A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of talking with Josh Burek, editor of the Opinion column of the Christian Science Monitor. Josh was kind enough to give a detailed look into the current world of journalism, supplied some entertaining stories from his career, and provided some tips for aspiring writers and journalists. Josh is clearly an expert in his field, and I am thrilled to share our conversation with the OpEd Project’s readers.
You’ve been at the Christian Science Monitor for more than 10 years now. Why is the Monitor so special? What drew you to the publication initially?
I read the publication a bit growing up, but my interest was first sparked when I had a chance to meet some of the Monitor’s foreign correspondents at a media panel in college. I was utterly absorbed in the stories of their reporting work. I thought to myself, “Wow, that sounds like a fantastic way to get paid.” (laughs) I really respected the quality of thought among the journalists here. I think the Monitor is one of the last public-service media outlets: It has always put a premium on independent thought, and it focuses on global, human stories more than just Washington or American interests. I was very drawn to that.
Why did you decide to focus specifically on opinion journalism?
I don’t know that I did so much as I fell into it. When I read a paper at home, the first pages I look for are the sports and opinion pages, so I guess I am a bit of an opinion junkie. But I don’t think I expected or set a personal goal of aiming for opinion journalism specifically. I guess through my editing work and my policy interests it was a natural path. People in journalism today are usually utterly determined to be the London correspondent or reach some other specific post, but my interests have always been broader, so it just made sense to be in a section that covers the waterfront of ideas, and the news. It is a good fit for my intellectual interests.
What are you looking for in a column submission?
I look for breathtaking insight about a timely topic. We work hard to comb through the many submissions we get each week, looking for people who know the topic and can say something interesting. If it’s not utterly unique, it should be framed in a special way that draws readers in. So we aim for something fresh, provocative, or insightful. Furthermore, as a family newspaper, we are receptive to and publish frequently essays that deal with “real life” issues. For example, we often run really interesting commentary from a mother in Illinois who writes with delicious wit about middle class values and parenting styles. It’s coffee klatch meets cultural anthropology and her pieces provide great fodder for conversation among our readers.
What percent of women submit to you? What percent are you running?
We don’t have hard statistics on this currently, but of the pieces that come to us unsolicited I would say there exists a 5:1 male to female ratio, and we publish women’s pieces in the range of 20-30 percent. Some weeks that percentage is higher but it depends upon the news. Sometimes it feels like you’re only hearing from all the think tank guys in DC.
How many op-eds do you run per week?
Per week, we run 12-to-25 op-eds. We receive 100to 50 unsolicited submissions a week. Between 10 and 30% of what we run is commissioned,
How about op-eds online versus in print?
Just 3 pieces a week in print, and as many as we can online.
What’s your overall circulation at CSM?
Our print circulation is slightly above 75,000 and our website attracts monthly at least 25 million page views, making us one of the top 200 websites in the world.
The Christian Science Monitor stopped print issues other than a once-weekly release. In a way the publication has become a pioneer in the field of paperless publishing. What has it been like watching the field evolve over the last decade?
It’s been a roller coaster ride: it’s equal part thrilling and depressing. The lay-offs have been brutal. But at the same time, the threats to the industry have forced it to innovate in a way that it never has before. Weask ourselves, “What do readers want and need? How can we supply that value to them as quickly and effectively as possible? It’s a fast and exciting time, even though it’s a little unnerving because major news organizations are trying new things and some of them end up failing. We’re all waiting to see how it turns out.
Did anything about the transition from print to online publishing surprise you in particular?
It never really felt like a huge transition because the CSM has had a website since 1996, but one thing that did surprise me is that our print circulation grew substantially after moving from daily to weekly. I think that’s because our old distribution method (via postal service) gave us terrible deadlines that forced our reporters to file 12 hours before their competitors at the Times or elsewhere – but now we don’t have those constraints. Being on a weekly schedule gives us extra time to emphasize our correspondents’ analytical talent, and I think our product looks stronger as a result.
What is your favorite story regarding your time at CSM and why?
Wow, there are lots of them! My favorite actually has little to do with journalism, but it show how reporting sometimes interacts with personal interests. When I was an intern, the realization hit me one day that as a journalist I could call anyone in the world. So I decided to ring a childhood hero of mine, someone named Ashrita Furman, who’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for holding the greatest number of world records. He is something of a guru who uses his athletic pursuits as a sort of spiritual practice. After talking for two hours on the phone, he invited me to New York to attempt to break the record for longest grape toss caught in someone’s mouth. We came up a bit short, but it was a really extraordinary day to meet a figure who is endlessly fascinating and we did a really fun story on his philosophy and on how and why he breaks these records. Just a few months ago, The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page profile of Ashrita Furman, so it was gratifying to see the Journal run the same story I wrote when I was 22 – and to see that Ashrita’s still going at i, even in his 50s.
As an aspiring writer and journalist, I must ask: can you give me a tip for what you are looking for in a publication/opinion piece?
