Influencing Public Policy: An Analysis of Published Op-Eds by Academics



Academics who seek to influence public policy often overlook one of the most valuable tools of influence: op-ed essays in important daily newspapers. Op-eds enable academics to bring their perspective and expertise beyond the usual reach of academic circles and into the public sphere. Through an analysis of 366 articles in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Star-Ledger of Newark in 2006, this article examines how academics can more successfully enter the op-ed pages. We analyze 15 characteristics of a successful op-ed, providing background information on the people and institutions most often published and ten recommendations to guide academics toward a better position from which to influence policy debates. We argue that timeliness, agreement with the editorial page, readability, and an understanding of the target newspaper are essential to op-ed publication and an expansion of academics’ influence over public policy.

Academics who seek to influence public policy often overlook one of the most valuable tools of influence: op-ed essays in important daily newspapers. Read, used, and cited by lawmakers at every level of government, op-eds create influence far beyond the confines of a single page. A successful op-ed builds support for an idea, improves access and relationships with policy makers, and expands and enriches the author's reputation. Through an analysis of 366 articles in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Star-Ledger of Newark, New Jersey from January to December 2006, this article reports important information about how academics can more successfully enter the op-ed pages.

Based on our analysis, and on years of personal experience in media, lobbying, government, and political campaigns, we analyze 15 characteristics of a successful op-ed. We provide background information on the people and institutions most often published, and make ten recommendations to guide academics toward a better position from which to influence the policy debate. We argue that timeliness, agreement with the editorial page, readability, and an understanding of the target newspaper are essential to op-ed publication and an expansion of academics’ influence over public policy.

“Op-ed” is shorthand for the page “opposite the editorial” (Shipley 2004) and is typically written by experts who have an opinion regarding policy issues. First appearing in The New York Times on September 21, 1970, the op-ed page was an instant success imitated quickly by other newspapers (Day and Golan 2005). Today, most newspapers in the United States typically publish two or three op-ed every day, integrated with regular columnists on the op-ed page.

Editorial page editors acknowledge the uniqueness of the op-ed. Then-Deputy Editorial Page Editor David Shipley wrote in February 2004 that an

Op-Ed is different from the editorial page in that it does not represent the views of anyone in the editorial division, even its own editors. It is different from letters in that it is not a venue to debate articles that have appeared in The Times. It is different from the columnists in that . . . the columnists do their own thing. (Shipley 2004)

Adding to this view, The Wall Street Journal (2007) states,

We believe that the ultimate function of the editorial pages is the same as the rest of the newspaper, to inform. But in opinion journalism we have the additional purpose of making an argument for a point of view . . . In stating our own views forcefully, we hope to raise and sharpen the level of debate and knowledge.

It is clear that simply being an expert in policy is not enough to gain access to these papers’ op-ed pages. Shipley (2004) looked “for timeliness, ingenuity, strength of argument, freshness of opinion, clear writing and newsworthiness. Personal experiences and first-person narrative can be great, particularly when they're in service to a larger idea. Does it help to be famous? Not really.” He adds that an “op-ed cannot harbor any aspirations about being encyclopedic.”

Why Are Op-Eds Important?

Unlike articles in the news section, op-eds are openly subjective and highly opinionated, taking strong stands on issues of interest to the newspaper's editorial board. They are meant to appeal either to policy makers or those who influence them and can have a significant impact upon the policy process, especially for those who stand outside of government. Kingdon argues that the media and those who use it shape what policy makers think about, rather than what to think (Kingdon 2003, 57-61). Op-eds can therefore be very powerful as agenda setters, even if they do not necessarily change a lot of minds. We shall see that a great many op-eds seek specifically to call attention to a certain issue, rather than push particular legislation. In addition, “[m]edia act as a communicator inside the policy community” (Kingdon 2003, 59).

At all levels of government, op-eds taking a stand on policy matters are regularly referenced by policy makers. Officials and lobbyists representing all sides in policy debates routinely cite op-eds to bolster their arguments and just as aggressively debunk op-eds opposite to theirs. It is rare during vigorous legislative deliberation that lawmakers do not provide copies of op-eds to urge colleagues to support or oppose a particular position. For academics who are expert in their field and want to have a more direct impact upon public policy debate, publishing an op-ed is vital—both for gaining attention and to enhance credibility with policy makers. A successful op-ed shows that an academic knows what policy makers need and understands that policy making is messier in the capitol than it is in academia.

