Opinion Writing @ WSN

Edit, Aug. 26: If you’re a student interested in writing for the paper this semester, we have two open houses organized. The first is on Monday, August 31, and the other is Saturday, September 5. Both open houses run 1-4pm. Come by, meet other writers and editors, and take advantage of our free food! (Open to NYU students only.) I’ll pin this post to the front page until Sept 5.

This semester, I’m the opinion editor of the Washington Square News, NYU’s official student newspaper. I thought it’d be a good idea to write the blogpost I wish I could’ve read when I started writing op-eds and editorials. As such, this post is primarily intended for folks who show up to open houses or pitch meetings but, hey, if you found it useful, I’m glad.

Contact Info Nuts and Bolts
Writer Commitment Editorials and Op-Eds
Op-Ed Tips Why Writing For Your College Newspaper Rocks 

Contact Info

Firstly, feel free to email me if you have questions, either about Ops or the rest of the newspaper. The paper’s been one of the most gratifying and fun experiences of my undergrad life to date, and I’m happy to answer questions or provide advice if I can. Email tcollison@nyunews.com; I generally respond within a day or so. If you want to get in touch with Richard, the deputy editor, he’s rshu@nyunews.com.

Your blue-haired opinion editor. I’m a junior studying journalism and Middle East & Islamic Studies. When not studying or at WSN, I work with non-profits to promote privacy software.

Nuts and Bolts

WSN publishes once a week in print, on Mondays. The Ops section publishes 1-2 editorials and 4-5 op-eds in print, and at least 2 pieces online a day, Tuesday through Friday. Articles are due at 1pm the day before they go into print. If it’s not in by 4pm, we run a backup piece and the writer looks bad.

Print pieces generally run 450 words, but in reality can vary by 10 or 20 words one way or the other. (The longest I published was 484.)

We also publish two pieces online each week day. Despite not having space constraints as in print, we try to keep online pieces around 450 words so as not to unduly stress out copy editors and other people involved in the production process. That said, we’ll evaluate longer pieces on a case-by-case basis.

The Ops desk (by which I mean the editor, deputy editors, and interested writers) officially meets once a week for a pitch meeting at Sundays at 5pm. This is our chance to tell writers what’s coming up in terms of special issues and Op-Ed Live (a short video series where two students will debate issues such as Greek life on campus) and also to take pitches for op-eds for the next few weeks.

Pitching an Op-Ed is fairly straightforward, with just two steps:

  1. You give us the article’s thesis statement (e.g. “GMOs aren’t all bad!“) and some info on your sources — news stories, etc. — and why it’s topical.
  2. We give feedback. Oftentimes, someone around the table will have read something else that you can use to back up your argument, or add some new point you hadn’t thought of.

Anecdotally, half of pitches I heard were accepted on the spot and half were accepted with “Sounds good, make sure you mention X.” You get the hang of pitching op-eds and what works pretty quickly, and so outright rejection of pitches is rare. (Of those, most times it was a case of “we’ve done that too recently and shouldn’t do two pieces on the same thing so close together.”)

Pitch meeting attendance isn’t mandatory — nobody’s checking names and you can email me a pitch if you’re exceptionally busy or traveling, but by and large I’d like regular writers to show up. It fosters a community and makes scheduling easier. Occasionally, I’ll bring donuts.

Pitch meetings are also when we decide if we’re going to do point-counterpoint, where two writers debate the same issue from opposing sides, such as the benefits and drawbacks of a $15 minimum wage. I enjoy these, and will try to do one every week or two.

A handful of times each year, WSN publishes special issues, focussing on influential students, fashion, mental health, or study-abroad sites. Ops sometimes features in these and sometimes doesn’t. For example, I wrote a piece on the benefits of studying abroad for that issue. We’ll talk about these at pitch meetings.

