On November 30, the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre hosted “Opening the Opinion Page,” a panel exploring the role and relevance of editorials and op-eds. Watch it here!
-Robyn Urback, CBC News columnist and editor of CBC’s Opinion page
-Andrew Phillips, Editorial Page Editor of the Toronto Star.
-Moderated by Ann Rauhala, Professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism.
Opinion editors opine on opinion journalism
By Ben Cohen
CBC and Toronto Star editors shared the stage at Ryerson last month, for a behind-the-scenes look at opinion journalism.
Robyn Urback, CBC News columnist and editor of CBC’s opinion page and Andrew Phillips, editorial page editor of the Toronto Star, took part in “Opening the Opinion Page,” a panel moderated by Journalism professor Ann Rauhala.
The Ryerson Journalism Research Centre organized the discussion to unpack the process behind editorial and opinion publishing, and exploring its role and relevance.
What makes a good editorial writer?
Each day, the Toronto Star publishes an unsigned editorial — and it’s up to Phillips and his team to determine the topic and craft the piece.
Phillips said successful editorial writers should be “clear-minded.”
“You get an awful lot of people who have an opinion, but they’re fuzzy about how they got there,” he said. “To do (editorial writing) well, you need to have a rigorous mind and able to go to the heart of the matter of a complicated issue.”
“It’s a certain cast of mind, and not everybody has it,” added Phillips, who has been running the Star’s editorial pages since 2011. Before that, he served as editor of the Victoria Times Colonist and The Montreal Gazette, and was a writer and editor at CBC Television News and Maclean’s, as well as business editor of the Star..
Selecting the writers and topics
When selecting pieces to run in the CBC Opinion page, Urback said she emphasizes balance and novelty.
“It sounds very cliché, but I’m always looking for writers who represent Canada,” Urback said. “Part of my job, and why I was hired on, is to work with people who may have never written a column before.”
Urback, who graduated from Ryerson with a degree in journalism, cut her teeth writing opinion articles for Maclean’s Magazine. She went on to contribute to major news outlets across the country until joining the National Post as a columnist and editorial board member in 2013. In 2016, she left the Post to work at CBC.
Whereas Phillips largely edits the work of full-time and regular columnists employed by the Star, Urback’s contributors are often freelance and from all over the country.
Urback says the “luxury” of working for an online-only opinion page is that she can help inexperienced writers who may have fresher, valuable perspectives.
“I don’t have to fill two pages every day, so I’m spending time working with the grandmas out in St. Thomas to get their columns up-to-snuff and publishable,” she said.
Working for a daily newspaper, Phillips said news and current events-focused pieces usually nab the top spots in his section.
Phillips tries to keep a healthy mix of stories circulating his pages, he said, noting that there’s a tendency for certain events to attract more columns.
“When the St. Michael’s College scandal broke, after the first day or so, there was a flood of people wanting to sound off about it,” said Phillips.
With each piece he runs on a particular topic, Phillips said, the bar gets higher for subsequent pitches.
“People have to have something more to add.”
Opinions becoming news
Urback said she is mindful of the fact that opinion pieces tackling big events can often become news themselves. As an editor, she says the knowledge that you’re putting something out there that can change or derail the conversation is an “extraordinary burden.”
Urback cited one particular column, written about actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s controversial lifestyle brand Goop coming to Canada, that had its own impact on the news cycle.
“I had a million pitches about why Goop is pseudoscience, and that’s fine, I’ve read that piece a thousand times, but I got a pitch from a doctor who wrote a piece about how Goop appeals to women in particular,” she said.
Thee column’s thesis was that Goop is successful because it identified the fact that many women don’t feel heard when they go to the doctor. Urback said, after it was published, the author’s phone “blew up” with interview requests.
“It really became this huge thing,” she said. “The initial peg was a news story, ‘Goop is coming to Canada, let’s talk about it,’ but the angle that she found was so unique and I think it was so bang-on that it changed the conversation.”
Phillips said that at the moment, there is a “very active debate” on giving a platform to reviled people and opinions.
The line is narrower than he would like, he said, which is a detriment to people who enjoy opinion journalism and want to see diverse perspectives clash.
“Of course, there are people you don’t platform,” said Phillips.
“Different organizations might draw the line differently. For our purposes, an opinion might be perfectly reasonable, even well done, but I might think ‘you know, that might be a great piece in the Toronto Sun, but it isn’t really a Toronto Star piece.’”
“It’s branding. It doesn’t mean that the person has no right to speak, it just means that, as the Toronto Star, we choose not to particularly select that in our menu,” he added.
The editorial line is more difficult to draw at CBC, Urback said. Her concern when publishing a controversial piece is the repercussions it can have on its author – up to and including death threats.
“You have to talk to writers beforehand, especially if they’re new, and say ‘look, the CBC’s platform is humongous, you’re going to piss people off. Are you ready to do this?’” she said.
Urback rejected the initial industry concern that CBC’s opinion page would eclipse smaller news organizations already struggling to survive, saying that many Canadian opinion sections were already “devolving on their own.”
She says many newspapers began laying off columnists and shrinking editorial boards before CBC got into the opinion business.
“It wasn’t the CBC that was responsible for closing down the opinion section of the National Post. These places were shutting down already.”
*Disclosure: The author’s sister wrote the aforementioned CBC article about Goop.