Successful op-ed authors often find themselves testifying directly before Congress and other government bodies shortly after their articles are published. A few examples: on January 3, 2006 Professor Charles Fried of Harvard Law School wrote a Times op-ed called “Samuel Alito, In Context.” He testified before Congress about Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court on January 13 (Fried 2006). Professor Mark Feldstein of George Washington University wrote a widely syndicated article about journalism and the FBI on April 29, 2006 in The Washington Post and testified in Washington on June 6, 2006 on the Department of Justice's investigation of journalists who publish classified information (Feldstein 2006). More recently, former Senator Sam Nunn, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, and former Secretary of Defense William Perry jointly wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal in January 2007 entitled “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons” (Shultz et al. 2007). It “sent waves through the foreign policy establishment,” according to Michael Crowley (2007, 55). A Google search found their Op-Ed has since been mentioned dozens of times in media around the world and has been cited during congressional debate.

In New Jersey, an ideal example of an op-ed influencing policy occurred in February 2006 when The Star-Ledger published a piece by James Hughes and Joseph Seneca entitled, “Jersey Faces Stagnation If It Can't Handle Growth” (Hughes and Seneca 2006). Not long after Hughes, who is Dean of the Bloustein School of Public Policy at Rutgers University, and Seneca, who is University Professor at the Bloustein School, were invited to testify before the state legislature about their opinions on economic policy.

As Rich and Weaver (2000, 81) write, “media visibility has become an especially important priority for non-governmental organizations whose principal mission is to produce and promote their expertise among policymakers.” The same argument must be made for academics looking to have an impact upon public policy, a point backed by U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ). “One of the most consistent ways for me to learn about academics who have an expertise in issues important to me is reading their views in the media, most typically on the Op-Ed pages” (Menendez 2007). Likewise, former New Jersey Governor and former member of Congress Jim Florio (2007) maintained he has always “avidly read the op-ed pages looking for policy expertise for which [he] was not previously acquainted.” He agreed that it is “one of the most effective means for those in the academic community to introduce their ideas to those in government.”

The potential for influence need not stop there, however. An op-ed serves as a “calling card” for its author, assisting with access to executive branch officials, lawmakers, and their staff. If lawmakers do not contact an author of their own initiative, a well-circulated op-ed serves as a fine introduction for an author trying to expand his or her influence through personal contact with politicians.

Op-eds can also address issues strictly inside the realm of academia. Although they do not allow for the rich analysis of full journal articles, academic debates can and do play out on the opinion page. For example, “Milton Friedman was Right,” an op-ed by Henry G. Manne 2006, A12) in The Wall Street Journal, directly addresses an academic dispute between the author and Milton Friedman. Any Op-Ed has the potential to spur academic conversation and debate and to raise an issue higher on the academic agenda.

Cook (1998, 1) has pointed out that media attention can provide “a means to communicate quickly and directly across and within branches” of government. Publishing an op-ed is the best means to communicate a message through the media to policy makers for several reasons. First is the prominence of having an essay published in the opinion section of an influential newspaper. Second is that in most cases the op-ed is unchallenged. It is wholly the author's opinion and words and is only rarely balanced with a counterpoint op-ed. Having an impact upon academia or the policy-making process is not the only reason op-eds are published. Other reasons that motivate writers include career advancement, financial opportunities for consulting or speaking engagements, and visibility within specific communities. There are also many ways of influencing debate aside from the op-ed page: quotes in newspapers, commentary on television and radio, blogging, letters to the editor, testimony before legislative committees, social networking, sabbatical in a government office, personal meetings with lawmakers, and campaign work, to name but a few. All of these are important and impossible to rank, but few methods provide a more effective way to express one's ideas unfiltered, with more words, and to a larger and yet more targeted audience, than an op-ed. Most important, perhaps, an op-ed will bring attention to the writer that can lead to all of the other means of influencing policy and increasing stature discussed earlier.

Some may object: should academics seek this sort of influence? There is, and perhaps always will be, debate about the appropriate role for academics in the public sphere (see, e.g., Jordan 2007; Koomey et al. 2002, 151-2; Reid 2001; Rowe 2005). Given that academics aim to provide objective analysis and interpretation, it may seem that they have little or no role to play on an opinion-driven page. However, op-eds offer academics a unique opportunity to extend their perspective and expertise beyond the reach of scholarly circles and into civic conversation. The op-ed page also provides a forum in which academics, policy makers, and the public can debate the meaning and practical implications of scholarly knowledge. Although the work of academics may be based upon objective research, this does not preclude them from contributing to the public sphere and posing additional questions for further discussion and analysis among academics. Op-eds provide a window through which difficult policy issues can be explained in plain language to the public, bringing interest to ideas that might otherwise remain limited to academic journals.

There is also a powerful argument to be made that academic work can and must be rendered more accessible to the general public. Eric A. Hanushek (2005, 18) goes so far as to say that policy analysis can be the “Fifth Estate,” actively providing “framing and interpretation of research necessary to the development of good policy” where government and the media by themselves will not suffice. “Part of generating useful policy information,” Hanushek says, “clearly involves relating what we have to say to the interests and perspectives of users” (Hanushek 2005, 13).

