Social media provides op-ed writers opportunities and challenges

Tony Messenger, left, listens to John Harwood talk about using social media to connect with his readers.
Tony Messenger, left, listens to John Harwood talk about using social media to connect with his readers.
Social media provides professional opinion writers and editors with new opportunities and huge challenges.

John Harwood, chief Washington Correspondent for CNBC, told a roomful of op-ed writers and editors that they have the opportunity to convert a burden to a benefit Sunday night in Washington D.C. at the joint event with the Association of Opinion Journalists and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

Like much of his audience, Harwood was in newspapers first and still writes a regular column for the New York Times in addition to his television work. He told of a key event in his use of the even-more-immediate forms of social media:

"The whole phenomenon of journalism by social media seemed vain and stupid," he said. But a colleague called Twitter the new A.P. for political coverage. "Once I started, I felt totally different. This is a way to communicate instantly with a reasonable number of people the essence of a news story."

It may be different for the opinion writers, television editorialists and especially for the editors that were in the room. But it can be done, he predicted.

One case of learning from politicos: President Obama cut televised interviews and "is doing a YouTube interview with someone my 17-year-old knows about." That's a new wrinkle on an old dodge by politicians, Harwood said: "They have been trying to cut through the clutter or filters we represent for decades. Reagan did it. Clinton ... Bush … Obama does it."

In a similar way, "We have to look for different ways to cut through the clutter [of internet overload]," he said.

A short-staffed editor asked about how to deal with numerous people who call in wanting to meet the editorial board. "They want to get on the agenda," said Rosemary O'Hara of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, "especially in this fractured environment, and we just don't have the time."

Harwood suggested turning the problem into a service, perhaps a town hall meeting with the editorial board and several groups who need to be heard. He also suggested making video pieces of the citizens speaking.

"The idea of making yourself a sounding board may take many forms," he said. "I was hearing a lot of opportunity to turn that around."

It will not be easy, he conceded, to "stand up for journalism in opposition to many players in our political system with less integrity, at a time when the economic pressures are unbelieveable."

Presidential politics, one of his specialties, came up, of course.

Prodded to predict, he said Hillary Clinton is the best bet for the Democrats. The general election "is fated to be close," he said, because any of the top three Republicans, most likely Jeb Bush, could beat her if they reach out, and perhaps if she has a real fiasco.

Beware pundits' and pollsters' predictions, he implied with Clinton-Obama anecdotes:

When Bill Clinton's draft board finagling came up early in the 1992 campaign, alleged experts declared his chances dead. He won. Some television execs were clueless in the 2012 campaign.

Online media change things, but a key question is still, "What can I do for my audience?" But now, Harwood said, "You have the ability to penetrate beyond the geographic confines of you circulation area."

Politico, sensing a national audience for news from a swing state, is doing a daily Florida political newsletter. A newspaper or journalist in Iowa could find a national readership from now to the primary season or beyond.

Other points mentioned at the talk:

"Do humor only if you are very good at it." Harwood got laughs mimicking Obama's quip to the correspondents' dinner the night before: "Republicans are losing voters left and right. May they rest in peace."

Columnists now have more influence than the institutional editorials because of the sense of personal connection, and because "It's easier for the target to dismiss the [anonymous] editorial."

Harwood said, "You can increase the traction of editorials by personalizing."

One way to counteract that would be to make authorship of the editorials known. On a large board, if someone is the specialist in politics, for example, make that fact known. This prompted the discussion moderator, 2015 Pulitzer Prize runner-up Tony Messenger, to suggest that editors discuss signed editorials.

Harwood said he does analytical analysis, different from the normative analysis on Fox and other cables, by saying "what I think will happen, not what should happen."

Q: Will news on paper survive? A: "I'm scared to death that they won't. … Are we headed to a world with two or three national papers and some local supplements? I don't know. … I hope that creativity and innovation will occur."

Regarding divisive matters in a crazily polarized society, he restated an old truth about opinion writing: "You can affect things on the margins but cannot bring about wholesale change."

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