PersuadeInk: Maura Casey's Blog

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The teacher who launched my career

Tuesday, December 2, 2014  by Maura Casey

 Laird B. Anderson was a journalist, an Army veteran, but above all, a teacher. In October, he died in his sleep at the age of 78.

Laird taught journalism at The American University in Washington, D.C., and for years he chaired its graduate school of Journalism and Public Affairs.

The editorial writing class he taught inspired me - and any number of other students - to make a career of opinion writing.

Laird expected his students to be, not just good journalists, but good citizens, with a passion for the First Amendment and a desire to make the world a better place through their chosen profession.

He had a special zeal for editorial writing, sparked when, as a young newspaper reporter, he filled in for a staff editorial writer who went on vacation for a week.  Anderson loved writing opinion and his once-a-week class in editorial writing became well-known. He taught opinion writing as an art form and encouraged vigorous debate among his students for the second half of every class, when we would form an editorial board to discuss issues.

Laird chose the 8 a.m. time slot for his class deliberately – some of us suspected he would have chosen 5 a.m. if the university allowed it – and was famous for entering the classroom, a foot-high stack of editorials under his arm, and opening the windows, wide, for at least a few minutes, even in the middle of the coldest winter day. He exuded confidence and yet he was just a few inches taller than five feet in height. Because he was a colonel in the Army reserves, one male student was heard to joke that if the class didn’t do well, he might make us all do push-ups.

It never happened. Laird had a tough exterior but was a tireless advocate for his students within and beyond the classroom, helping them find places to live and lending a sympathetic ear to their troubles. He was ever-mindful of the expense of graduate school and worked hard to ease the burden, making at least a third of our class graduate assistants.

The last slot, the day before classes were to start, went to me. My job? Cleaning the typewriters once a week in the student newsroom.  (It was 1982, after all). For that, the university knocked $2,000 off the then-breathtaking tuition of $7,000; gave me a stipend of nearly $200 a month and a coveted parking space behind Mary Graydon Hall, which housed the communications program. I was over the moon.

Laird became an unofficial father to many of us and a role model in many ways. For example: when he spoke of his wife, his face would light up. It was clear that he adored her, and at the time of his death, they had been married 44 years.

While still a student, I became engaged, and I told Laird I wanted to keep my name. He wasn’t merely supportive, he was enthusiastic, telling me that he and his wife had to go to court in Florida for her to keep her name. Florence Ashby, Laird’s wife,  confirmed the story, with a twist; she said Florida law in 1970 required a woman to take her husband’s name, but statutes said nothing to prevent her from changing her name backafter marriage. When she and Laird went to court to arrange it, the judge in the case, reading the law, confirmed to the couple that their interpretation was correct. “But don’t tell my wife,” he said, and granted the request.

As graduation neared, I became increasingly nervous about my ability to find a job. My husband-to-be, Peter Panzarella, and I were going to move to Boston so Pete could obtain a graduate degree in psychology. But neither of us had any contacts there. Then as now, it was tough to find a job in journalism and I began to express my fears to Laird.

He cut me off mid-sentence. Showing an officer’s impatience with a young recruit, Laird barked, “Your job – your JOB – is not to buy into to the world’s negativity. There is no end to the number of people who will tell you that you can’t do something. Don’t listen. What you need to do – and all you need to concentrate on for the next several months – is to take the hill. Hear?” He leaned towards me, his eyes narrowing. “TAKE. THE. HILL,” he said.

His words yanked me out of my self-pity. I got busy, writing letters to every editor whose name I could find in the Boston area, and on my wedding day, while my sisters were fixing my hair, I typed one last letter to Matthew Storin, then-managing editor of the Boston Globe. When I arrived in Boston I met with Storin as well as other editors. But Storin was the biggest help; he told me I was too green for the Globe, but that I should apply to the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, 25 miles away. I did, and three weeks after moving into our basement apartment in Somerville, I started as a reporter at the Eagle-Tribune. Six weeks later, editor Dan Warner made me editorial page editor largely on the strength of editorials I had written in Laird Anderson’s class.

One memory about Laird has always guided my thinking about our profession: In class one day a student asked Laird what he considered to be the most important quality of a journalist. He could have given a hundred answers. But without hesitation, Laird replied, “Compassion.” Unless compassion drove our motives and our reporting, we wouldn’t be the professionals, or the human beings, we ought to be, he said.