Data and Methods

We read and coded 366 op-eds published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Star-Ledger in 2006: 175 from The Ledger, 93 from The Journal, and 98 from The Times. This total represents all the op-eds written by academics in the three newspapers for the year. We analyzed the data for all three papers together and for each paper separately and focused on 15 characteristics including word count, subject matter, academic institution, and use of data, among others.

The New York Times and The Journal are considered among the most influential newspapers in the United States. They also enjoy some of the nation's highest circulation rates (Audit Bureau of Circulations 2007). The combination of influence and size makes both papers ideal for this study. What is more, The Times opinion section is recognized as one of the most prestigious voices on the left while The Journal enjoys a similarly influential role on the right.

In addition to analyzing the op-ed contributions by academics in two national papers, we wanted to explore the similarities and differences of an influential state newspaper. The Star-Ledger is the dominant newspaper in New Jersey, often called the paper of record by policy makers in the state. It is also the most widely read paper in New Jersey, comparable to state and regional papers across the nation (New Jersey Press Association 2007).

These are the basic parameters of obtaining entry to the most influential, idea-provoking real estate in print media. To better understand the means to achieve success, we analyze the characteristics of op-ed placements in three newspapers.

Fifteen Characteristics of a Successful Op-Ed

Our analysis suggests that op-ed selection does not follow hard- and-fast rules, but there are noteworthy trends nonetheless. No one method is ideal, rather a spectrum of writing styles is acceptable based upon the 15 characteristics described here.

Tone of Entire Op-Ed

We created five categories of “positivity/negativity” for the articles, ranging from “very negative” on one end through the spectrum to “negative,”“neutral,”“positive,” and “very positive.” Negative articles generally took an attitude of “things are really bad and need to be fixed” and took space to criticize other people by name, refer to a program or policy with words such as “broken” or “harmful,” and leave the reader feeling the need for change about the article's topic. Positive articles took the approach of “we are optimistic/pleased with the way things are going” and referred to programs or policies as a “victory” or “step forward,” attempting to leave readers believing the status quo is fine regarding the article's topic. Neutral articles presented a more balanced approach between optimism and pessimism about the status quo. These categories are of course subjective but still yielded useful results.

The tone of the entire op-ed barely changed from the lead through the substance of the essay in most cases (see Figure 1). Overall, 47 percent of the op-eds were either very negative or negative, 36 percent were neutral, and 17 percent were either very positive or positive. This pattern persisted for all three newspapers.1

Figure 1.

Tone of Entire Op-Ed

Tone of Introductory Paragraph

Like that of a news article, the introductory paragraph of an op-ed is crucial to setting a tone and grabbing the reader's interest. It must also gain the attention of the editor who decides whether or not to publish the essay. We tracked positivity and negativity separately for introduction paragraph, dividing these into three simple categories of negative, positive, and neutral by the same standards noted earlier (see Table 1). Journalistic wisdom holds that a positive start is less likely to draw immediate interest, and indeed positive leads made up just 13 percent of the op-eds. Negative introductory paragraphs were favored 48 percent of the time and neutral leads formed the remaining 39 percent. As Table 1 shows, little variation occurred between newspapers.

Table 1.  Tone of Introductory Paragraph
  • a

    See note 1 at the end of this article.

Total per tone16648136394613348a100

General Topic

The general topic of the op-eds fell in with the major issues of the day. We tracked the general topic of each article into 25 different categories, including international affairs, United States politics, education, health science, and others. Although some categories could easily be bunched together (Iraq and international relations, for example), we were still able to get a fairly clear picture of the topics most likely to get into the op-ed page. Essays on international relations broadly, and the war in Iraq and terrorism in particular, accounted for almost one-quarter (23 percent) of the op-eds published by academics. American politics and economics (11 percent), law and judiciary (9 percent, disproportionately corresponding to the Samuel Alito nomination), and education (7 percent) followed closely behind. Still, these are only half of the overall content. There were also essays on the arts, environment, health, immigration, religion, science, social trends, sports, and transportation, among other issues.

The three papers differed significantly in their priorities. While The Times tracked the average on international relations, Iraq, and terror (22 percent) and politics (10 percent), the paper published significantly more op-eds on education and health (10 percent) and science (8 percent) than the average of the three newspapers. While The Journal also matched the norm on international and terror matters at 23 percent and American politics at 11 percent, it published significantly more economic op-ed (27 percent) than the other two newspapers. As The Journal is a more business-oriented paper, this is not too surprising. The Star-Ledger also tracked the average on international relations, war and terror at 24 percent and American politics at 11 percent. It gave notable attention to op-eds on New Jersey politics (5 percent) and had a larger percentage of essays on law and judiciary (10 percent). This resulted in part from Samuel Alito being a New Jersey resident. The Star-Ledger published a more consistently diverse number of topics than the other two papers.

