By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor
It’s an understatement to say these are challenging times for opinion writers.
Obviously, our society has rarely been this polarized. The internet has blurred the perceived lines between opinion and news content, which were never clear anyway to much of the audience. Misinformation is trusted by millions; solidly reported perspectives are dismissed as media propaganda. The supposed motives of mainstream media, always challenged, are questioned daily, perhaps more than ever.
Inside newsrooms, the definitions and rules of objectivity are changing. Much of the news reporting is becoming more interpretive. Threats are rife against those who report the news — let alone against those who bring provocative opinions and perspectives to the table — while social media make them more vulnerable.
And many news outlets are scaling back their production of opinion content. (See Gannett’s recent moves).
Given all of that, what’s it like to be a woman in her early to mid-20s, not long out of college, writing opinion content for daily metro newsrooms that are trying some new approaches?
That very small club includes Sara Pequeño and Paige Masten, members since last year of McClatchy’s North Carolina opinion team — Pequeño based at The News & Observer in Raleigh, and Masten at The Charlotte Observer.
I had the privilege of a frank chat with them the other day about what they do, and about their challenges.
Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity:
EF: Tell me a little about what you do, and about the North Carolina opinion team’s approach.
SP: I am a North Carolina opinion writer, as Paige is, too, and I’m based in Raleigh. When Peter (McClatchy Opinion Editor Peter St. Onge) approached me about this job, he wanted me to be focused on being more of a columnist than an editorial writer, so doing a lot of the reporting and editorial work that I had been doing at my previous job (at INDY Week), and focusing specifically on community in Chapel Hill and Durham and Raleigh and all of these smaller places, and some of the marginalized voices …
So my approach to everything is always community-focused first. I get a lot of my story ideas from the community, from sources that bring me stories, and I would describe myself as being not just a speaker but a megaphone, using myself to amplify voices that don’t get heard in mainstream media as often.
PM: I’m also a North Carolina opinion writer, but I’m based in Charlotte. And while the majority of Sara’s work is columns with some editorials, mine is editorials with some columns. So I would say we’re sort of like perfect complements, which is good because we’re so alike in pretty much every other way that it’s good that we work a little bit differently.
The approach that I take is really similar to the approach that I took when I was writing at the DTH (The Daily Tar Heel at UNC), which is that I look at problems or issues that seem important not just to me but to other people. And what I try hardest to do is look to see what other people think about it — the community that we’re writing on behalf of — because the last thing I want to do is be the editorial writer who is so out of touch with what people are actually saying and becomes a sort of soapbox for opinions and issues that don’t actually reflect what readers think.
I’ve always seen my role as something where I have a larger platform than what any one person probably has on just their Facebook or on their Twitter, and being able to take the sentiments that a lot of people are already feeling and vocalize them.
SP: I think her comment about not wanting to be a soapbox or be, I guess, contrarian …
PM: Or like a preacher, even …
SP: Yeah. Paige and I talk personally a little bit about the New York Times opinion page and our feelings about that. We talk about these other pages and other opinion writers that seem to just want to do hot takes for clicks, and I don’t think that’s stuff that we really have in mind when we are writing — you know, how can we piss people off today?
PM: Yeah. I think that a lot of the columnists at The New York Times are great, but I just find issue with the editorial board. I think one of the problems is that, when you have people who probably received a much more elite education than the majority of people, who are probably more financially secure, who are older, et cetera, than people like me, who represent a smaller subset of the population, writing things that are supposed to be a platform for the rest of the population, there’s often a disconnect. And I think that is something that Sara and I definitely try not to do, but I think we also just don’t do, just by virtue that we’re younger, we’re female …
SP: Not to take a cheap shot at The New York Times … but you know, I think when Peter first approached me with this job and was like, I want you to be an opinion writer, I was really concerned because the only opinion that I had been introduced to was, you know, either the stuff in The New York Times or the stuff in my hometown paper that was basically just racism with a nice headline. You know, I grew up in a small rural North Carolina town, and that’s how it is. And I was really nervous about that because I didn’t see what I was doing at the alt-weekly, at INDY Week, I didn’t see that as opinionated. But obviously it is, because alt-weeklies are progressive in their bones.
EF: What town?
SP: Mount Airy. I grew up in Mount Airy. My parents weren’t in journalism, but my dad is Latino, and one of the things that I remember my dad specifically mentioning is, when they moved to Mount Airy, and they had letters to the editor, the paper would just include a lot of really racist and horrible things about, you know, the immigrant community or the Black community. And my dad had to have a conversation, which is so hard to do as a 30-year-old, new to a community — he’s a white Latino, but he’s still a Latino — and that’s a really hard thing to bring up in a small-town community. But from what I understand that did stop, after there was more of an open conversation about it.
EF: Tell me about the strongest reactions you get.
PM: OK. This is actually really interesting to me, because when I was at the DTH, I would say that I got worse hate than I get now. One of my colleagues who used to be a UNC beat writer, but now works in Charlotte on a different beat, I actually mentioned this to him and he said that when he was a UNC beat writer, the readership was more, I guess, outspoken or antagonistic than at any other paper he’d ever worked at, or any other beat he’d ever worked on. And I would get — even on the most innocuous, silly, typical student journalism column, where you’re just writing about things that you think are funny or cool — I would get such awful comments.