Writer Commitment

The bylines are as follows:

  • Contributing Writer are the lowest rung of the ladder — these are people who write now and again, on no fixed schedule.
  • Staff Writer. Once you write three or more pieces, you can apply to be a staff columnist. Applications for the position go out at the beginning of October (or March, during the Spring semester). These are people who commit to writing once a week and contributing to House (see below) at least once a week. We don’t force people to advance to staff writer, though — you can stay a contributor for the whole semester. (Although if you meet the three-article threshold, I would encourage you to — see the Why Writing For Your College Newspaper Rocks section below.)
  • Deputy Opinion Editors are a step above staff writers. As well as writing once a week, they edit one or two nights a week, overseeing the production process and staying with the stories until they go into print.
  • Opinion Editor is chief bottle-washer of the Ops desk — they hold pitch meetings (more on this in a sec), keep track of writers, edit, and are generally responsible for the two Opinion pages in the paper. They also oversee Op-Ed Live.

The positions are steps on a ladder — you have to be contributing writer before you can be staff, and you have to be a staff writer before applying to a deputy editor position.

An example of an online op-ed. Click through to read the whole thing.

Editorials and Op-Eds

While you’ll be discouraged from expressing opinions or taking sides if you write for News, this is exactly what opinion sections are for. There are two types of opinion piece, an editorial and an op-ed. (I use “Ops pieces” to refer collectively to both.)

WSN’s opinion page, with two op-eds and an editorial.

An editorial (known around the office as “House” or “the House piece”) is the paper officially taking a stand on something. In general, we try to keep these New York- or NYU-focussed. The byline is “WSN Editorial Board,” and they’re written by the opinion editor and deputies, with the help of staff writers and anyone else who wants to join in.

Editorial pieces are a cowriting experience, with everyone sitting round a table and deciding what the piece should say. Generally speaking, 3-4 people write the piece, each researching and writing their own paragraph. This happens at 7pm the evening before the editorial’s published. The record for writing an entire 450-word editorial stands at 32 minutes — I’m hoping to break it.

For an example, check out “Decriminalizing minor offenses a positive step“, where the WSN Editorial Board praised a city council proposal to reclassify relatively minor misdeeds such as public consumption of alcohol, being in a park after dark and public urination as civil rather than criminal offenses.

An op-ed is an individual writing a piece expressing their own opinion. One of the last op-eds we published in the Spring semester was “Jenner interview should be model for future,” in which Annie Cohen lauded Diane Sawyer’s sensitivity in Caitlyn Jenner’s first interview. The paper doesn’t have to agree with the opinion once it’s well-substantiated and in good taste.

Op-Ed Tips

Some tips from two semesters writing weekly op-ed pieces.

  • Good ops pieces are three things: timely, relevant to students, and NYC-focused. Great articles have all three of these things, but you can get by with two. How timely are we talking here? A piece on something more than two weeks old doesn’t get published. (Although there was that time I wrote an op-ed which hinged on a 5-year-old news story. I changed the focus about 30 minutes before submitting it. Every rule gets bent occasionally.)
  • The very best op-eds and editorials are about something the entire NYU community’s talking about. Something the entire student body is talking about is probably something the newspaper should be featuring, so write about blizzards, campus rape or city-wide protests where relevant.
  • Ops pieces are 3-4 paragraphs — use the first to state your argument, one or two to back it up, and then the last paragraph to reiterate your thesis statement and tie it to some larger point.
  • Specialize, but break out sometimes. When people ask what I write about, “technology, privacy and student life,” is my short answer. But there was that time I wrote about 50 Shades of Grey. Having a niche is good for story ideas (there’s always something happening in tech), but writing about a wide variety of topics offers the opportunity to grow.
  • Use anecdotes sparingly. They’re good for teeing up an argument but ultimately your job as an op-ed writer is to convince me, the reader, that your point-of-view on a topic is right.
  • Source your facts. If it’s not common knowledge (Obama = POTUS), source it, especially statistics etc.

