Last month, an unusual disclaimer began popping up below select editorials in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “This editorial,” it read, in parentheses, “was commissioned from freelance editorialists and edited by the Post-Dispatch editorial board.”
Attentive readers had some questions. So did Jim Romenesko, the longtime media blogger. And soon enough it came out that the outsourced editorials had come from a little-known Oregon-based company called “Opinion in a Pinch.”
Founded by former Roanoke Times editorial writer Chris Trejbal, Opinion in a Pinch offers a unique service—“professional, cost-effective, custom commentary”—to a unique clientele: understaffed editorial boards. It might seem a narrow niche. But in an age of ever-shrinking newsrooms still charged with producing a traditional print newspaper—and a traditional editorial page—Trejbal has found a real market.
Trejbal started the company in 2013, soon after leaving the Roanoke Times and moving from Virginia to Oregon. “The Oregonian wasn’t hiring, and I was looking for a way to stay engaged in editorial writing,” he says.
It occurred to him that with many editorial boards having dwindled to just a few members—the Times editorial board, for example, lost staff in a round of layoffs shortly after he left—there could be a need for temporary help. “I realized, well, when vacation time comes, it would be a lot harder to fill the editorial duties for that week,” he said.
When he began to put out feelers, it turned out he was on to something. One of his first clients was the Kansas City Star, whose editorial page was then run by Miriam Pepper—who, after retiring from the paper in 2014, would go on to join Opinion in a Pinch as a freelance editorialist. The roster also now includes Dan Radmacher, another former Roanoke Times staffer.
There isn’t enough work yet to keep that crew busy full-time; the business remains a part-time gig for Trejbal and his staff. But the company now boasts about 10 clients around the country, he says, with “a stable of four or five that I would call regular.” He was not willing to identify other current clients aside from the Post-Dispatch. But the company’s portfolio page links to recent work for the Star as well as the Santa Rosa (Calif.) Press Democrat.
At a standard cost of $150 to $200, a client can request a professionally written custom editorial—with subject matter, tone, and even the ideological point of view made to order.
“I tell them what subject I want discussed, and in general, what tone and direction I want to take,” Kevin Horrigan, the deputy editorial page editor for the Post-Dispatch, told Romenesko. “… They file within 48 hours. I then edit them—heavily in some cases if events have been overtaken by news—and publish them as ‘Our view.’”
Horrigan has commissioned two editorials a week while the Post-Dispatch looks to hire a replacement for the page’s former top editor, Tony Messenger, who recently moved to the Metro desk. As Horrigan told Romenesko, he currently has only one co-writer on the editorial page—down from a staff of 12 or 13 when he first joined the page in 2000. At the same time, he has taken pains to let readers know the commissioned editorials were not written in-house. “The disclosure was my idea,” he told CJR in an email. “Since our work is signed (online, anyway) as ‘By the Editorial Board,’ I wasn’t comfortable with the fiction that the work was entirely a product of the two (count ’em, two) of us left down here.”
Trejbal’s other clients have not made such a disclosure to readers—and Trejbal, who is a trustee of the Association of Opinion Journalists, does not recommend that they do so. He argues that the commissioned pieces still belong to the client, regardless of who did the actual writing. “We’re not telling them what their editorials should say. These are their editorials,” he says. “They’re outsourcing the writing process, but they’re not outsourcing the thinking and the ideas.”
Steve Paul, the editorial page editor at the Kansas City Star, agrees. “When we’re ‘in a pinch’—vacation mode, etc.—we call on him occasionally to help back us up,” Paul wrote in an email. “I discuss topics with him, we discuss ed board positions, he reports and writes, we edit. I don’t see the need to disclose that; in a sense, he’s an adjunct member of the editorial board, a leg man who reports for us, or a ghost writer of pieces that never have been signed anyway.”
“Editorials are unsigned for a reason,” Paul Gullixson, the editorial director of The Press Democrat, wrote in a separate email. “They represent the voice of the newspaper. And whether ours are written by me or by Chris, we stand by them. The author is not the issue.” Trejbal’s work for the paper, he said, has been “a lifesaver in a time of diminished resources.”
Putting aside any ethical qualms, there is also a more practical question: How can an editorial writer address local issues from 1,000 miles away, for a community where he’s never lived? The Post-Dispatch has circumvented that problem by asking Trejbal and his team to write only on national, not local issues, but for other clients, including the Star and the Press Democrat, the company has written on local issues—from death-penalty drugs in Missouri to leaf-blower regulations in Sonoma, Calif.
In the case of the Star, of course, Trejbal has a longtime Kansas City journalist on staff in Pepper, so it’s not as much of a stretch. And some issues may translate from place to place–Gullixson of The Press Democrat argues that leaf blowers, for example, are hardly a unique local concern. “I doubt the debates we are having here in Sonoma are really any different from the ones in Evanston, Ill., Newton, Mass., or Montclair, N.J,” he wrote. “And I’m sure Chris has no problem when writing from his home in Portland, Ore., finding a way to fully understand the leaf blower experience.”
Otherwise, Trejbal says it’s simply a matter of doing internet research on the issues at hand, and sometimes calling local officials to get the lowdown.
For Horrigan of the Post-Dispatch, this is insufficient.
“There is much in the way of local content/background that a writer can get from the internets,” he says. “But the greatest value that we as a St. Louis editorial page staff can offer is institutional memory and our understanding of St. Louis. The same would be true in any other place. We frequently do a lot of our reporting on local issues. We know the history and politics of the issue and who to call (on or off the record) to get the answers we seek. It’s not fair to ask someone from the outside to do that kind of thing.”
The outside editorialists are not only called upon to write about communities they’ve never visited. They may also find themselves writing opinions they don’t hold. “Whether liberal or conservative, progressive or libertarian, Opinion in a Pinch will meet your needs,” the company’s website promises. “We marshal facts to support the position you [want] to take.”
If this seems like it might be a soulless enterprise—well, welcome to the world of editorial boards.
“We might not even agree with an editorial we’re writing,” Trejbal says. But, he adds, that can also be the case for staffers on editorial boards, which, after all, typically employ multiple writers but present one unified voice.
The media columnist Jack Shafer, now of Politico, made a similar point. “In many cases, newspaper-employed editorial writers write columns whose positions are dictated to them by the publisher or the editorial-page editor,” Shafer wrote in an email. Overall, he found little to fault with the arrangement. “Editorials are no more sacred than op-eds or bridge columns, so I don’t think I can get worked up about this.”
Readers who take a more exalted view of the editorial’s proper place might disagree. Maybe they can, at least, take some solace in the fact that Trejbal and associates have decades of experience in the field—and see their work as helping to preserve the form under contemporary pressures.
“We all love editorial pages and think they are an important resource for any community, and we want to continue to be a part of that,” Trejbal says.
This post has been updated to include responses from Paul Gullixson of The Press Democrat.
TOP IMAGE: Photo courtesy of Chris Trejbal