But I will say most of the hate that I receive now revolves around the fact that I’m young and a woman. A lot of it revolves around the fact that I’m 23, and people say, “Oh, you literally just graduated college less than a year ago, you have no idea what you’re talking about. You don’t know what the real world is like.” At The Observer, the strongest reaction I’ve gotten to a piece was a column that I wrote when there was a book in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools curriculum for, I think, a ninth-grade English class, that parents wanted to be removed. And I read the book, and I wrote a column — this is what parents are saying about the book; I read it and I actually think it’s not that bad. And I said I don’t think we should be removing things from the curriculum because they don’t support the way you want your kid to see the world. I would say that was the worst hate that I got on a piece. All of it was just telling me, “You have no right to be talking about this. You don’t have a kid, you are 23, you’re stupid.” I had to mute the Twitter thread because a school board member jumped in and started hurling various insults at me.
I think that young women having opinions really makes people angry.
SP: Yeah. One thing I do want to point out that Paige mentioned: I was not as involved at the DTH but I was at UNC during the Silent Sam teardown and a lot of the tension surrounding that. And I think that even the things that I’ve experienced as a journalist — and I’ve had white supremacists tag me in things on Facebook or, you know, tell their little friends about me, but I don’t think it’s ever been as bad as what my classmates experienced at the DTH when Silent Sam fell. There was one instance where a person was continuously harassing the editor in chief at the time and some of the other people that were there, and he ended up being friends with the Tree of Life Synagogue shooter (in Pittsburgh in October 2018) …
PM: That guy posted about me on Gab — some disgusting, very rapey thing. And I was 19, I was a sophomore when that happened, and I was so scared.
SP: Yeah, so that’s what I would say. I mean, again — I have literally looked Proud Boys in the eye at a protest and had to face them head on, and I don’t think that I’ve had an experience where my safety has felt threatened in that way. Personally, my columns, I think, often get to the community where I want them to be. I recently wrote about a drag queen story hour in Apex, and the response that I got to that was really good. Of course, I got comments calling me a groomer and saying all sorts of ridiculous things. Any time I allude to my own sexuality in stories like that, people get a little, a little cringe — but it’s never anything that I really focus on.
The one story I can think of when I was surprised with the response was when I wrote about canceling student loan debt. That got a really, really, really large reaction, and the story wasn’t that popular. I was very taken aback by it. A lot of that stuff comes back to what Paige was saying about us personally. With the student loan debt, people immediately started saying, “Well, do you have student loans? That’s a conflict of interest. Are you defaulting on your student loans?” I am not. I also am not paying my student loans off. I’m very privileged in that. And when I wrote about the drag queen story hour … I always kind of identify as, like, not straight. That’s just kind of the easiest way to put it. And people talk about that, too. But yeah, a lot of the comments mainly are about being young, being female. Even some of the nice comments that we get, honestly, sometimes get a little centered around the fact that we are both young, and women.
EF: So you touched on this, but how does that sort of semi-anonymous hate make you feel?
SP: I grew up on the internet, so it doesn’t bother me as long as my safety isn’t jeopardized. I’ve had Instagram since I was 14, and I’m almost 25. So I’ve had it for a very long time. And I also was a teenage girl and dealt with other really mean teenage girls. It probably should affect me more than it does, but I always listen to criticisms when I respect the people that they’re coming from, and when they’re people that I care about what they have to say about my writing. So if I get criticisms from a community that I’ve covered, or from people whose opinions, I think, are really valuable, and I think their criticism is coming in good faith, then I care — and I will think about those a lot. But in terms of the semi-anonymous hate, I just don’t really care that much. I don’t read the comments. I try to stay away from it.
PM: I would say for the most part I find it hilarious. A lot of the insults and the comments are, honestly, really creative in how ridiculous and absurd they are. When I was in college I would print my favorite ones and hang them on my wall. … But, like Sara said, if I feel unsafe, or if I feel like it isn’t just a troll — the two times that stick out is one, like I said, when the white supremacist who was connected to the Tree of Life shooter posted about me on the white supremacist social media website. And the other time was when the school board member started firing insults at me on Twitter because that led to his followers seeing my tweet and piling on. And then if it catches me at the right time — people who tell me that I’m terrible at my job or I don’t deserve to have my job, if they catch me in the right moment where I’m doubting myself, that will kind of get under my skin a little bit.
We get calls, too, to our fake work numbers. So I get lots of voice mails. Some of them are nice. Some of them are like, “Your story was dumb. Bye.”
SP: Paige and I are two years apart, and I also had a different job for two years. And while that’s not a lot of time, those two years were really valuable for me, just learning not to read comments and engage with things. Not that Paige’s approach is bad. But I think you realize over time what helps with your own mental health.
EF: Where do you feel conflicted about the usefulness, in this day and age, of opinion content?
