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.