked as a reporter, copy editor, copy desk chief and city editor. In this interview, conducted by email, O’Donovan talks about her job at the Herald-Sun, social media and the future of editorial pages. 

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?

A. I get paid to wander around and ask questions and tell people what I think about the answers. If that doesn’t sound like the best job in the world to you, you are a crazy person — but it also makes you one of the few people I can trust not to push me down a set of stairs and climb over me on your way to the editorial desk. (Another reason why this job is great: At some point, I could work a “Showgirls” reference into an editorial. I’m saving it for election season.)

I don’t have a “typical” day, which is one of the things I love about daily journalism. But there are some predictable rhythms:

Mondays are tough because I cover for our night metro editor, which means I come in at 2 p.m. and have about three hours in which to finish Tuesday’s editorial, call letter-writers to confirm letters, edit the next day’s columns and lay out our pages.

Basically, my goal on Tuesday and Wednesday is to cram as many new, timely (or, as the kids on Twitter say, “trending”) ideas into my head as possible. So I read other writers from a wide field (and not necessarily news-oriented sources), catch up on memos from public policy shops, pester our reporters with questions, call people to invite them to speak to our editorial board, and solicit and read submissions for guest columns.

I spend the rest of the week tapping into those ideas; by Friday, I don’t have time to add more input, I just have to focus on pure output through the weekend — writing and designing.

By early afternoon Tuesday, I’ve mapped out the next week of editorials and am on the phone and researching for the next day. This is a great job for information hounds. (On the editorial desk, and as the writer of the paper’s official views, my fear of factual errors has expanded to include a dread of seeming stupid or ignorant. It’s inevitable that I will argue the wrong side of an argument at some point, but I don’t want it to be for lack of effort.)

Once the thing is written, I fire it around to my editorial board and get their consent or feedback. Then it’s a flurry of page design and proofreading before the pages go to the press room at 6 or 7 p.m.

After that, I make another cup of tea and do the chores: Pulling “Doonesbury” and editorial cartoons, proofreading letters and calling letter-writers, calling or emailing to get interviews set up for the rest of the week’s editorials, pulling reports I’m going to need to read — basically trying to get ahead before the week attacks in force. Usually with limited success.

Q. How is writing and editing editorials different from news?

A. News writing is education. Editorial writing directs education toward action.

But I think the mechanics are fundamentally the same. A good editorial should be based on rigorous reporting. Editorialists should cultivate sources, sift information, do all the things reporters do — it’s not a job for the lazy.

I don’t like smack-you-around editorials. As a reader, I want to consider the facts and hear a course of action, so that’s what I try to write. It’s easy and sometimes fun to splash ink at idiots and their notions. The challenge is to resist that urge and do something productive with the page.

And it should be fun! (As should good newswriting, but sometimes deadlines and the inverted pyramid — what do I need to know now — gets in the way of practicing journalism-as-fun, both for the reader and the writer.)

This week, I was writing about the state’s regulation of payday lenders, the guys who can charge up to 54 percent of the amount of a loan for interest and fees. That’s a terrible deal that almost inevitably shoves people into a debt spiral, but the lenders want the General Assembly to lift that cap.

But that’s a little bit of a yawner to explain in depth. So I reached out and grabbed “The Merchant of Venice” – do you know it? The lender Shylock agrees to lend Antonio 3,000 ducats, but Antonio must pay it back within three months. If Antonio is late on the repayment, Shylock is allowed to extract a pound of flesh from Antonio’s torso (“nearest his heart”), using only a very sharp knife.

In many news stories, you couldn’t get away with name-checking “The Merchant of Venice,” let alone explaining it in comparison to the state’s Consumer Finance Act. But I think editorials ought to use the feature writing tool kit. A lot of our subject matter is important, but dry. Using feature-writing techniques — unexpected comparisons, illustrative language, creative ledes — help our readers connect with complicated, serious subjects.

Q. You’re active on Twitter. How can editorial writers and editors use social media to its full potential?

A. For an information junkie, Twitter is kind of a mainline of dope. The two hashtags that I absolutely must follow are #ncga, for the General Assembly, and #DurhamNC. There’s no way I can write about, or even track, all of the things that are blowing up my feed. But I am a magpie, so I collect as much as I can from a couple of targeted areas and then hang onto them while I go about my other work.

But that’s the consumption end. And, OK, I will sigh and then let’s talk about the contribution end of things. I’m ambivalent about it for a couple of reasons.

First, I think social media is great for marketing. Second, I think it’s terrible for journalists and newspapers if they use it as just another dispensary for free content that doesn’t capture revenue. (I hate to sound ungenerous, but I also really like to be able to feed my dog.)

Right now, we’re in this weird, suspended state of trying to build a big audience, and the thinking across the industry seems to be that, once we have the audience, we will figure out how to turn them into dollars. So far, the biggest success story has been Arianna Huffington, who sold her audience to AOL. So now she has dollars and AOL has a big audience, and they’re going to have to figure out how to make that pay.

But, while we sort that out, let’s talk about marketing on Twitter. The critical thing is that you have to have something to offer. (This goes back to my view of editorial writing, too — don’t just comment, produce!) If you’re going to “build your brand” (ugh, loathsome phrase), do it on a foundation of good work. If engaging with social media interferes with that work, let’s remember that social media is just a distribution platform. It can be managed artfully, but it is not the art itself.

The people I most like and admire on Twitter (and elsewhere) are the ones who provide me with unique content, whose comments are clever and enhance my understanding, and who understand what I’m seeking when I go to them. (All of which, by the way, is the consequence of their effort to “build a brand,” consciously or not.)

Two of our sports reporters, Steve Wiseman and Briana Gorman, do fantastic crowdsourcing, marketing and story promotion on Twitter. Their followers offer information because they feel connected to the reporters; the reporters drop tidbits of news and insight that don’t necessarily fit into the paper. It’s a pretty perfect use of the medium.

Q. The Internet is overflowing with opinion and analysis. Given that, what do you see as the future of the editorial page in print?

A. Well, as long as there is a print product, I expect to see an editorial page – but I have my questions about what it will look like.

Resource scarcity will continue to mean that fewer people are managing more tasks. That’s going to have a few consequences that aren’t hard to spot.

As I mentioned, I wear my metro editor hat one night a week and dig into local news. That’s one illustration of how the industry’s financial struggles have affected editorial departments: Editorialists at the last two papers where I’ve worked have moved out of their ivory tower and into a bunker with the rest of the newsroom.

Maybe I flatter myself that my paper handles my once-a-week foray into news with some aplomb and minimal fallout, but I think we’re just dipping our toes into these ethical waters. I’m lucky to be at a paper that’s large enough to afford the (relative) luxury of an editorialist. I wonder sometimes whether the full-time editorialist will go the way of the full-time obituary writer.

When that happens, I am afraid that the quality of editorial writing at newspapers will no longer exceed a lot of the free, semi-pro or amateur opinion writing on the Web. (And, let’s face it, there are a lot of talented amateurs out there, writing for HuffPo and not getting paid. The difference is time, in many cases.)

If there are no longer full-time editorialists, I think one thing that’s critical, and can’t come too soon, is a conversation about whether and how we will disclose who participates in opinion writing and how we use ethical, rather than physical, lines to divide editorial work from news.

UPDATE: O’Donovan is a now a mentor-editor for The Op-Ed Project and a master’s degree candidate at Trinity College Dublin, and she was a 2013 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

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