Policy/Legislative Recommendations

The opinion pages of newspapers by definition reflect the writers’ views, whether the pieces are editorials, columns, or op-eds. Opinion, however, can be simply pointing out a problem without making a recommendation. Overall, op-eds by academics are more likely to be published if they make a recommendation or endorse a policy position but not by an overwhelming margin. More important, the least likely way to be published is to endorse or oppose a specific legislative remedy. Rather, the newspapers are more likely to publish an op-ed prior to meaningful legislative debate.

We divided articles into four categories based on their apparent intention. One category included articles that identified or analyzed a problem without offering suggestions beyond a neutral presentation of alternatives. The second group made a recommendation or endorsed a remedy to a problem. The third endorsed or opposed specific pieces of legislation. The fourth group included all other articles, including remembrances, personal stories, or tributes.

Fifty-two percent of the op-eds made a specific policy recommendation or took a position on a specific piece of legislation, but the vast majority of this total (45 of the 52 percent) did not discuss specific legislative initiatives. Just over one-third (37 percent) of the Op-Eds identified a problem without making a recommendation and 10 percent were not applicable to any of these categories.

There were significant differences among the newspapers. Almost two-thirds (62 percent) of The Star-Ledger Op-Eds made a recommendation (53 percent) or took a position on legislation (9 percent). The Times was at the opposite end of the spectrum with just 36 percent taking a specific stand (35/1). The Times also published the most articles outside the realm of policy or public controversy (20 percent). The Journal was in the middle of the three newspapers with 51 percent making a recommendation or taking a position on legislation (41/10).

Study Results

Here we marked whether an article made a reference to an academic study, whether the study was conducted by the author, or by someone else. One might expect that op-eds written by academics would routinely reference study results, especially by the author. In fact, this was not the case. Not including the citation of government reports, just more than one-quarter of the op-eds (27 percent) did mention academic or institutional study results. There was some variation among the three papers. While The Journal at 26 percent and Star-Ledger at 19 percent tracked close to the average, The Times was significantly different. Forty-two percent of the op-eds in The Times cited study results, clearly taking a more permissive stance toward their use. Still, it seems clear that op-eds are not primarily a vehicle for announcing academic findings. Study results can strengthen an op-ed but are almost never the topic.

Use of Statistics

Op-ed authors also used statistics with restraint. Almost half (45 percent) of the articles did not cite any statistics (defined as any number, percentage, or numerical poll result from an academic, commercial, or government study or report) at all (see Figure 2). Those who did use statistics used them sparingly. About one-quarter (22 percent) of the op-eds cited statistics once or twice, 14 percent used either three or four statistics, and 7 percent used five or six. Approximately 10 percent used eight or more statistics, and these were primarily in The Journal. This means over two-thirds of the op-eds mention two statistics or fewer. As with study results, statistics seem to be present only to strengthen the argument of the essay, rather than to pinpoint academic truth.

Figure 2.

Statistics per Article

Again, there was some variance among the papers. The Times and The Star-Ledger tracked close to the average, but The Journal went in a different direction. While author use of statistics matched the average at 57 percent, the number of times data was used varied. Only 14 percent of The Journal's op-eds cited statistics once or twice, 19 percent mentioned statistics three or four times, and 10 percent five or six times. On rare occasions, the Wall Street Journal allowed five or more citations. The broader citation by The Journal is not surprising given the far greater number of economic-related op-eds the paper published.

Use of Anecdotes

The general lack of statistics in op-eds is connected to a need to provide a “human touch” throughout an article. To maintain interest, essays containing a brief story or anecdote to illustrate a point were far more likely to be published than those without. In fact, 86 percent of the op-eds used a story or anecdote. Both The Times at 90 percent and The Journal at 89 percent put special emphasis on this writing tactic. Star-Ledger articles were somewhat less likely to contain anecdotes, at 79 percent.

An anecdote was defined as the brief sharing of a story, experience, recent news item, or piece of history. An anecdote could be anywhere from two sentences to several paragraphs long, and was used to illustrate or reinforce an argument made by the author. The near-universal presence of anecdotes marks a very important difference between journalistic and academic writing styles. Most news issues are difficult to understand for nonexperts. Reporters are adamant about finding a hook or storyline for their news articles and rarely present isolated facts without establishing context to make them more digestible. Op-ed writers are clearly doing the same.

Agreement with the Editorial Page

For David Shipley (2004), “If you open the newspaper and find the editorial page and op-ed in lock step agreement or consistently writing in the same subject day after day, then we aren't doing our job.” Our analysis shows that by this definition, The Times editorial page editors are not doing their jobs. Absent every other predictor and method of writing, the most overwhelming statistic for op-ed placement by academics is agreement with the editorial page. This is not surprising. Op-ed placements, like much in the policy-making process, are often the result of negotiation. For instance, opinion editors may request an op-ed from an expert on policy or an academic who has a relationship with the newspaper. Academics also may suggest a topic to gain approval before writing. Nonetheless, for many aspiring op-ed writers, a great many op-eds are submitted blindly, and local newspapers in particular are quite open to a variety of essays, as we know from our experience.