I look for clarity of thought, first and foremost. An opinion piece must know what it is about. One clear idea and that’s it. One idea expressed urgently, clearly and provocatively. Sounds easy, but it’s actually quite difficult, and it’s why many people with impressive credentials don’t get published. Honestly, you should master the structure of a standard op-ed. Once you’ve become proficient in the form you are free to be focus on the substance of your argument.
If your career as a journalist began today, what would you tell yourself regarding the field and its constantly evolving state?
I would tell myself to focus just as much on knowledge as on skills. Once journalists could get by just on skills, but now, because of the commodification of the industry, knowledge is just as important. A reporter who can quickly sum up events across a variety of fields is, though still valuable, an increasingly endangered species. Now journalists need talents across multiple platforms, such as coding and video experience, but they also need a well of knowledge and expertise or it will be a lot harder to get a job. I tell interns here, though journalism school can be valuable, perhaps a law or history degree would be more productive in supplying a body of knowledge to their reporting work.
As last week’s headlines on the popular revolution in Egypt are replaced by the violent protests taking place across Libya, comparisons drawn between the two countries are constant.
In her piece Libya Protests: Muammar Gaddafi’s Leadership Vacuum, Eliza Griswold of the Daily Beast argues the importance of recognizing that the two countries are fundamentally different.
“When it comes to a functioning civil society, Libya is a near total vacuum. It is home to six million people, not Egypt’s 80 million, who have lived in almost total isolation for 41 years. Internet access is limited. So are opportunities for study abroad for anyone whose last name isn’t Gaddafi. Unlike Egypt, the country is filthy rich, but that money is meaningless for those outside of the regime.”
According to Griswold, this “vacuum,” means that, global forces have held, and will continue to hold a limited sway over the events taking place in Libya. “Unlike Egypt, there are not millions of tourists arriving every year. There are only a small handful of international visitors, many of whom (including me) have received direct invitations from the Gaddafi regime to come watch their petro-dollar Potemkin village function as an “opening” state.”
Now that Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam has adopted his father’s violent rhetoric, warning that “rivers of blood” would flow if the protests did not stop, it seems there is very little hope for alternative leadership in Libya. Unable to appeal to powers in the West, popular calls for reform have no audience within or beyond the borders of their nation.
Evelyn Leopold, a veteran reporter at the United Nations, offers insight into another difference in the case of Libya: the oil factor. In her column in the Huffington Post, Libya at UN: A Bridge Too Far. Leopold argues that although the the UN Security Council condemned the violence in Libya, “many analysts believe there is little the Council or anyone else could do to convince Gadhafi to step down unless his generals revolt.”
Estimates from human rights groups put the death toll at about 300 people, many in eastern regions, which are now controlled by the opposition in the sparsely-populated country of 6.4 million people, and the Libyan Envoy has now deemed it genocide. In the face of such widespread suffering, it seems there must be universal agreement that the massacre must be stopped.
Yet, according to Leopold, the UN will most likely not move to take action beyond condemning words. Why is there such reluctance to take action? According to Leopold, the West’s appetite for oil is largely to blame.
“Europeans, especially Italy, depend on Libyan oil. World prices soared to a 2 ½ year high and the Dow Jones Industrial Index dropped because of the chaos in Libya.Since since the US invasion of Iraq, any sanctions face a difficult time in the Security Council. Actions by the United States and Europeans on oil and the use of technology to make sure Libyans get information, are more realistic.”
In contrast to the flurry of optimistic commentary that heralded the uprising in Egypt, both Leopold and Griswold present a dismal future for reform and civil society in Libya. If you are frustrated by the UN’s response, or if you have some insight to the future of Gadhafi’s regime, please take this opportunity to voice it.
As we edge closer to the final release of the of the three-month byline report, I wanted to share some insight from one of the writers whose work was surveyed: Elisa Gonzalez of the Yale Daily News. Gonzalez began writing for the YDN op-ed page last spring, when she started a sex, dating and relationship column (not an advice column) called “Post-modern Love” with co-writer Alice Baumgartner. PoMoLove ended last spring, when Baumgartner graduated, but Gonzalez still writes for the op-ed page.
I talked to Gonzalez a bit about her experience writing for the YDN in order to get a sense of the next generation of female opinion writers, and the challenges they face.
Gonzalez said she first considered writing opinion pieces for the YDN because the former editor in chief, who was looking to diversify the op-ed page by including more females, asked her to. But Gonzalez says she was intimidated by the idea of writing for the op-ed page because it required expert status. The decision to write about sex, dating, and relationships came because those were topics Gonzalez had personal experience with, and felt comfortable claiming authority. Despite that confidence measure, the column turned out to be very controversial, becoming the subject of a lot of vitriolic comments and emails- about the authors being “too open.” Gonzalez says she felt that because both writers were women, “people felt more comfortable victimizing us and saying things about our personal lives, especially sex and religion.” Gonzalez and Baumgartner almost quit the column as a result of the reaction, but they persevered to great success. Gonzalez said having a partner was key, because it helped her to realize that “it wasn’t just me being a terrible person and a bad writer.”