PM: I don’t feel a lot of conflict about it when I think it’s done right — genuinely well reported. well researched, thoughtful, trying to elevate something you think is important or hold somebody accountable, or tell a story. I think that is really valuable. And one of the reasons it’s so valuable is that you can do a lot of things that journalists aren’t normally allowed to do. And that’s changing a little bit, where journalism is starting to not cling to the idea of being objective on certain values, which I think is positive. And I think the fact that journalism is shifting, in that way, makes me feel more strongly about what we do. I don’t want to tell people what to think, or to tell people they’re wrong. But I do think it’s important for people to read different opinions that are based on different experiences.
I feel conflicted when I see that not happening, and I see that not happening mostly at the national level. You don’t have the same sense of community at the national level. This is why I work in local news — because I can imagine that, when you’re working in national news, you don’t feel the same sense of responsibility to a specific community who has specific needs and beliefs and problems. It’s kind of like this vast ocean of people with a million different needs and thoughts and problems, and when you feel like you’re speaking into a void like that, you can get lost from the path that you should be on, and you end up climbing up on your soapbox.
I think also, on some opinion pages, I see the same “both sides” kind of thing that you see in news. If you look at the whole editorial page, you can really see them trying to do a balance of liberal voices and conservative voices. And because of the country we live in, a lot of the conservative voices, and sometimes the liberal ones as well, end up being far to one side. I think it’s OK to realize that if you have a little bit more liberal voices than conservative voices, that’s OK — something that might just be reflective of what’s actually going on.
I don’t really like to see newspapers finding this really wild, outspoken right-wing columnist because they think their pages are missing that perspective.
SP: I think I feel conflicted about the job a decent amount, and part of that is because there is a lot that I know gets written off as opinion that I still think is a little bit more factual. Like I said, I worked for an alt-weekly before, so I think my views on this are really different. Working at an alt-weekly, it’s a lot easier to just disavow white supremacy and the ultra right — and not saying it’s hard at a daily, but you know, there are times where I have story ideas, and I don’t really think that they’re that controversial or to the left, but they are — and that’s something that I personally reckon with a little bit.
I think just part of being a 20-something, too, is just wondering if the work that you’re doing matters. And I do feel like my work matters most of the time. But that is something I think about a lot.
Something I also think about when I am feeling down is, I think about conversations I’ve had with my parents, when we get into little bickering moments where I will mention something that’s happening in the world and they’ll be like, “Sara, this isn’t our jobs. You spend 40 hours a week, at least, learning about things that are happening in North Carolina and talking about them and digesting them, and we don’t do that.” And even though they’re telling me that in “OK, quiet down now” kind of way, that is something I think about — my parents, a lot of my friends … a lot of them don’t have time to really digest local things specifically. It’s one thing to see a graphic from a nonprofit or a tweet from someone you know, but it’s a whole other thing to have an issue legitimized by the local daily.
EF: What’s the burning question that nobody ever asks you that you would like to answer?
SP: No one ever asks us how we have come to be the people that we are.
Especially during the pandemic, and after I stepped into this role, I started doing a lot more research, I intake a lot of podcasts — I listen to at least one a day, sometimes more, because I am always trying to better understand, specifically, leftist ideologies. I know that’s a little controversial to say, but I am trying to educate myself on history that I’ve missed because I’m only 25. You know, Slow Burn, Slate’s podcast, is one of my favorites. I think their Watergate series was especially good. I listen to 5-4, which is a podcast all about 5-4 decisions and other decisions on the Supreme Court that have gone conservative. That’s me being a little bit of a legal nerd. But things like that, I think, are really important for me to listen to because it’s better for me to understand where we’re coming from and what the legal framework is for a lot of things.
PM: It don’t know if it’s necessarily a question as much as a recognition that as much as I love my job, and I couldn’t see myself doing anything else, it’s really isolating sometimes, and really exhausting. I’m the only opinion writer in my newsroom. That’s just a thing about local news — there aren’t going to be a lot of us. But it kind of feels like you’re on an island sometimes. And then also, just me being young and having no idea what I’m doing, and with COVID, all of that, it’s really hard. I think about how emotionally draining it is, and intellectually draining as well, to be in a constant intake of information and not only regurgitating it, but processing it and having to come up with coherent, thoughtful analysis of it, especially when a lot of those issues affect me personally as a human being. I’m going to struggle with it. And then having to process that so quickly and turn that around is hard sometimes, especially if I just feel angry or upset.
Another thing is, I wish people would see that opinion journalists are also journalists. We’re not just people who like to sit there and have opinions. Most of our opinions are actually fact — very much based in fact — it’s not just a hot take that we spit out. It’s a lot of research and work and reporting, just like a non-opinion journalist would do.
EF: Anything else you’d like to say?
SP: One thing I’d add: I think it was a great idea, on Peter’s end, to hire Paige and me in a similar time frame. Yes, our work complements each other’s well, but I think having each other to lean on for emotional support has been vital to both of us creating our best work and avoiding burnout. Opinion is such an isolating job, as is being the brand new face in a newsroom where there needs to be a tight curtain between editorial and opinion. Obviously you need an opinion desk to even have concerns about morale, but at least for me it’s provided a level of support that has made it easier to imagine staying with McClatchy long-term.