In cases where the newspaper had taken an editorial position on the issue discussed in the op-ed such as the Samuel Alito nomination tothe Supreme Court, assessing agreement was simple. In many cases, though, editorials were not precisely matched to an op-ed topic, and we had to make a judgment call as whether or not the editorial page was in agreement. Despite the potential for a larger margin of error, the results were still convincing. Ninety-three percent of the articles in the three newspapers agreed with the editorial page, with little deviation among each publication. The Journal had the highest with 95 percent, and The Star-Ledger was the lowest with 90 percent. In the few cases where opposition to the editorial page occurred, it was usually in a point/counterpoint format where at least one of the authors by definition had to take a view in opposition.

Use of Historical or Popular Culture Reference

While not as popular as anecdotes, historical or popular cultural references were used in more than half (56 percent) of the op-eds. A historical reference could be a mention of the writing of the American Constitution, the Cuban Missile Crisis, or Watergate. A popular culture reference could mean a mention of the Beatles, Sex and the City, or Gone with the Wind.

The Times at 60 percent and The Star-Ledger at 53 percent were on either side of the average, indicating the use of anecdotes or interesting references outweighs the use of statistics in an analytical op-ed. The Journal was right on the average. It makes the point that reading ease and capturing reader interest are more important than strict delivery of facts when writing opinion.

Word Count

Word counts were for the text of the article, not including headlines, bylines, and captions (see Figure 3). For the three papers, word count at first seems dramatically varied, ranging from a low of 100 to a high of 2,019. A closer analysis shows that the bulk of the op-eds ranged from 800 to 1,000 words, with a median of 870. On occasion, The Times asked as many as six writers to comment on a particular issue—such as the Robert Gates or Samuel Alito nominations—and word counts would run in the low hundreds. On rare occasions, papers would run articles of 2,000 words if they thought them worthwhile.

Figure 3.

Word Count

For The Times, the median was 801 words, with the majority of op-eds ranging from 668 to 946 words. The Journal's op-eds were longer, as the median was 1,003 with the majority ranging from 931 to 1,255. The Star-Ledger median was 864 with the majority ranging from 794 to 924.


Similar to anecdotes, another predictor of successfully placing an op-ed is timeliness. We divided the timeliness of the op-eds into four categories—one week, two weeks, one month, and more than one month and assigned one category for each op-ed. Fully 80 percent of the op-eds were published within two weeks of a relevant news event. Another two percent were published within one month of the event.

Understanding that it takes time to write and edit an op-ed and still have it published within two weeks of breaking news means the piece was likely submitted within 24 to 48 hours after the event. Many other op-eds were placed around anniversaries of events, meaning astute authors submitted in advance. Congressional hearings and votes were also target events for op-eds, and most hearings are announced sometimes as much as a few weeks in advance. The Times and The Journal were both highly sensitive to timeliness with more than half published within one week of the news event. The Star-Ledger lagged a bit, likely because some of its op-eds appeared in other newspapers first.


Academic rules of formality that prohibit first-person writing do not apply to the op-ed page. Overall, 52 percent of the op-eds were written in the first person and 48 percent were written in the third. A single reference by the author to him- or herself was sufficient to consider the article first person. The Times and The Journal followed markedly different approaches. Fifty-seven percent of The Journal op-eds were written in the third person while The Times published two-thirds of its op-eds in the first person. The Star-Ledger tracked closer to The Journal with 51 percent written in the third person. In contrast to much academic writing, first-person perspective is entirely acceptable on the op-ed page.

Use of Polling Data

Surprisingly, the use of polling data was almost nonexistent. Only 8 percent of the op-eds discussed the results of a survey or public opinion poll results. Examples of such results include voters’ candidate preferences, opinions on specific political issues, or attitudes or habits of daily life. All three papers dimly viewed the use of poll data by academics as there were no meaningful differences in our results. In an interview with the authors, Fran Dauth (2007), the Editorial Page Editor of The Star-Ledger, explained the general reasoning behind this result: “[p]olling is best left for the news pages. Experts should have their own analyses and not be dependent on other survey data, unless of course they are pollsters.”

Full Story

A full story was defined as an article that consisted of a single narrative of a story or experience, usually chronological. Where non-“full story” articles were a mix of facts, anecdotes, quotations, and arguments, “full story” articles consisted only of a continuous narrative. Ten percent of articles were a continuous narrative from beginning to end. The other 90 percent instead used some combination of data, anecdotes, arguments, and historical or cultural references. The Star-Ledger and The Journal were almost identical in their limited use of narrative op-eds at 8 and 9 percent, respectively. The Times published narratives at the higher rate of 15 percent.

Who Is Getting Their Op-Eds Placed?

