Once a month, Op-Ed Project fellows come together for a call with a top media figure. In January, we spoke with Huffington Post managing editor Jimmy Soni. The Huffington Post caters daily to 6.2 million users, who click on and view 18 million pages per day. Below, edited for length and clarity, are a few of the important takeaways for those looking to submit op-ed pieces to the publication.
OEP: What makes you take notice of a piece? How would you describe the perfect Huffington Post piece?
JS: Some of it is just the basic principles of good content and storytelling. A lot of that isn’t necessarily rocket science. It’s writing something that moves something that moves people on whatever topic it is you’re writing about. That involves refining and honing your voice, having a strong opinion, and expressing that opinion clearly.
We notice pieces that take off on social media. A big part of the reason for that is the quality of the headline. One of the recommendations that I always give to people who are going to write for us, or write for any other outlet is, ‘think about the fact that your piece on Facebook is now competing with your friends’ wedding photos, and with the announcement of your sister’s new son, with some other article from another outlet.’ You’re competing in the ultimate small-day democracy of content. Your headline should be clear, it should tell the reader why they should care about something. It should convince them to click on the piece itself. In the social web, which we are all in, where content competes against all different kinds of content created by professional organizations and by people, your headline matters a great deal. That is something that is very important.
At the core, it’s ‘have you said something that’s funny, counterintuitive, draws on people’s heartstrings, have you done it in a way that’s clear, that has voice?’ I think one of the most important things to remember about the Huffington Post platform and our bloggers in particular is it’s not the famous names that go viral; it just isn’t. Sometimes, somebody of note will say something that’s a little bit counterintuitive or interesting. But the blogs that really take off for us, typically tend to be are people who don’t have another platform. They come to us and they publish something and we make it possible for millions of people to see it. You don’t need to have a preexisting platform to have it go viral; you really just need to write something that moves people.
OEP: Are you looking for different topics areas of expertise that you find you don’t get a lot of?
JS: We cover everything under the sun. We publish so many different kinds of content from so many different kinds of people. Two years ago after the Democratic National Convention, a 15-year-old girl published a piece on our site called “Love Letter to Michelle Obama.” After [Michelle Obama’s] speech, she was really inspired. She wrote a piece, we published it on our Teen site, and the White House called us the next day and said, “Can you give us the contact information for this young woman? We want to fly her to Washington to meet the first lady.”
The more personal the better. People tend to shy away from personal stories and I think people do that to their detriment. I think that people will connect with your piece if there’s an element in there to connect with.
There’s a section for whatever you want to say on the Huffington Post. I would recommend that you focus not on what section is it going to live in, but what it is you’re actually trying to communicate.
MC: How would you recommend people with expertise in an area write about it for the general audience?
JS: One way is to find a news hook. Something happens in the news. It’s connected in 1 degree or 2 degrees of separation from the thing that you work on and you make a point about it based on the research that you’ve done. That is a classic way to formulate a piece if you feel like you need a peg. It’s industry standard.
The more important thing is every piece should try to make one small point but to make it very clearly. That’s a tricky thing. When they first start out doing this kind of work, the 800-1500-word pieces, they feel like they’ve got to get everything and the kitchen sink in a single piece. If you try to do that, you will be very frustrated. I would isolate a single strand of what you’re trying to say and make that into a compelling op-ed format.
OEP: Is 800-1,500 words the sweet spot?
JS: People’s attention spans on the internet are very short. That is something to recognize. You have very limited space in which to move a reader enough to read through your whole piece. The place you really need to place a lot of time and attention is that very first paragraph, that very first sentence; the first 100-200 words are going to determine [a lot]–not always, but often. If they’re passionate about the topic, they’ll read through the whole thing. I want to try to encourage you to reach as many people as possible. The way to do that is to figure out, “What do those opening grafs say? How am I going to reach this very broad audience? What are the themes and points that are going to resonate from the beginning?”
OEP: A while ago, you said “Social is the new front page.” What do you mean by that?
JS: The dominant players in the publishing space are Facebook, Twitter, Vine, Instagram, to a lesser extent LinkedIn, and Pinterest. Social networks are where people go for information, news, entertainment. Much of America begins their day now, one of the first places they go is facebook.com. Within the media industry, a lot of people start their day on Twitter. It’s worth knowing that because it will impact how you think about the post you’re writing, about the kind of audience you want to reach, about your headline, about your images. There is a potentially limitless audience for you now, whereas in an older era of publishing, people used to go front pages. They used to go to nytimes.com or huffingtonpost.com. That is less and less true now. We get less and less traffic from our front pages. We get much more traffic through what we call the ‘sidedoor’–a newsletter that you get to your inbox, a post that you see on Facebook, a post you see on Twitter when you’re on Twitter. It’s the ultimate democratizing force for content. It means that great content, no matter what the source is, no matter what the publisher is, will rise to the surface.