New York Times staff editor Alex Kingsbury spoke Wednesday night at the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History. As part of the Pryor Center Presents lecture series, Kingsbury spoke on his experiences in helping the Boston Globe, and now the Times, reimagine the way opinion journalism works.
Though the lecture was titled “Opinion Journalism in the Age of Trump,” Kingsbury said his undertaking to would have taken place under any president. “Editorial writing is broken,” he told a room full of eager listeners which included a number of journalism students. “The fundamentals have grown stale.”
Kingsbury showed the audience slides of an editorial report from the New York Times from 1927 and an editorial he had writing in 2006, noting not much had changed in the 80 years between them. While serving as an editor for the U.S. News & World Report, Kingsbury was invited to join the editorial staff at the Boston Globe with the goal of helping reinvent the paper’s idea page – a section of 10 pages dedicated to opinion editorials.
The challenge, he said, was not in creating a section that would rival traditional competitors – other newspapers and magazines. Instead, they would need to compete with Netflix, cable television, and anything else that captured the attention of would-be readers. “Face it,” he said, “Netflix is sexier.”
Kingsbury and his team began to rethink how an editorial section looked. Gone were the days in which he’d capture readers with blocks and blocks of text. They needed to think beyond that. The started by printing an editorial section that featured a tiny dot for every Syrian refugee. The dots covered a large double-truck section of the paper.
Then, he said, they covered the section with old newspaper clippings of stories on abortion, dating back years. Following the Orlando nightclub massacre, the printed the paper in a wrap that featured a striking AR-15. One the left side of the page was a tiny black spot, representing the size of a rifle entry wound. On the left, was the exit wound – a large, tearing black wound.
The images were striking and artistic. They helped capture the reader and entice them to read and have their opinions challenged.
They accepted controversy, he said. During the 2016 election, the editorial team came out in opposition to Trump. They ran a satirical front page of the Boston Globe that imagined what Trump’s America might look like with controversial headlines about deportations, scandals and trade wars. The issue drew the ire of Trump, who made the paper a frequent target of tweets and eventually prompting him to declare the press the enemy of the state.
The satirical issue originally reported the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series, he said, but the team removed it thinking it was too far-fetched. Some laughter spread across the room. The Cubs had gone on to win the World Series that fall.
Kingsbury and his team responded to Trump’s attack on the press with a project asking newspapers across the country to respond to his remarks with their opinions about the press as the enemy, including Arkansas newspapers. Those responses were shared across the Globe’s editorial section.
Kingsbury’s effort to reimagine opinion writing led him and his team to turn to art photography as an element on the editorial page. They used beautiful, striking images to accompany powerful stories.
Once with the Times, his team turned data into images to tell powerful stories, stories that required the staff to put in months of work to tell correctly. One such series of stories highlighting privacy took the team seven months to complete. The team used data collected from cell phones to determine and track the movements of 12 million Americans, including children, CIA agents and even the president. The first frightening report can be found here. The series can be found here.
In reinventing opinion writing, Kingsbury said, he and his colleagues hoped to bring forth a discussion to help find solutions to the problems they wrote about. They goal was to capture the attention of an audience and turn readers into advocates to help bring about the changes they, as an editorial team, deemed necessary.