On the rise of the opinion piece — Marcus Solarz Hendriks

Few — if anyone  — would walk down the street, quizzing strangers on their points of view on arbitrary topics. Why then does the phenomenon of the opinion piece, which is proliferating the figurative streets of contemporary journalism, attract such a large, and eager, audience? To understand why this is occurring now, a backward glance must be taken to the fustier days of the press, in order to explore whether any notable change in its telos has taken place. In doing so, we reveal that our long-standing reasons for staying au-fait with current affairs are in fact the same ones that imbue us with this more recent thirst for opinionated writing.

Historically, a typical broadsheet would cover current affairs as objectively as possible, relying on breadth of issue and precision of detail to score a large readership. The couple of editorials included amounted to little more than footnotes signposting the paper’s official stance on the more contestable issues. With this in mind as we turn attention back to the modern age of the press, where entire sections are dedicated to subjectivity, under the myriad labels of “Columnists”, “Contributors”, “Opinions”, “Letters to the editor”, and other such branches of a tree we can broadly term ‘the opinion piece’, the altered essence of newspapers is glaring. Such a shift in nature, from one of monolithic partiality to adulating impartiality, is not so much evolution as total reformation.

Such a radical change reflects a different approach and purpose for newspapers, and this is something which can in part be attributed to the not so coincidentally simultaneous increase of channels through which we are exposed to the outside world: TVs, the internet, social media, blogs, newsfeed, the list goes on. Our ever-expanding awareness of current affairs, to the point that we are now updated on events as they are literally unfolding, has an increasingly numbing and desensitising effect on the consumer, which paradoxically renders knowledge of the events itself insufficient. Now we want more than just facts, statistics, quotations and death-counts. We have been anaesthetised to the impact of objective fact by sheer, unsatisfying volume. Only subjectivity can still shock. Cue the opinion piece.

To keep up with this rapidly growing, and highly competitive “subjectivity market”, newspapers put their own contributions into the mix, at first piecemeal and cautiously, but now so gratuitously that op-eds are published incessantly around the clock.

The wider context also provides a framework which has induced newspaper-chiefs to ramp up opinion in their outlets. The emergence of social media and blogs in the mid-to-late 1990s instigated the construction of a virtual society in which point-of-views fly around in a Brownian manner, unfettered, unrestrained and unperturbed. The result is that the voice of others has become so commonplace in our daily routine that we simply cannot live without it anymore. An environment saturated in opinions requires us to vociferate even more stentorian voices just to be heard. To keep up with this rapidly growing, and highly competitive “subjectivity market”, newspapers put their own contributions into the mix, at first piecemeal and cautiously, but now so gratuitously that op-eds are published incessantly around the clock. The Guardian App’s ‘opinion’ section, for example, which showcases the most recently published op-eds, will feature a different array of articles at 12pm than it did at 8am. This is the same paper that boasts of an army of 250 contributors in the past 2 decades. As the press fights this dual-front battle: to the south, the need to offer more than ‘just news’ to a public which can already access the rudimentary facts instantaneously; and to the north, fierce rivalry with innumerable (and high quality) cost-free outlets online, it comes as no surprise that editors are putting all their eggs into the proverbial ‘opinion section’ basket.

The rising popularity of opinion pieces also owes a great deal to the way in which authorship constitutes an increasingly important aspect of subjective journalism. An example of this is Piers Morgan, whose notoriously pontifical articles in the Daily Mail may draw criticism, but certainly boost reader numbers, to the effect that his name’s appearance at the top of a page successfully attracts readers in its own right. The reification of quasi-celebrity reputation amongst columnists is part of a larger trend and a reflection of how current affairs have become glamorised in recent years, such as the dramatisation of televised Election Debates, which cynically set an agenda for important pre-vote discussion, dictated by viewing numbers and audience ratings. The salient effect of this phenomenon is that, as we gradually come to conclusions on the names behind the writing we do and do not like to read, these decisions play a significant role in our newspaper preferences. Opinion pieces therefore have the efficacy both to bolster their sales and perpetuate their consumption.

But none of this actually attempts to understand what it is that makes us remotely interested in reading this branch of journalism in the first place. That’s because the reason for this is so blindingly obvious that it scarcely warrants consideration. It’s a key facet of human nature.

In 1891, Oscar Wilde jocosely remarked that “The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing”, and this languid yet sagacious witticism is the crux of our inexhaustible appetite for the opinion piece.

In 1891, Oscar Wilde jocosely remarked that “The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing”, and this languid yet sagacious witticism is the crux of our inexhaustible appetite for the opinion piece. With its accompanying consciousness, empathy, sympathy, apathy, and all the other trimmings, being human is synonymous with being nosy about others’ affairs. Like the little pitcher with those long ears, the zenith of our curiosity is realised when the opportunity to peer into the lives of those around us presents itself. Ever asked yourself why the percentages and figures cited in yesterday’s front-page special on the economy slipped your mind like a wet bar of soap? It’s because you don’t really care, they didn’t interest you. That’s not what grabs the human attention. Details about the ups and downs, and the joy and suffering, of the lives around us intrigue and form the basis of our perennial desire to follow current affairs. So, when given the chance to intrude into the matters of other people through somebody else’s gloriously subjective lens, embellished by years of personal experience and emotions, principles and prejudices, the platonic ideal of human satisfaction is realised. A double-dose for all us busybodies. That is what the opinion piece is, and that is why it is absolutely brilliant. Or abominable.

I could have approached this essay intent on crafting a saccharine encomium to the opinion piece, or articulating an ode to humanity’s newfound aptitude for tolerating, and indeed even appreciating, the viewpoints of others. But if I had done this, not only would I have been way off the mark, but I would have given a falsely encouraging testimony to an apocryphal notion of humanity’s advanced intellectual maturity. Never would the apples of Sodom have been scattered by so gentle a breeze. On the contrary, our voracity for opinionated writing is in fact derived from far baser instincts, and crucially, for an understanding of ‘why NOW?’ for this type of journalism, from instincts which are neither nurtured, nor new. The answer to ‘why NOW?’, ultimately lies in the fact that it has taken us this long to shed inhibitions, veiled by the pretence of championing objective truth, and to relent, give up the fight, and give in to our carnal, prying nature for good.


Marcus Solarz Hendriks is a full-time tennis player. He can be found at his blog ‘Rambunctious Racquet’ – http://rambunctiousracquet.blogspot.co.uk/. He lives in Surrey, England. @hendriks_marcus

Image: Hyde ParkLeonard Bentley, Creative Commons