The word “compassion” has its roots in two Latin words, which together mean, “to feel with.”

Laird B. Anderson “felt with” his wife, his students, his country, and any who needed him.

He touched those he met by his example as a journalist and as a man.

He made the world a better place.

 

 

 

 

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Five points to ponder before aiming your piece for The NY Times

Monday, June 24, 2013  by Maura Casey

So, you want the NY Times to publish your commentary?  Many are called, but few are chosen.

The NY Times oped page gets many hundreds of submissions for a small handful of spaces every week. In addition, because  the staffs solicits other op-eds from known experts,  the number of spaces available for your opinion piece in any given week dwindles into the single digits.

This doesn’t mean you should not try. But you need to work that much harder on your article before sending it in. 

 Consider this article that former Oped Page Editor David Shipley wrote in 2005.  In it, he pulls aside the curtain just enough to give a glimpse of the editing process of theTimes' Oped Page. 

But how can your piece get to the top of the pile? What's the decision making process? How can you write an article that will get noticed by this most-coveted commentary page? 

The answer varies with circumstances. But here are 5 points to consider before pasting your words into the body of an email (no attachments, please) and hitting the “send” button to oped@nytimes.com

  • The quality of writing is important, but your prose need not melt the stars. Great writing rarely carries dull ideas.
  • The angle on a topic can be infinitely more important than the writing. A predictable viewpoint will languish in the slush pile.
  • Timeliness matters. If you have a unique angle on a current event, write it NOW. The sooner your piece is in the hands of an editor, the better. You don't have days. Frequently, you only have hours before the starting line is crowded with competitors. 
  • If your commentary is 1,000 words or (God forbid) longer, cut it to 750 words or less. Yes, you may have to pitch overboard your favorite sentences. Welcome to the hell known as rewriting.  In the highly unlikely event the oped staff wants you to add words, they will let you know. A word to the ever-hopeful: In my 20-plus career editing opeds for two newspapers, I did this exactly once.
  • Academic credentials, offices held, or golden resumes may spark interest in your piece. But they won't help a boring article see daylight. And personal experience can trump them all. Consider 23-year-old Nicholas Peart’s commentary. His piece, titled, "Why Is The N.Y.P.D. After Me?" made the top of the “most emailed” list for several days. Peart accomplished this because he had a compelling tale to tell, and a very clear point to make. Because his oped did both, he didn't need a long list of credentials.  His ability to articulate his experience closed the deal for oped editors.  

Yours can, too.

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Why You Should Write an Oped Commentary

Friday, May 31, 2013  by Maura Casey

 Why write an oped?

Because the world deserves to hear your voice. Yes, yours. And because expressing an opinion is just the first step. Impact matters. More on that in a minute.

“Oped” is shorthand for “opposite the editorial page,” the page in weekly and daily newspapers generally reserved for bylined columns written by readers, columnists, and perhaps you. Think print media is dead? Untrue: In 2011, there were 1,405 daily newspapers in the United States and another 8,400 weeklies. The total circulation? A staggering 200 million. Most have an online presence that increases the number of eyes on copy, whether the words are printed or not.

And despite the proliferation of millions of online blogs that make the Internet cascade with opinion like an oil gusher in a B-movie, audience matters – a lot. The people with the most influence in politics, art, and media still read the op-ed columns of  “traditional” media (newspapers, magazines) and getting in print there is still some of the best ways to give your opinion the impact it deserves. Some online opinion sites (Huffington Post, Slate) also have outsized influence.

The right oped can make a measureable impact, sparking debate, establishing your credentials as an expert or thought leader. It can influence local or national policy, and can result in your getting invited to be on national television news programs or even getting offered a book contract.  Don’t believe me? Talk to anyone who has ever gotten an oped in a newspaper such as The New York Times. As soon as it’s in print, the attention can be overwhelming.

Not every oped needs to appear in The New York Times to exert influence, of course. (But if the Gray Lady is your ultimate goal, read my next blog).  Smaller newspapers are easier places to aim for and are more open to publishing local opinion now more than ever. Their budgets are much lower than even five years ago. As a result, they aren’t carrying as many expensive syndicated columns, leaving a bigger space for your opinion. 

