Stuart Whatley is a Huffington Post Associate Blog Editor in the Washington D.C. bureau. Other than HuffPost, his writing has appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Guardian, TruthDig.com, The American Prospect, Free Inquiry and other outlets. He spoke with OpEd Project Intern Ravenna Koenig about what he looks for in a good op-ed, what’s up next for the Huffington Post, and the most important lesson he’s learned about submitting opinion pieces.
Ravenna Koenig: What advice would you give to people looking to get published by the HuffPost?
Stuart Whatley: The most important thing is speaking from a perspective where you have credibility. A lot of the pitches we get are from people who read the newspaper, make observations and become kind of armchair experts… and you can do that—in some ways it’s the only way to start—but at the end of the day it kind of puts you at a disadvantage. Obviously we’re going to take an op-ed on the filibuster from a senator who’s working to reform it versus someone who just read the New York Times that morning. Write from where you have credibility.
RK: I know you get a really wide range of pieces, what are the common elements of the best pieces?
SW: Well, you want to get the style and the format down. 700 words or so, state your point early on; you don’t want to lace it with a forced use of big words. Clear, succinct. The biggest thing for us—because we’re a pretty fast-paced news site—is timeliness. It means you probably need to know something about it beforehand… Like the Citizens United court case a few weeks ago: we had tons of stuff that came in that day, the next day, and the day after that. After that, people were sending in fine pieces, but everything had already been said. It’s easy for your average citizen to make all the same observations on what it meant, but the ones we ran offered something beyond that— [were by] people who were speaking from a strong expert position. For aspiring writers the idea is just: be able to tell, are you going to be able to be the best authority on subject?
RK: In just a couple of years the HuffPost has gone from being a relatively small blog to perhaps the major online news source ( 3.7 million unique visitors), adding new content areas and developing a non-profit investigative journalism arm. What’s next for the Huffington Post?
SW: We’ve been opening some local pages, like the LA page, the Denver page, we’re opening an art section soon, a foods section. Basically what you can see us doing is creeping out to cover all those things that traditional newspapers have generally covered. With my job it’s just about getting more and more strong outside voices contributing on the site.
RK: Out of curiosity, how did you get your job as a Huffington Post Associate Blog Editor?
SW: My first year out of college I worked for a law firm, which was completely unrelated, but I had always enjoyed writing, so during that time I started doing the whole blind submitting op-eds to newspapers thing. That’s how I started learning what they were looking for, what kinds of things belong on the op-ed pages, who should be writing them, etc. I would either never hear back, or get turned down but then I started tailoring [my articles] to where I had expertise. The first thing I got published was in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about Wake Forest University, where I went to school, changing its policy to make submitting one’s SAT score optional. Since I was a recent grad, I was speaking from a position of some credibility. And then once you start getting stuff published, it lends itself well to continuously being published. After that I did some internships in [Washington] D.C.; then I was an intern at the Huffington Post before I was hired. At that point I had been working with the news side and the blog side, so I had a good sense of what was going on in the news, what was timely, and also a good sense of what we were looking for on the site.
RK: The difficulty of transforming “old media” employees into “new media” employees was recently cited by Kenneth Lerer as the reason a number of people “ungracefully” left the HuffPost. What do you think is the difference between “new” and “old” media journalists? What has been your experience with these factions?
SW: In some cases you can definitely tell when you’re dealing with someone who’s used to old media versus someone who’s used to new. Fortunately my part of the HuffPost, the blog side, can be a lot like old media. We’re looking for op-ed type pieces, but obviously there’s more flexibility than in your traditional newspaper. You can tell when people aren’t too tech-savvy or blog-savvy but they still fit in well enough. Bascially, we just have a lot more options [than traditional media]: we can run your traditional op-ed or something more unique—it all depends on who wrote it, the angle they used, etc. The biggest difference is definitely the faster-paced environment—we turn it over much more quickly than a traditional paper ever would. I think there’s a subtle paradigm shift [from old to new media]—I don’t think it’s absolute, a lot of stuff is still the same. Pieces still need to be timely, topical, and well sourced—all that stuff is still the same. It’s more a matter of going viral, making a unique point that can’t be found anywhere else. With so many voices out there, it’s pretty hard to have a totally unique argument. We’re always looking for stuff that stands out.
RK: You write predominantly about politics: in a world so inundated by so much information, how do you filter through it all and decide what to write about? Do you have any advice for how the average person can abreast of political events?
SW: It’s impossible to keep track of everything. I would find a collection of sources and sites that you trust and that you enjoy reading. Here we all have RSS feeds that deliver everything to you. I’m big into magazines. I subscribe to, like, ten different ones, even though I can’t read them all it gives you a good sense of what’s going on. Basically you have to be a voracious news consumer to get a thorough understanding of what’s going on in the world on any given day.