When asked why she thinks women contribute less often to the op-ed pages, Gonzalez targeted the feminine reluctance to put personal opinions on the public table, “you have to committed to handling a certain level of criticism, and that can be incredibly scary.” Criticism is scary, but truth be told, women are often in positions of expertise that could be incredibly helpful to others. If you have an opinion, and everyone does, don’t be afraid to voice it.
To read columns by Gonzalez, check out the YDN op-ed page.
Since protests first erupted on the streets of Cairo two weeks ago, the op-ed pages have been filled with commentary regarding the sudden and tremendous upheaval in Egypt, largely focusing on the role of the United States in the region over the past two decades.
Numerous commentators have offered arguments of support for the popular uprising in Egypt, but two female commentators featured in the Huffington Post, Nina Burleigh, and Anushay Hossain, stand apart in arguing this crisis proves U.S. policy and convention toward the region must change, especially in regards to the female population.
Nina Burleigh, in her column entitled Egypt and the Universal Rights of Women, argues that foreigners, especially those living in the United States, must be more aware of how dangerous the uprising is for Egyptian women. Citing several terrifying statistics, including the fact that 90% of Egyptian women are genitally mutilated, Burleigh argues “misogyny is a fundamental pillar on which radical Islam is based,” and the subjugation of females “is the driving force behind Islamist rage.” Burleigh urges American foreign policy makers to move beyond their focus on “the War on Terror” to address the real danger to the female population, arguing that Western leaders must reconsider the definition of the boundary between a cultural trait and a human rights violation, as it pertains to women.
Anushay Hossain also takes issue with the dominant Western perspectives on the Arab world. In her column entitled The Fight for Democracy: How Protests in Egypt and Iran shatter myths about Muslim Women, Hossain highlights the role of women at the forefront of the Green revolution in Iran last summer and the current uprising in Egypt. Hossain argues these efforts have worked to undermine the Western convention of Muslim women as “passive, voiceless, and apathetic when it comes to our country’s politics.” The past year has proven that “democracy and women’s rights go hand in hand. And no group understands that equation better than Muslim women.”
Both Burleigh and Hussain use their columns to argue for change in current U.S. policy toward the Middle East in regard to the female population. Although they offer very different perspectives, the crux of their respective arguments hinges on the same plea: attention to the female population living in the Arab world must be paid.
Thus far, President Obama’s administration has been attempting to treading lightly, straddling the precarious balance between acknowledging the rampant corruption of Mr. Mubarak’s regime without denouncing the American-backed leader, continuing to caution against dramatic and rapid change. Burleigh and Hussain make it clear just how much is at stake for Muslim women at this moment, an angle that U.S. foreign policy experts cannot afford to ignore.
On January 31st, Noam Cohen published an article in the New York Times highlighting the gender gap in Wikipedia’s contributor list, sparking heated debate across a myriad of news sources.
In just ten years, Wikipedia has become what many consider to be the most democratic, accessible information resource available. Indeed, anyone with internet access can go to Wikipedia to add their two cents on any given topic, regardless of their individual identity and experience. Yet statistics reveal that despite this egalitarian model, the information provided on Wikipedia derives from a fairly homogenous sector of the world’s population: one that is overwhelmingly male.
Last year, the Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that runs Wikipedia, released a survey showing that just 13-percent of Wikipedia’s contributors were female. These striking statistics beg the question: What do you do when a website founded on the values of freedom and openness turns out to be heavily tilted toward the male population?
If you’re executive director Sue Gardner, you respond by launching new efforts to raise the percentage of female contributors to 25-percent by the year 2015. But Gardner’s initiative is not driven by a desire to expand the website’s diversity.
In an interview with Cohen, Gardener said this effort is aimed at improving Wikipedia’s content. “This is about wanting to ensure that the encyclopedia is as good as it could be. Everyone brings their crumb of information to the table,” she said. “If they are not at the table, we don’t benefit from their crumb.”
Indeed, the gender disparity is most apparent in terms of emphasis. According to Cohen’s article, those topics generally considered to be female-oriented, such as fashion or feminism, are often supplied with less information than gender neutral, or male-favored topics.
What does all this mean for Wikipedia users? Although Wikipedia turned a mere 10 years old this January, it has become a staple information source, especially among college students. Despite professor’s pleas to avoid a website they view as unreliable, many college students barely remember the internet prior its arrival, and do not care to. Accessibility is the key- if you come across an unfamiliar theory, movement, or a name, more often than not explanation is just a few clicks away.
If the gender gap is influencing what kind of information is most readily available, users of Wikipedia have very good reason to be concerned. The fact that the majority of the information available on the site derives from such a small sector of the population is troublesome, because it means most the population is not weighing in. As those of us here at the OpEd Project know, without those voices, you can never have the complete story.
So how to encourage those of us who are a little more time-crunched, and a little less tech-savvy to contribute? According to Cohen, Ms. Gardner said that for now she was “trying to use subtle persuasion and outreach through her foundation to welcome all newcomers to Wikipedia, rather than advocate for women-specific remedies like recruitment or quotas.” But in the face of such a large gender gap, it seems Gardner may have to take some more drastic measures in order to see change.
For those of you out there who use Wikipedia once a day, use this opportunity to contribute to a page or two!