There’s another important reason to think local when it comes to opinion. Regional issues can be just as important to your corner of the world as the “big picture” issues that affect us all. 

Sometimes, getting a traffic light placed on the intersection a block from the local elementary school or challenging your town’s noise ordinance can be a triumph – not to mention improving the quality of life in your area. Writing a persuasive oped can be the key to making change happen. So, go get ‘em.

 

 

 

 

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Gay marriage: One issue, two family members

Tuesday, March 26, 2013  by Maura Casey

same sex marriage sign    Rarely to we get to see two members of one family – one a prominent senator –    penning nearly-simultaneous columns on one of the most discussed issues of the day. But that’s what we have in Sen. Robert Portman’s column published in the Columbus Dispatch and other Ohio newspapers March 15, announcing that he changed his decades-long opposition to gay marriage since finding out that his son Will is gay. On March 25, his son, Will Portman, wrote a Yale Review column describing the process of coming out as a gay man to his parents, family and friends. 

Of the two, I much prefer Will Portman’s column. It runs a little long, but it is charming – humble, compassionate, and at one point, laugh-out-loud funny.  Yet it is easier for Will to be the more relaxed of the two. His writing reflects that. 

His dad is in a more precarious position because of his past record. Sen. Portman’s column said that his conversion experience began when his son Will came out to him and his wife two years ago, and that he had concluded that allowing couples to marry is the compassionate stance. Sen. Portman didn’t say whether or not he regrets his past, forceful, opposition to rights for gays. In the mid-1990s as a member of the House of Representatives, he co-sponsored the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal ban on same-sex marriage. In 1999, in a particularly cruel move, Sen. Portman opposed allowing gay parents to adopt children.

It isn't good to tackle too many points in one column, but Sen. Portman's  piece could have used a line reflecting on his past contradictions in more depth. He didn’t say he regretted his previous opposition, for example.

But Portman did unambiguously stand up in support of gay marriage, making him the only sitting GOP senator to do so. And for now, maybe that’s enough. 

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When actors blow their big moment

Thursday, February 14, 2013  by Maura Casey

Jamie Foxx

Actor, Jamie Foxx

The acting profession hugs itself more than any other group, with the possible exception, my husband reminds me, of writers. But awards for writing are rarely televised. And acting awards ceremonies such as  the Academy Awards (scheduled for Feb. 24), have one common denominator: The winners make truly hideous acceptance speeches.

Think about it: the nominees spend thousands of dollars on designer dresses, tuxedos, getting their hair styled, buying jewelry, and arriving in stretch limos. Then when it comes time to speak before a worldwide audience of hundreds of millions, they melt into a puddle of clichés.

Most waste the moment. They thank everyone up to and including their childhood mail carriers. They are, in a word, awful.     

These people spend their careers memorizing great lines, and they can’t be prepared enough to write – or

hire someone to help them write – a hundred or two words ahead of time that says something profound about themselves, the experience, or life itself?

Not all bomb, of course. A few acceptance speeches have two characteristics of good writing: Great, offbeat openings and eloquent, memorable last lines, like this speech by Jamie Foxx, pictured at right, when in 2005 he won the Oscar for Best Actor for the movie "Ray" (his speech starts at 1 minute, 41 seconds). Of course Foxx has his own litany of eye-glazing thank-yous. But I would argue that his kicker – his last line – makes up for it.

Few have ever achieved the brevity of actress Jane Wyman, who, when accepting a 1949 Oscar for playing a mute woman in the movie “Johnny Belinda,” said, “I accept this very gratefully for keeping my mouth shut for once. I think I'll do it again.” And she sat down.

But my favorite acceptance speech is one that is rarely on the list of “best speeches” replete on the Internet. Yet I’ve remembered it for more than 30 years. It’s Louise Fletcher’s acceptance speech for winning Best Actress as the evil Nurse Ratchet for the 1975 film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The opening line was an attention grabber; the thank-yous were minimal; her deadpan line about working with the cast was genuinely funny; and her last thank you to her deaf parents – for which she used sign language in an era in which the disabled were more ignored than accommodated – still moves.

She did it all in 90 seconds. Now, that's a speech.

 

©Copyright 2013 by Maura Casey and PersuadeInk Blog.  Foxx photo credit: Georges Blard.

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