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The Why, Who and How
of the Editorial Page

fourth edition

Kenneth Rystrom
Virginia Polytechnic and State University


Since publication of the first edition of The Why, Who and How of the Editorial Page, typical assignments for editorial writers have expanded far beyond the traditional unsigned newspaper editorial. Opinion writers these days may be asked to write broadcast editorials, signed columns, interpretive articles, cultural reviews, opinion essays for the Internet and pieces that might be labeled "public journalism."

With each edition, this book has reflected the increasing variety of assignments; yet, the goal of the book remains the same. The suggestion that I write this book came from officers of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, who wanted a textbook that would benefit both college students and professional editorial writers. I had three purposes in mind. First, I wanted to help students and beginning editorial writers learn how to write newspaper and broadcast editorials and a broader array of opinion pieces. Second, I wanted to help them understand what it is like to be an opinion writer today. Third, I wanted to show them not only the practical aspects of opinion writing, but the historical and theoretical as well.

Responses to each edition have encouraged me to keep the book up to date. I am grateful to the journalists and journalism professors who over the years have helped make this book the leading textbook on opinion writing, the first such book to go into a fourth edition. Several editors have told me they require their new editorial writers to study the book before they start writing. Some editorial writers report that they keep their copies of the book in their offices. The book has been widely used in college and university courses with various titles: editorial writing, opinion writing, persuasive writing and feature writing.

In response to comments and suggestions from journalists, journalism professors and students, this edition retains the basic content and format of the previous editions. The book has been updated to reflect current issues and ideas about opinion writing and opinion pages. Responding to requests, I have expanded discussions of specific skills and types of opinion writing. The new edition also has more examples. Most of the examples in this edition are new.


As the title suggests, the book consists of three main sections.

Part I, "The Why of the Editorial Page," looks at where opinion writing has come from, where it is today and where it might be headed. Chapter 1 provides a more extensive and in-depth account of the history of the American editorial page than previous editions, probably a more extensive and in-depth account than any other publication now in print. It demonstrates that, while some of today's editorial page policies and practices are rooted in the rich, exciting past, the story of the American editorial page is principally that of change-how editors and writers, both in the past and today, face the challenge of political, social and cultural changes. Chapter 2 examines a range of varied editorial approaches-from the "bugle call" to the strictly logical. Historical and recent examples are intended to inspire as well as instruct students and professional writers.

Part II, "The Who of the Editorial Page," describes how people become opinion writers; how they can prepare themselves to become writers, or better writers; and how editorial writers fit into the newspaper organization and the wider community. Included are chapters on relations with publishers and owners, the news staff, the editorial page staff and the community. Over the years, the role of the opinion writer has been changing in all of these relationships. As will become evident in this edition, this role continues to change. In many ways, opinion writers now are better prepared and are being given more responsibility than in the past, but more also is expected of them in terms of knowledge, commitment and integrity.

Part III, "The How of the Editorial Page," is the largest section of the book. It explains how to write opinion pieces and edit opinion pages. It emphasizes how writers and editors can do their jobs better, whether in writing editorials, handling letters to the editor and syndicated features, bringing diverse opinions to the page or attracting readers with innovative designs or new features. I have made a particular effort to expand coverage, reflect current issues and provide more examples, while maintaining the fundamental strengths of this section.

Throughout, the book is extensively illustrated with journalists' ideas, thoughts and experiences (some of them contradictory) about how opinion pieces should be written and opinion pages produced. Principles and guidelines are illustrated with a variety of sample editorials, other opinion pieces, and editorial and op-ed pages.

As I recount some of my own experiences and state my opinions, I hope readers will catch my enthusiasm for opinion page work. I have enjoyed writing my own editorials and editing other people's. I have found pleasure in seeing the results of editing and arranging letters, columns and cartoons on an opinion page. Probably as much as anything, I have enjoyed the life of an editorial writer as a recognized member of, and participant in, a community. I feel confident that, as users of this book read about what writers and editors have said and done, they will conclude that these writers and editors too see their jobs as fun, interesting and stimulating.


The new edition has been expanded and updated to reflect current issues in the field, as well as suggestions and comments from journalism professors, opinion page writers and students. These efforts have focused especially on five areas: the breadth of opinion writing, examples, innovations, the Internet and comments from working journalists.