This study was also interested in which universities, departments, and backgrounds the authors come from. Op-ed writers proved to come from a great diversity of backgrounds, but recurring themes were present.


The universities at which the op-ed authors are employed were tracked as part of the study.2 If articles are considered to have been “written” by an institution, by counting the number of times one of an institution's academics was published, some universities clearly were more successful at getting published.3 As Table 2 shows, taking all the newspapers together, Rutgers University in New Brunswick came out on top with 31 articles (9 percent of all articles) but all were published in The Star-Ledger. Harvard University had 19 (5 percent), Columbia University 17 (5 percent), Stanford University 15 (4 percent), and the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) also with 15 articles were the other most published universities. More interestingly, ten universities were represented in each of the three papers: Columbia, Emory University, Georgetown University, Harvard, Johns Hopkins University, New York University (NYU), Princeton University, Stanford, UPenn, and Yale University. A total of 136 universities and colleges were represented on the op-ed pages of the three newspapers.

Table 2.  Total Number of Articles per Institution
InstitutionNumber of Articles
University of Chicago14
Johns Hopkins12.5
Seton Hall8
Boston University6
George Mason6
St. Peter's5
Stevens Institute4

The picture becomes much clearer when broken down by newspaper where some discernible trends are notable (see Tables 3-5). The Wall Street Journal depended heavily on five universities: Johns Hopkins and Stanford each had 11 articles (12 percent of the paper's op-ed total each), with many of Stanford's coming from its Hoover Institute. The University of Chicago had 10 (11 percent), and George Mason University and Syracuse University each had five (5 percent each). Combined, these universities account for 45 percent of The Wall Street Journal's articles. Harvard and Massachusetts Institution of Technology each contributed three articles, and no other institution had more than two. A total of 44 universities and colleges were represented on The Journal's op-ed page.

Table 3.  Articles per Institution: The Wall Street Journal
InstitutionNumber of Articles
Johns Hopkins11
University of Chicago10
George Mason5
Arizona State2
Boston University2
National Defense University1.5
28 others1
Table 4.  Articles per Institution: The New York Times
InstitutionNumber of Articles
University of Chicago2
Florida International2
47 others1
Table 5.  Articles per Institution: The Star-Ledger
InstitutionNumber of Articles
Seton Hall8
St. Peter's5
Boston University4
Stevens Institute4
University of Chicago2
Fairleigh Dickinson2
45 others1

The New York Times is perhaps the most equal opportunity of the three papers studied. Aside from Harvard, which contributed eleven articles (11 percent of the Times total), and Columbia, which contributed seven (7 percent), no other university was published more than four times. Even NYU, in the heart of Manhattan, had only three articles (3 percent) published. A total of 62 different universities and colleges were represented on The Times’ op-ed page. Still, despite Shipley's (2004) contention that “you don't have to be famous,” some academic institutions seemed favored over others.

Potential writers concerned by the focus on large, nationally recognized universities in The Journal and The Times will take comfort in our findings from The Star-Ledger, where the state of New Jersey was well represented. There, Rutgers University in New Brunswick contributed 31 articles, or 18 percent of The Ledger's total. The other Rutgers campuses in Camden and Newark contributed five, and articles from Seton Hall University numbered eight (4 percent). All told, 13 universities located inside the state of New Jersey contributed 63.5 articles, 36 percent of the total. Nearby UPenn contributed 12 (7 percent) more, and Columbia in New York City contributed eight (5 percent). A total of 69 different universities and colleges were represented on The Star-Ledger's op-ed page.

Authorship by Gender

Of all our analyses, this is perhaps the most astonishing. As Table 6 shows, male authors dominated the field with almost 84 percent. One percent of op-eds were jointly written by a man and a woman,4 and the remaining were cosigned by several authors. The Journal was most one-sided with 97 percent authored by male academics. The Times was not much more balanced with 82 percent of the op-eds written by men. The Star-Ledger was not far from this with 78 percent written by men.5

Table 6.  Op-Ed Authorship by Gender
 Number of ArticlesPercentage

Others are acutely aware of this discrepancy. Author and activist Catherine Orenstein has created a program to train women at universities, foundations, and corporations to become more prolific op-ed writers, according to The New York Times (Cohen 2007). Interestingly, although The Times’ article provided meaningful coverage of Orenstein's program, the paper made no mention of its own paucity of female op-ed authors.

Government Experience

Because an important reason for writing an Op-Ed article is to influence government decisions, this analysis examined whether academics with government experience were particularly likely to be published. For nearly every author we found a brief biography, usually at his or her university department's website. If the biography listed experience as an employee of a government at any level or as an advisor or member of a government commission at the federal, state, or local level, that experience was noted. We also noted which authors had experience as employees of popular media organizations, such as reporters, columnists, editors, or other occupations. Finally, we noted if an author's biography made mention of regular appearances in the popular media.