Some weeks, an op-ed would be dropped in my lap. This was the nice part of being known as the guy who writes about tech. Other times, I’d be totally at a loss. How to come up with stories when you can’t think of anything.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask around — senior staff (the editor-in-chief, the managing editor, and folks who work on news desks) will generally have a good idea of what’s going on around campus. Feel free to use them as your springboard. If they look annoyed, tell them Tommy sent you.
  • I like writing about tech, politics, and NYC, so I follow a good few tech blogs, some political reporters, and some local news outlets like DNA Info.
  • Follow the news. Almost all our editorials are in response to something the NYU administration did, or something big in the news.

Why Writing For Your College Newspaper Rocks

I joined the WSN in fall of my freshman year, writing a handful of news stories before switching over to the opinion section in fall of my sophomore year, after spending some time around non-profits, advocacy and digital security literacy. Write to convince people, an activist friend at EFF told me, and so I gave it a try.

The Washington Square News office around 10pm one night in November. We all stayed late after protests erupted in New York City in response to the decision of a St. Louis County grand jury not to indict the police officer who used a deadly choke-hold on Eric Garner. Click here for the op-ed I wrote with Omar Etman that night.

I can point to conversations with working journalists who tell me they wouldn’t dream of hiring someone who didn’t write for a news outlet in college. I can point to my resumé or the stack of newspapers and say I now have a body of work to draw from. I can point to the fact that writing well is like a muscle that improves with continued use and which, conversely, atrophies with neglect. I can point to the fact that it wasn’t until I started writing weekly columns —some on privacy, others on social justice, some on free speech, and a couple on housing— that I figured out what I wanted to do with my life or my major.

Two years of press clippings, interview notes and research docs.

And while all of that’s true, it misses a more fundamental point.

I get to spend a few hours every week with a bunch of other people my age who also love writing. I feel part of a team, I learn, I try new things.

I joke that I’ll get my journalism degree from 838 Broadway, the paper’s address, rather than 20 Cooper Square, the journalism department’s address. But people I met in the WSN newsroom are people I call my best friends, and that rocks too.

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Clip Shows “Evidence” Used in Al Jazeera Trial

Following on from my post on the Al Jazeera journalists sentenced to three years in prison for committing acts of journalism, check out this 2-minute clip on some of the evidence producing during their trial, including the music video for Belgian-Australian songwriter Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know.” Beyond bizarre.

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Al Jazeera Journalists Sentenced To 3 Years In Prison

Shocked to wake up this morning to see that the three journalists on trial in Cairo, on charges of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, were sentenced to three years in prison. The Brotherhood was outlawed after protestors overthrew President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. The three journalists, one of whom was deported back to Australia earlier this year, are accused of “spreading false news,” among other trivial charges.

The trio have already spent around a year in prison, so it’s unclear how long they’ll actually serve. Peter Greste, the Australian, told Al Jazeera he expected the Egyptian appeals court to overturn the verdict, but I’m not sure anyone is holding their breath.

The Chicago Tribune has a rundown of the ridiculous charges:

Judge Hassan Farid, in his ruling, said he sentenced the men to prison because they had not registered with the country’s journalist syndicate. He also said the men brought in equipment without security officials’ approval, had broadcast “false news” on Al-Jazeera and used a hotel as a broadcasting point without permission.


Egypt has always been the bellwether of the Middle East, of huge geopolitical importance both because of its large population and the fact it receives the second-highest amount of U.S. foreign aid (after Israel). It goes without saying that this is a thinly-veiled attack on press freedom from a country that, despite hosting its first free and fair elections in 2012 (during which the Muslim Brotherhood won several elections before being declared a terrorist group in 2014), still sees critics of President Sisi being rounded up and imprisoned. Since then, the Egyptian press has been debilitated.

Will keep following this story.

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NYU News: Netzpolitik Shows Importance Of Free Press

This year, I’m the opinion editor of the Washington Square News, NYU’s official student newspaper. In a classic case of “start as you mean to go on,” I wrote my first piece on the importance of leakers and whistleblowers to the democratic process.

