What I learned writing an op-ed for a major newspaper

I recently spent two long days writing an unpaid op-ed for the Washington Post, and it may have been one of the best investments I’ve ever made. In the process, I learned a lot about what goes on behind the scenes at the opinion page of a major newspaper.
It began in March, just before the launch of my new book, “DEERLAND: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wildness.” My publicist and I had a long to-do list that included sending out review copies, lining up radio appearances, and contacting all of you who read this magazine. Also on our list: Watch for opportunities to place articles or opinion pieces in major markets where deer are already in the local news.
We found the perfect story right in Washington, D.C., where more than 200 deer had made their home in the 2.7-square mile Rock Creek Park. The understory was severely overbrowsed, browse lines were appearing overhead and the deer were hungry. When the National Park Service decided to send sharpshooters out to remove some of the deer, it faced lawsuits, letters to the editor, and protestors marching at the edge of the park with signs that read “Shame on the NPS,” “Don’t Kill the Deer,” and “Birth Control, not Bullets.”
In late March, sharpshooters removed 20 deer, about 10 percent of the park’s population. Just before that happened, Washington, D.C. council member and former mayor Marion Barry weighed in on Twitter, describing NPS officials with a colorful term I probably won’t be allowed to use in this magazine. So I decided I should weigh in, too.
In “DEERLAND,” I include an entire chapter on America’s suburban deer conundrum. I interviewed the top experts in the field and I read dozens of peer-reviewed papers — several of which ended up in my footnotes. So I knew that, contrary to persistent urban legend, there’s no handy oral deer contraceptive we can sprinkle about the woods or pour out onto piles of corn. Nor is deer relocation a workable idea. And for a long list of reasons, currently available immunocontraceptives remain problematic.
Deer birth control is great in theory. In practice, it’s difficult, expensive and temporary. The consensus among wildlife biologists is clear: deer contraception is only a viable option for small, isolated populations within a fenced enclosure or on an island or peninsula. As much as we might wish otherwise, it’s not an easy answer to the problem of overabundant deer in our nation’s cities and suburbs.
It’s a complex story that wasn’t easy to summarize in the 800 words I sent off to the Washington Post. Knowing they must receive hundreds of submissions every day, I’d nearly given up by the time I heard back on a late Wednesday afternoon. The editor thought he might be able to use the piece that following Sunday. But first, could I answer a few “authorship questions”?
Yes, I was using my real name. And yes, the entire text was my own work, other than properly attributed quotes. And so on. A few more questions and then I was in the door. But I wasn’t done yet. In fact, I was just getting started.
Over the next two days the editor and I exchanged several emails, some of which were longer than the piece itself. He had “just a few questions.” And then a few more. By the way, could I provide links to those deer contraceptive studies I’d mentioned?
The next day: “Thanks, Al. Just about done. I was able to make most of those changes, and a couple last questions have come up.”
By now I was realizing that the term “op-ed” is a bit misleading; most pieces on the “opinion” page are thoroughly researched and rigorously fact-checked. Mine was no exception, and in the end I was grateful for all that rigor. Since I was writing about a hugely contentious issue, I’m glad the editor helped me strengthen my argument even further.
Still, not everyone was convinced. If you’re writing anything controversial, especially if it involves the death of an animal (even just a fish), then it’s best to not spend too much time reading hate mail or online comments. Keep your perspective and remember that those dozen or so angry commenters are outliers among millions of readers.
Although writing an op-ed for a major newspaper turned out to be way more work than I’d ever imagined, it did lead to opportunities for more interviews, reviews and mentions. In the long run, it may have even helped sell a couple books. For me, weighing in with an op-ed like this one was definitely worth it. It just might be for you, too.
And for the online version of the op-ed described in this article story, here’s a link to The Washington Post piece: http://articles. washingtonpost.com/2013-04-05/opinions/38303809_1_more-deercaptive- deer-pzp. ◊
Al Cambronne is author of “DEERLAND: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wildness.” He’s co-author, with Eric Fromm, of “Gut It. Cut It. Cook It.: The Deer Hunter’s Guide to Processing and Preparing Venison.” He’s also written for Canoe & Kayak, Cooking Wild, Deer & Deer Hunting, Meatpaper, Sierra, and… The Washington Post.

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