Although the biographies of those who submitted articles but who were not published were unavailable, our findings here still seem interesting. Among the 360 applicable articles for which we could find author biographies, 139 (39 percent) were written by someone known to have government experience. This percentage is almost certainly an underestimation because our knowledge of the author's experience was limited to their Internet biographies or, in some cases, their curricula vitae. Broken down by newspaper, The Star-Ledger and The Wall Street Journal were much more likely than The New York Times to publish academics with government experience. Eighty-two authors (47 percent) in The Star-Ledger had government experience, compared to 36 (39 percent) in The Journal and only 21 (22 percent) in The Times.

Journalism Experience

Another question concerned whether an academic's ability to get published in a newspaper is the partial result of past journalism experience and therefore more exposure to the writing style required for the op-ed page. We found that 72 articles, or 20 percent, were written by academics with journalism experience in their biographies. The three newspapers were very similar. Twenty-one percent of both The New York Times and The Star-Ledger authors had journalism experience, compared with 17 percent in The Wall Street Journal.

Success in the Media

Although some academics may not have experience as employees of media companies, many still are very active in the media. For all the newspapers combined, 161 (55 percent) of the authors appear regularly in the media. The Wall Street Journal was most likely to publish academics with recurring media experience. Fifty-five of their articles (60 percent) were written by such authors. The Star-Ledger and The New York Times both took 40 percent of their articles from academics with recurring media presence.


One of the surest ways for academics to affect policy debates in government is to publish an op-ed. Likewise, it seems one of the surest ways to fail at publishing an op-ed is to write like an academic. Newspapers are meant for general readership, and even highly regarded newspapers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are not written at the Ph.D. level.

As a result, academics who hope to publish op-eds should note the standards that editors at these papers use when choosing an essay for publication. Op-eds must have a captivating lead connected to a news hook, with an argument supported by no more than three points. How does this get put into practice? Ten recommendations stem from the present study.

  • 1The topic of the essay typically tracks the important issues of the day. The op-eds we analyzed fell into a broad array of categories, but the most popular topics were not surprising and academic authors should comport with topical issues.
  • 2Agreement with the general view of the editorial page is vital. Know the newspaper's editorial positions before submitting.
  • 3Timeliness to a news event is crucial. Authors should take advantage of anniversaries and government actions by anticipating them and submitting op-eds far enough in advance so they can be thoroughly considered by editors. If news is breaking, authors must move quickly—ideally not more than two days—to write and submit an op-ed.
  • 4Opinion page editors must work within space limitations, and if former cabinet officers must write to a limited word count, clearly so must academics.
  • 5The old adage for television news is, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Similarly, the op-eds most likely to be published will open with negative or neutral leads.
  • 6Authors should draw on a combination of anecdotes and historical or cultural references, with judicious use of statistics.
  • 7Authors should generally stay away from studies and polls. Without watering down the purpose of an essay, readability is a key concern.
  • 8Media experience begets more media success. It is unlikely The Times or The Journal will be the first publisher for any academic without previous success on the op-ed page. Newspapers in the same state or region as the author's institution are the right point of entry to best ensure publication, and as the author's reputation as an op-ed essayist grows, larger newspapers become better targets. It helps that local newspapers are surprisingly accessible. The Star-Ledger is a large newspaper with impressive circulation numbers but is clearly open to submissions from academics in all fields from all of New Jersey's colleges and universities.
  • 9Authors should be aware of which newspapers will give them access given their institution. Every newspaper published authors from a great diversity of institutions, but there is a clear bias in The Times and The Journal toward top-ranked national institutions and in The Ledger toward institutions in and near New Jersey. A professor at a major state university has a fair chance at any paper in the region and even nationally, but an otherwise equal professor from a less well-known school will have to think more locally.
  • 10Professional experience counts. Authors who have spent some time in either government or journalism are more likely to be published, because government people know firsthand how to influence government and journalists know how to write in a journalistic style. Authors are therefore more likely to get op-eds published if they remember the audience: (1) the person or group that will select the article for publication; (2) the position of the person or entity the articles is intended to influence.

If possible, seek out advice from people in the media and government during the writing process.

While this study has focused on three newspapers, the rules we describe should apply to nearly all dailies. To have an impact upon policy making does not only mean being an expert in the field. It is just as important to know how to articulate views that policy makers can adapt in their legislative and regulatory endeavors.

Suggestions for Further Research

We believe this research could open new avenues of pursuit for further study. Specifically, for the academics whose essays are published in the op-ed pages, pursuing a few questions could provide fruitful results. First, what was their resultant involvement in the public policy process? A survey of op-ed contributors may or may not find expanded opportunities to testify before legislative and regulatory bodies, speak to larger academic and general audiences, advise policy makers or interest groups, or obtain other paths to influence. We found many instances of lawmakers using op-eds to aid their arguments and much anecdotal evidence of essays leading to positions of influence (in addition to our own personal experiences of op-eds feeding influence), but the area remains understudied.