Those not keeping a close eye on international news over the summer may have missed a story that caused outrage in newsrooms both here and abroad. Netzpolitik, a German news site, reported in the spring that the German domestic security agency was seeking extra funding for online surveillance. At the end of July, the public prosecutor opened a treason investigation against the site and its anonymous sources. Thankfully, German authorities dropped the charges, admitting that national security had not been threatened. While it’s good that investigation was halted, it should never have gone so far, particularly in a country with a history of secret police surveillance. Misguided charges of treason against the press are especially egregious, as they send a chilling message to reporters who carry out one of journalism’s most basic functions: serving as a watchdog for those in power.

The announcement of the treason investigation prompted a loud, sustained outcry. Thousands took to the streets in Berlin and hundreds more around the world signed an open letter demanding “an end to the investigation into Netzpolitik.org and their unknown sources.” The letter included notable free speech advocates and journalists, including Julian Assange, Glenn Greenwald and NYU journalism professors Jay Rosen and Clay Shirky.

Given that domestic surveillance often exceeds its national security mandate, going on to target environmental activists, journalists and civil rights leaders, it seems likely that a similar abuse of power would also have occurred in Germany. Had the charges been sustained, it would have sent a worrying message to journalists around the world that they could be intimidated and investigated purely for doing their jobs. As activists noted, reporters are in the public service, not lackeys or megaphones for the government.

Leaks and whistleblowers reveal corruption and other forms of wrongdoing in both private companies and the government, and must be protected. While Snowden is the most recent example of government whistleblowing the practice has a long, distinguished history in the U.S. During the Vietnam War, Daniel Ellsberg leaked documents to The New York Times that showed that the government did not believe the war was likely to result in an American victory, and that the Johnson government had lied to both the public and to Congress. Whistleblowers are not spies, despite the fact that both Ellsberg and Snowden were charged under the archaic 1917 Espionage Act. Criminalizing the act of whistleblowing is an unacceptable crackdown on a public’s ability to hold its government to account.

A functioning, unthreatened free press is a cornerstone of a functioning democracy and a non-negotiable right of its citizens. Reporting on those in power is an essential function of good journalism, and its importance is codified in the German and U.S. constitutions. Charging individual reporters with treason anywhere has an undeniable chilling effect on reporters everywhere.

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August Reading

As well as keeping a list of books I read, I’ve started writing short blogposts once a month of what’s coming up next. I wrote the last one on August 5, and I’m happy to say I got through most of what I said I would: The Internet of Garbage, by Sarah Jeong, Pakistan: In the Shadow of Jihad and Afghanistan, by Mary Anne Weaver, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, by Jeremy Scahill, and Beyond News: The Future of Journalism, by Mitchell Stephens.

I’m putting the code book mentioned on hold for a bit, so coming up for September we have:

As always, I’m on the lookout for recommendations — you can catch me on Twitter as @tommycollison or email me at tommy@collison.ie.

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Doldrums Of Summer

If, as Natalie Babbitt contends in “Tuck Everlasting,” the start of August is “like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses on its turning […] motionless and hot,” the end of August is a weird in-between time, still summer but very much part of the upcoming semester. The first week is motionless, the last is anything but.

I’m officially settled into my new apartment — everything’s set up, my roommate’s moved in, and the place got the seal of approval form the mothership. Class starts this day next week and class emails are starting to trickle in. “Enjoy the last gasps of summer,” one professor signed off.

This week, I’m mostly concentrating on Washington Square News stuff — getting a couple of evergreen columns written that I can run when it gets busier. I like being able to mix timely content with pieces that are more general, so some of the first pieces going live in the Ops section deal with independent bookstores in the Village and the Netzpolitik stuff that went down in July and August. I’m really hoping we get a big crop of freshman willing to write for the Ops section — most people come to the opinion desk via news, so we might be waiting a few weeks for new writers to trickle in, but we should have enough to keep us running. For this reason, I’m also contacting old contributors to see if they’d be interested in writing for us again this semester. The free food we’ll have at the open houses next week helps. :-)