Breadth: This edition takes a broader view of opinion writing than earlier editions did. Traditional newspaper and broadcast editorials are thoroughly studied, as in the past, but I have also given more attention to the growing opportunities to write cultural reviews, signed opinion pieces, columns, interpretive articles, "public journalism" articles and Internet contributions.

Examples: This edition contains approximately 100 sample editorials, opinion pieces and excerpts from a wide range of newspapers and other sources-more than in previous editions. Almost all these examples are new to this edition. Thanks to Internet resources, I have been able to include very recent examples.

Innovations: This edition continues the practice of emphasizing new ideas and practices that writers and editors have tried to make their pages more informative, lively and attractive to readers. These innovations include ways of handling letters to the editor, employing columnists and cartoonists, designing opinion pages, encouraging reader and community participation and making use of the Internet.

Internet: The Internet has given rise to many new resources and opportunities, which I have tried to reflect in this edition. Throughout the book, potential sources of information for opinion writers are listed. Some chapters describe how opinion writers and editors are using the Internet to expand the readership of their editorials, encourage reader contributions, offer new types of community forums and conduct opinion polls. The e-mail discussion group sponsored by the National Conference of Editorial Writers makes it possible for members to engage in an ongoing discussion of editorial issues, problems and ideas.

Comments from working journalists: The ideas and opinions of a wide range of editorial page writers, editors and scholars have been incorporated in this edition. Efforts have been made especially to reflect current issues and circumstances by drawing on articles and books that have appeared since the last edition. As in the past, many of the articles that are cited appeared in The Masthead, the quarterly publication of the National Conference of Editorial Writers.


Although I had written editorials as a college student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I had assumed that editorial writing was reserved for journalists late in their careers. I was surprised when, at age 28, I was asked by Professor Nathaniel B. Blumberg of the University of Montana whether I would be interested in a job he had heard about. Lauren K. Soth of the Des Moines Register and Tribune was looking for a person who would write editorials, edit and lay out the Tribune's editorial page. Soth had recently won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing. I immediately applied, and spent five years under his guidance, learning how to write and edit opinion pieces. I suspect that the way I write editorials and teach editorial writing can be traced to what I learned in Des Moines. Much of my understanding of issues grew out of listening to 10 editorial writers sitting around Soth's office every morning at 9 a.m., talking about the affairs of the world. I also learned a lot from being called into Soth's office to discuss my latest editorial effort. The basic message of my Des Moines experience was that you should try to convince readers, not harangue them.

Although you can't expect to learn in five years everything there is to know about editorial pages, I accepted an invitation to become an editorial page editor (and sole editorial page staff member) on the newspaper on which I had been a reporter before I went to Des Moines, the Columbian, in Vancouver, Wash. I quickly learned that it was possible to write two editorials a day; handle the letters, columns and cartoons and lay out the page-and still find time to get around the community and have a family and social life. As I look back now, those days seem the most exciting and fulfilling. Much of the reason was that the paper was owned by two brothers, Don and Jack Campbell, who knew what was needed to produce a good newspaper and who were willing to provide the resources, guidance and freedom to produce such a newspaper. They were committed to a strong, independent editorial voice.

As the paper and the community grew, the Columbian added a second, and then a third, person to work on the editorial page. While I was there, the other positions were held by Elisabet Van Nostrand, Dennis Ryerson and Mike Heywood, all of whom have had distinguished editorial writing careers. I must acknowledge that, especially during my solo years, I often relied on Erwin O. Rieger, the managing editor, to write the second editorial of the day—and to run the page, in addition to his other duties, when I was out of town. The other staff members taught me as much about editorial pages as I ever taught them.

Before that, my mother, Zella Rae Borland Rystrom, first inspired me and taught me the love of writing. Nathaniel Blumberg, my first journalism professor, in Nebraska, introduced me to the wonders and challenges of journalism. During my first stint on the Columbian, managing editor Erwin Rieger forced me to face the rigors of responsible and accurate reporting. On the Des Moines newspaper, Lauren Soth fostered a love of editorial writing in me that, for more than four decades, I have considered to be the highest possible calling for a journalist.