Second, were academics invited to comment more regularly in media outlets, at a minimum in the newspapers where they were published and more broadly in other print and electronic media? In our experience, regular access to media is an important determinant in gaining better access to the policy-making process, and if the op-ed provides an easy entry point to media access it could prove invaluable to academics individually and collectively.

Third, what communication strategies can academics use to more successfully convey their findings to the general public? There is an obvious difference in writing styles between academic journals and the op-ed page. Studies similar to ours might be conducted for television appearances, newspaper quotations, blogs, and other media.

Fourth, how much does an academic's institution matter when seeking the attention of policy makers for research? We have seen that the two national newspapers studied here have a bias toward “top” institutions and that The Star-Ledger favors institutions in or near New Jersey. Is there a larger and unwarranted bias in the media toward particular institutions and, if so, what is its nature?

Fifth, why is there such a huge disparity between the number of male and female authors? Male academics’ op-ed page domination, 84 percent versus 14 percent for women, cannot be easily explained and presents tough questions for authors and newspapers alike that are in need of clear answers.

Finally, we hope to spur conversation and debate over the proper role of academics in the public sphere. Some may be squeamish about even attempting to explain complicated research to policy makers and the general public but reluctance to proactively promote academic findings may limit the influence and effectiveness of that research. We submit that academics should be more aggressive in making their work known to the public and make a concerted effort to learn the communication styles necessary to convey their findings and ideas, rather than leaving that work to journalists and policy makers. On the same note, we hope this essay will contribute toward a better informed policy process and a more robust civic dialogue among the public.


  • Our thanks to the many people at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy who made this project possible, including Dean James W. Hughes and Associate Deans Thea Berkhout and Stephen Weston. Special appreciation to Cliff Zukin, Professor and Director of the Public Policy Program, and Carl Van Horn, Professor of Public Policy and Director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, for their careful reading of this article and their numerous and helpful recommendations. Fran Dauth, Editorial Page Editor at The Star-Ledger provided access to that newspaper's archives, without which the review would have been very difficult. Bob Sommer thanks his wife Marjorie for her patience surrounding the many weekend hours devoted to this paper. John Maycroft would like to thank his fiancée, Olivia Little, for steady advice, support, and statistical help throughout the project. Finally, thanks to the reviewers at Politics & Policy who anonymously critiqued the article.

  • 1

    For tone of introduction, 18 of the 366 did not apply, given that some Op-Eds were in a question-and-answer format. For example, “Quizzing Robert Gates” in the New York Times invited a number of experts to submit the questions they would ask at Gates’ Senate confirmation hearing. Since these were not essays exactly, they did not contain anything that could be called an “introduction.” Just 348 articles were therefore examined in this category.

  • 2

    Most often, an article had one author who worked for one university, and that university was coded 1. If an article was written by authors from two or more institutions, each institution was credited for the applicable percentage of the article. For example, if there were two authors, one from the University of Wisconsin and one from Rutgers University, each of those universities was considered to have “written” 0.5 articles. Similarly, if an article was written by an author employed at two institutions (for example, University of California-Berkeley and Stanford University), each institution was considered to have “written” 0.5 articles. Some articles were cowritten by two or more authors, one of whom is not an academic. For this reason, the total number of universities does not add up to 366.

  • 3

    A point of clarification: we are counting articles from people who are at academic institutions, but no distinction was made between full-time faculty and temporary positions. A common example is authors who identified with Stanford's Hoover Institution. Many of its members are not part of Stanford's permanent faculty.

  • 4

    We made note of whether an article's author was male (M) or female (F). If an article was written by male and female authors, it was marked MF if the first author listed in the byline was male, and FM if the first author listed in the byline was female. A few articles were written by large groups of people (e.g., the open letters from Seton Hall Law Professors supporting and opposing the Alito nomination) and were counted as “Not Applicable.”

  • 5

    Whether the fact that its opinion editor is a woman has affected this figure significantly did not form a part of this research.

About the Authors

Bob Sommer is Director of the Institute of Planning and Public Policy Communications at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University and President of the Observer Media Group. Sommer manages all the media properties of OMG, which include The New York Observer and Previously, he was executive vice president and partner of MWW Group, one of the nation's largest public affairs firms. He also served as a professional staff member on the U.S. House of Representatives Commerce Subcommittee. He has authored numerous public policy Op-Eds that have appeared in many newspapers and was a trustee of the Public Affairs Council.

John R. Maycroft graduated in May 2008 from Rutgers’ Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy with a master of public policy degree. He has worked for several political campaigns and for two years taught Western Politics, debate, and public speaking at Ocean University of China in Qingdao, China. His research and work interests include health-care policy, academia's role in the political process, dynamics of newspaper editorials and the opinion page, and policy communication.