The other thing I’m concentrating on is getting a head-start on Elementary Arabic, which is one of my classes this year. If last year’s syllabus is anything to go by, the midterm will be on Sept. 15 and will exclusively deal with the alphabet itself. My system for learning how to identify the letters and pronounce them has benefitted greatly from how easy it is to manipulate Arabic characters on Mac, and one of the videos that came with my textbook DVD:

Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 3.37.46 PMI’ve been looking through old syllabuses for the classes to get a feel for the material we’ll be covering and finding areas of overlap. I came across this amazing assignments in one of my politics classes. I’m not sure if the professor will assign it this semester, but I really hope so:

5 Country reports: Due no later than Monday, September 22 (10% of final grade)
In list format (bullet point form or chart is acceptable) present the following information for 5 countries from the Middle East and North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, U.A.E., Oman, Saudi Arabia, Yemen). You must provide all of information on the following topics:

  1. Basic geography and demography: a) capital city, b) population, c) geographic size (in comparison to Connecticut (approx. 5,000 sq mi (13,000 sq km)) e.g. Iraq is about 34 times larger than Connecticut).
  2. Socio-cultural composition: a) main language(s) spoken, b) main religious groups and sects (provide approximate percentages), and c) important geographic divisions and regions (not applicable in all countries).
  3. Political history: a) was the country colonized?, by whom?, what was the year of independence?, b) list 4-8 important political events in the twentieth century (e.g. revolutions, wars, etc.) with year(s).
  4. Current political regime: a) current ruler, b) type of political system (e.g. monarchy, single-party authoritarian regime, democracy, competitive authoritarian regime̶do not just cite what the regime officially calls itself or how the CIA describes it! You may need to write a whole sentence), c) important political figures, d) current government relations with the US (i.e. US ally, adversarial relations with the U.S., or mixed relations). Important notes: Use Angrist chapters 1 and 2 for this section; if the country has gone through major political changes in 2011-4 and it is unclear what the outcome will be, identify ruler and system PRIOR TO THE UPRISING and very briefly describe the current “transitional” situation.
  5. Economy and indicators of development: a) GDP/capita, b) literacy rate, c) infant and maternal mortality, d) percentage of population living in urban areas, and c) identify important economic sectors (e.g. oil, textiles, labor exports and labor remittances).

Sources: All sources must be fully cited. I suggest using the course books (especially tables, charts, and country chapters in Angrist) and the websites I have included on the course webpage. Note that BBC.co.uk has a lot of good information at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/country_profiles/default.stm ). These reports may be turned in at any time before the start of class on September 22; I suggest completing this assignment ASAP.

As I said to my roommate, who’s a politics student at NYU — this is the sort of information that journalists should have on the tips of their tongues. Even if he doesn’t assign it (I’ll find out next week, and it wouldn’t be due until Sept. 22, anyway), I’ll probably end up doing it and posting it here.

Keep your sets tuned to tommycollison.com over the next few weeks, I’ll try and update this blog as often as I can with some columns, class notes, and other life updates.

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Whether You Like It Or Not

“Ladies and gentlemen, whether you like it or not… Hedwig!”
—The first lines of the show, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” introducing the title character.

In my head, Broadway musicals have been split into two camps over the last few years: popular adoptions (Les Miserables, Matilda, Aladdin, the Lion King) and new shows (Hamilton, Hedwig, If/Then).

I’ve long maintained that the Matildas of the Broadway world don’t really move the medium of musical theater forward. They’re musical versions of franchises or already-popular works. My sense is that the production crews of these shows don’t want to —or need to— mess with a good thing, so these shows don’t take risks. They’re cash cows, almost guaranteed to be popular.

— “Why mess with a good thing?”
— “For a better thing!”
Lucas and David in “If/Then.”

“If/Then”, on the other hand, was something new. It brought a talented cast (which the Matildas of Broadway have, no doubt) and tried something new — the idea of two life paths branching off from one action, and exploring the ups and downs of both paths. “Hedwig,” too, interacts with the audience in a way that doesn’t so much break the fourth wall so much as demolish it with several well-placed kicks.