I also had assumed that teaching journalism would come even later in life than writing editorials. At my 20-year mark in working on newspapers, Nathaniel Blumberg introduced me to the possibility of teaching. After serving as a visiting editor for a quarter at the University of Montana, I found myself looking for opportunities to switch careers. A one-year appointment at Washington State University was followed by six years at the University of Redlands and 13 years at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. I am grateful for the support and help that I received from fellow faculty members and students during my 20 years on university campuses.

I also want to express my appreciation to the countless editorial writers and editors with whom I have associated through the National Conference of Editorial Writers. Without the encouragement and contributions from members of NCEW, this book literally would not have been possible. The officers of NCEW have allowed, in fact urged, me to draw as much as I wished upon the rich, varied contents of 55 years of that organization's quarterly, The Masthead. During the nearly 40 years that I have been a member of NCEW, Cora Everett, who only recently retired as executive secretary of that organization, has provided friendship, support and assistance in producing all four editions of this book.

I also want to express my appreciation to my friend Patricia Romanov, who has provided support and suggestions, particularly in writing the introduction and deciding on the design of the book.

My thanks also go to the reviewers whose many substantial contributions helped me refine and improve the book. For the first edition, they were R. Thomas Berner, The Pennsylvania State University; Kenneth Edwards, University of Alabama; Robert C. Kochersberger, Jr., State University of New York, College at Cortland; William McKeen, Western Kentucky University, and Robert M. Ours, West Virginia University.

For the second edition, they were Sharon Barrett, University of Montana; David Bennett, Indiana State University; Terry M. Clark, University of Central Oklahoma; Martin L. Gibson, The University of Texas at Austin, and Donald A. Lambert, Ohio University.

For the third edition, they were Joan Atkins, Morehead State University; Sharon Barrett, University of Montana; Eric Bishop, University of LaVerne; Robert H. Bohler, Georgia Southern University; Max Coursen, Pembroke State University; William A. Fisher, Winthrop University; Kate Hastings, Susquehanna University; Mary S. Haupt, State University of New York, College at Binghamton; R.V. Hudson, Michigan State University; Saundra Hybels, Lock Haven University; Arnold Mackowiak, Eastern Michigan University; Orayb Najjar, Northern Illinois University; Neil Nemeth, Pittsburg State University; John David Reed, Eastern Illinois University; William J. Roach, University of North Florida, and Jerry Reynolds, Humboldt State University.

For the fourth edition, they were Susan J. Albright, Editorial Page Editor, Minneapolis, Minn., Star Tribune; Robert J. Caldwell, Editorial Page Editor, Portland Oregonian; Dan Radmacher, Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune; John J. Breen, University of Connecticut; Lori Demo, University of Kansas; Coke Ellington, Alabama State University; George Fattman, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown; David Feldman, San Diego State University; William A. Fisher, Winthrop University; Patsy Gordon, University of Texas at Arlington; Tim Hanson, Francis Marion University; Repps B. Hudson, Washington University; Gerald B. Jordan, University of Arkansas; Charity Lyon, Northwestern Oklahoma State University; John McClelland, Roosevelt University; Mike McDevitt, University of Colorado; Deckle McLean, Western Illinois University; Joe Mirando, Southeastern Louisiana University; Philip Potempa, Valparaiso University; John David Reed, Eastern Illinois University; Jerry Reynolds, Humboldt State University; Sam G. Riley, Virginia Tech; Sharon Stringer, Lock Haven University; Brian Thornton, Northern Illinois University, and Liz Watts, Texas Tech University.

In putting out the first edition, as a neophyte to book publishing, I was helped by Mary Shuford, Martha Leff and Kathleen Domenig at Random House. Nearly a decade later, when Kathleen had established Strata Publishing, Inc., she asked me if I would be interested in working with her to publish a second edition. In the preface to that edition I wrote: "The result, from my point of view, has been the smoothest major writing effort with which I had been associated." In the preface to the third edition, I reported that working with Kathleen on that edition was "the smoothest and the most enjoyable." Although as my editor Kathleen often has advised me against unnecessary repetition, in this case "the smoothest and most enjoyable label" must be attached to the fourth edition. Kathleen is a demanding, meticulous, creative editor. She is more than that. After four editions she knows about as much about editorial writing and editorials as I do. She is at least as devoted as I am to producing the best possible book on opinion writing.

Copyright © 1983, 1994, 1999, 2004 Kenneth Rystrom.



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