Photo by Evan R. Lew

No More Fighting the Odds with the NY Times Op-Ed Page

Why I’ve turned from the pitch and pray process to self-publishing

There’s an old axiom-if you can’t handle rejection, don’t be an actor. But make sure you add writers who submit unsolicited essays to the New York Times Op-Ed page to that list.

Over the years, I’ve had some success getting commentaries published, including the Washington Post Opinion page, NY Times Sports section, Newsweek’s My Turn column and San Francisco Chronicle Magazine. But in truth, my Holy Grail for opinion pieces has always been the Times. I’d sworn that before I left this earth, I’d get something published on its hallowed pages and have submitted numerous essays over the past decade.

But I’ve learned the hard way that offering a cold pitch to the Times’ general op-ed mailbox has the same likelihood of success as winning the lottery. The paper gets over a thousand submissions per week and if you’re a regular reader, you’ll notice that outside the regular opinion writers, most essays are authored by politicians, media figures, celebrities, experts and academics. Even with a unique take on a timely subject, your chances of being published are infinitesimal unless yours is titled something like “I Gave Putin the Money to Lend to Trump.” But I’ve never let that stop me when I feel I have something of real significance to say.

Over the last month, I’d been working feverishly on an essay, NBA and WNBA Players Can Be Election Game Changers, about why the players’ walkout during the NBA Playoffs was a seminal moment in the civil rights movement. It detailed why the only chance in 2021 for real conversation and action over police violence against Black Americans, voting rights and systemic racism was for Donald Trump to lose and for Democrats to win the Senate, too. With both leagues comprised of over 70 per cent Black players, the majority of whom were tacitly or outwardly supporting Joe Biden, the idea was to maximize their voting advocacy efforts by focusing on battleground states and toss-up Senate races.

I thought the essay was a worthy candidate for publication in the Times because 1) It had an unusual angle as the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum and the playoffs were marching in tandem with the final month of the election. 2) I used to work in the NBA league office, so I was particularly qualified to author it. 3) The piece included compelling and provocative quotes from coaches and players. That checked all the key boxes; distinctiveness, relevance, high-profile personalities and direct expertise in the field. Game on, right?

But even if you check off the aforementioned criteria, the absolute key to getting your work considered, is to have a direct contact with an op-ed editor. According to a former editor of the Times’ Op-Ed page, there are only two full-time assistants sifting through this deluge. So, having a well-connected friend, associate or networked PR person can at least get you to an editor’s pearly gates. While cold-pitch miracles do happen for a few lucky writers, most pieces end up in op-ed purgatory.

Knowing this was simply reality, I ran a full court press to get connected to someone on the op-ed team. Utilizing the Two Degrees of Separation model, a friend referred someone who worked at the Times years ago, who gave me the address for the Acting Op-Ed Editor. However, it wasn’t a personal referral. In a strange twist of what I hoped was fate, I learned that a former colleague of my wife’s had a daughter who works on the Times’ editorial board; she graciously agreed to forward it to someone on the op-ed staff. But again, there was no path for direct contact with an editor.

All this meant the piece remained a long shot. The Times’ submission page states that if you don’t hear back within three business days, they’ve declined. For the next 72 hours, I kept my fingers crossed and waited for a reply. When I didn’t hear back, I knew no news wasn’t good news.

This was one of the most insightful pieces I’d ever written, on a subject I’d spent my whole professional career studying — the intersection of sports and politics. And what had me pour my heart and soul into it was the idea that it might actually make a difference in the most important election of our lifetime. So, I took my best shot and unfortunately, it rimmed out. Will I ever submit again? Maybe. Good shooters always figure the next one is going in. For now, I’m checking myself out of the game.

Fortunately, this saga has a happy ending. Rather than let certain stories gather dust on my hard drive, five months ago, I started self-publishing pieces on medium.com. My third essay got picked up by The Bold Italic and generated two thousand views. After no word from the Times and with the NBA and WNBA Finals almost over, I put that piece up on my page, as well. In some ways, it felt like admitting defeat, but there was also a sense of gratitude for suddenly having complete control over the publishing process.

That same night, I got a message notifying me that my essay had been selected to appear in the Featured Stories section. It was a small, but poignant victory. While the commentary had felt so ready for prime Times, the odds were never really in my favor. I’ve been writing and producing all kinds of large and small media projects for forty years; I craft these personal essays because their subjects speak deeply to me. Under the old pitch and pray process, they might never have a chance to also touch other people’s hearts and minds, and make them think, laugh or smile.

In comparison to the traditional submission method, I see my new platform like a start-up venture. It may take a while to build out, but turning the old publishing model upside down has been a blessing in disguise. While I don’t need to make money on my opinion pieces, depending on how much I invest, who knows what the psychic return could be?

The funny thing is I now have a partner and get paid for the number of views and new member sign-ups each piece generates. Of course, after the news that my latest story was being featured, I quickly checked the stats and my immediate compensation came to a grand total of $.02.

I had to smile. Unlike most start-ups, we’re actually making a profit right away. And after all the time and energy I’d put into my impassioned commentary, I’ve finally gotten my two cents in.

Four decades into the writing game, it’s still about the story.

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