Much of “If/Then’s” mixed reviews stem from this experimentation. It’s “a winning blob,” wrote the Washington Post in their first review. Their second review was’t much more positive, calling the plot an “encumbrance” that “structure that never completely works.”

Ben Brantley, reviewing the show for The New York Times, wrote:

“Taken separately, neither plot of “If/Then” is terribly compelling or distinctively drawn. Taken together, they feel less like variations on a theme than dogged reiterations of a theme.”

It seems clear to me that “If/Then” was being held to the standard of more straightforward fodder (Matilda, Aladdin) with no thought given to the fact that the show was trying something new that had never been done before.

“If/Then” has a more complicated plot than most shows theatergoers are used to, but it’s not as inscrutable as reviews might lead you to believe. It requires the audience to sit up and pay attention rather than sit back and be treated to a predictably pleasant (I would go as far as to say “anaemic”) experience. It’s not just that Matilda and Aladdin aren’t experimenting — they ask nothing of the audience.

Hedwig, I think, is specifically designed to offend. At the very least, it knows it will offend you and doesn’t give a damn. That foulmouthedness is also part of the show-audience contract — for the next 95 minutes we need you to buy into the idea that we’re not on Brodway, we’re a seedy dive bar now, it says.

Trying something new, taking risks and deviating from reliable formulae, is incredibly important. Irrespective of the merits of a given show, not recognizing how crucial experimentation is for the art form of the American musical is both unfair from a journalistic standard and disastrous for the medium of musical theater.

In closing, I agree entirely with everything Ben Yorkey, who wrote “If/Then’s” score, said on the show’s closing night:

“It’s a lot easier to go with something tried and true and much harder to take a plunge on something that starts with an idea… And with no idea what it might end up being. […] Without any doubt, each and every one of us in this [theater] loves the American musical as an art form. We love everything it’s been, everything it is, and most of all, we love everything it has yet to be. You and I may disagree on which new shows will move the art forward, but we all have to agree that without new shows we will never move the art forward.”

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Protected: Encryption Works 2.0: A Guide to Protecting Your Privacy for Journalists, Sources, and Everyone Else

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Posted in Activism

Netzpolitik Update 2: Charges Dropped!

The Associated Press in Berlin is reporting in the Guardian that German authorities have officially dropped the treason investigation against news site netzpolitik.org:

On Monday the federal prosecutor’s office said it was closing the case because it believed the leaked documents on which the website’s reports were based were not a “state secret”, and that other conditions for treason charges had not been met.

The inquiry, which was opened after a criminal complaint filed by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, also targeted the unidentified source of the leaked documents. Monday’s statement said investigating the source would now be a matter for lower-ranking local prosecutors.

This is obviously great news, not least because the announcement of the treason investigation prompted such a loud, sustained outcry from free speech advocates. Had the charges been sustained, it would have sent a worrying message to journalists around the world that they could be intimidated and investigated purely for doing their job. As Bethany Horne noted on Twitter, reporters are in the public service, not lackeys or megaphones for the government. Leaks and whistleblowers can function as a cornerstone of modern democracies, revealing corruption and other forms of wrongdoing. They must be protected.

It’s heartening that the investigation was scrapped. Now, all that remains is to ensure that Netzpolitik’s source stays safe.

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Hey all — in SF for the week in the Freedom of the Press offices getting my summer volunteer project out the door. As much as I joke about NY being better, it’s good to be back in the Bay Area for a few days. I’ll write a longer post on Vegas when I have time to catch my breath, but I’m also happy to report that I’m joining Freedom of the Press Foundation as a writer and activist moving forward in the fall. We’re planning really cool things — I can’t wait to share them with you.

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Upcoming To Read

I’m good at nothing if not creating long lists of books to read. Tomorrow, as I mentioned earlier this week, I’m headed to Defcon and then on to California to see family. In lieu of packing, I sat down and did the much more fun job: figuring out what books I was going to try and read.

At a guess, this’ll see me to the end of the month. I’ve already started some of these, others I’ve been meaning to get to.

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