Interacting & Writing for the Print Media
  Tips from Don Wycliff - former editor of the Chicago Tribune
 

By Javeed Akhter

ISPI had a meeting with Mr. Don Wycliff, former public editor of the Chicago Tribune, who is currently at Notre Dame, on tips on interacting and writing for the print media. Here is a summary of the meeting. Feed back is appreciated.

Mr. Wycliff is a wise and gracious person (CV attached). He was candid in his comments and transparently honest. He gave us excellent insights in to the working of a big city paper, like the Chicago Tribune' without ever being pejorative of any one. Attendees came away both satisfied and inspired at an excellent session.

There were about twenty five ISPI members that attended the session with Mr. Don Wycliff. I stated the objectives of the meeting;

  • Muslim Americans have to interact with the mainstream media; it is essential to do so.
  • Like other minority groups they have to present their point of view in a manner that engages the majority community.
  • They have to write professionally and within the "latitudes of acceptance.”

Mr. Wycliff started out by remarking that these are the "best of times and the worst of times" for freelancers.

(Editors Note: If you are interested in joining a writers group that ISPI is organizing please respond by e-mailing info@ispi-usa.org

Newspapers have cut back on staff and are looking at free lancers to fill the void. Editors are starting to hear the voices of Muslim Americans.

However they are many difficulties in getting published, many of them not unique to Muslims, but some are. One large hurdle is that many people want to contribute to the op-ed and commentary pages of the paper. For example the Chicago Tribune has space for one freelance article per day with the other two articles on the page going to regular columnists. For these 7 slots there are 200 articles received every week. Similarly for the “Letters to the Editor” section there are on an average 2000 letters that are sent in. There are some topics that have a much smaller chance of getting published like topics surrounding Israel and Palestine.

Editors are over worked. NYT has 5 editors for the op-Ed page and the Chicago Tribune has only one.

Mr. Wycliff’s advice in getting published:

  • Make the Editor’s job easier. Make sure it is a polished piece which is about 600 to 800 words in length.
  • Provide a different and unique insight.
  • Be opinionated. Don’t write a middle of the road article which may make you look like a nice person but would not generate enough debate to interest a commentary editor.
  • You may write in first person for a “Perspective” type article and usually in third person for the op-Ed.
  • Letters to the editor should be short and no more than 400 words.
  • Press releases should be as simple as possible.
  • When you send in an article address it to an editor by name if possible. You may send it to more than one person.
  • Write on Muslim issues but be more than a Muslim; that is write on other issues like sports, home and garden and medicine etc.

Mr. Wycliff also pointed out the balance a newspaper has to keep between its business side and its service function. He predicted that the print papers will get smaller and have lesser circulation but will survive. He noted that writing blogs may be a good way of attracting an editor’s attention as newspapers are scanning the blogosphere to look for good writers. In response to a question he felt bringing pressure on the paper by influencing the advertisers may backfire as most editors are not consciously thinking in terms of revenue when they make selections for their pages. The best way of neutralizing Islamophobia is to get in your own voice in the paper.

Don Wycliff's Biography
(slightly modified from the biography available at the link below:
http://www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/biography.asp?bioindex=462&category=mediaMakers)

Newspaper editor and columnist N. Don Wycliff was born in 1946. Driven by the dearth of employment and educational opportunities for African Americans in Texas Wycliff's parents moved their family to Kentucky in 1954. Wycliff graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1969. While attending graduate school on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship at the University of Chicago, he was riveted by local news organizations' coverage of a police raid on the Black Panthers' headquarters on the West Side. Deciding on journalism as a career, he returned to Texas and accepted a position as a general assignment reporter at the Houston Post.

Wycliff worked as a reporter in Ohio, Illinois and Washington before becoming region section editor and assistant to the editor at the New York Times: Week in Review. As a board member of the Times' editorial page from 1985 to 1990, he addressed an array of issues, including religion, race relations, social policy and education. Wycliff joined the Chicago Tribune's editorial staff in 1990. Under his leadership, the page won numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize and two Distinguished Writing Awards from the American Society of Newspaper Editors. A member of the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame, Wycliff has received writing awards and he has evaluated others' work for the Pulitzer Prize and other honors.

Wycliff has been a Tribune columnist and the newspaper's public editor, fielding comments about its reporting, writing and editing. In these positions, Wycliff, influenced by his Catholic faith, unflinchingly reflects on variety of topics, advocating objectivity and justice. He left the Tribune for a PR job at Notre Dame in March of 2006 where he lives with his wife, Catherine, and sons Matthew and Grant.

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Javeed Akhter, a physician, is a founding member of the International Strategy and Policy Institute, a Chicago-area Muslim-American think tank, and author of the book "The Seven Phases of Prophet Muhammad's Life."

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