How high is the rate The New York Times pays contributors to its Op-Ed section?

“It’s very low,” said Trish Hall, who edits the section, at a panel discussion last night at the 92nd Street Y that promised to divulge to lucky ticket-buyers the secret to writing opinion pieces that actually get published at the Times. “It’s a little embarrassing to say. “

But she did say: “Generally $150,” adding somewhat sheepishly, “it just went up.”

Presumably the 22 people who paid $29 this year to hear the annual talk, hosted by Hall and New York Times Letters page editor Thomas Feyer, were not there because they planned to make a career out of writing op-ed pieces.

Instead, the crowd that showed up in a large classroom off the building’s main entrance at the corner of 92 Street and Lexington Avenue appeared to be split fairly evenly between those for whom the Times still looms large as the last, best arbiter of all that is important and good (and who wanted some reassurance it would remain so!), and those who “want to be in the industry and are looking for guidance,” as one attendee later put it to me.

Which is to say, older New Yorkers, many of whom appeared to have walked out of an Upper East Side casting call for a Seinfeld episode, and who still read the paper in print. And a younger, savvy bunch who were clearly aiming higher than the comments section of a their favorite blog but were yet to be convinced achieving this goal was worth the investment of, say, graduate school or a Mediabistro writing class. 

What the crowd received from the soft-spoken panelists, however, was less an instruction in how to write than a lesson in how the newspaper works. The latter of which will be a revelation to those who make a living on the web. 

For instance: every letter to the paper is edited and fact-checked. And yes, as anachronistic as it sounds, people still write letters to the paper (don’t even pretend you, too, wouldn’t get a thrill from seeing your opinion in print!), though Feyer concedes that the number of letters he receives has dropped dramatically since the days before the advent of comments section when the Letters page provided a rare and deeply coveted space for people’s voices.

“Write well, be succinct, include an engaging personal story,” Feyer advised the aspiring letter-writers, noting that whether it makes it to print will have a great deal to do with whether “it fits.” Literally. The paper was narrowed down a few years back and the page lost a column.

Devoted Times readers will no doubt be happy to hear they are well represented by the letter writers, who, Feyer says, “awe” him every day with their intelligence, if not their interest in world affairs, which he says are rarely the subject of letters unless the story the writer is responding to involves U.S. troops.

And as with every other institution in New York, the Letters page has its regulars, and while Feyer isn’t sure who has written the greatest number of letters since he took over the desk over a decade ago—he noted one especially determined 96-year-old man who writes him "almost every day ... it's like calisthenics for some people"—he recently provided a list of his top submitters to The New Yorker for a story, but “hasn’t heard back.”

The secret to making it into the highly regarded and still influential New York Times Op-Ed pages is equally nebulous.

“What I’m trying to do is surprise people,’ said Hall, who also mentioned that she has held pieces for as long as two years waiting for the perfect peg. Yes, two years.

“I’ve run a lot of things that I think are just important to run, because I think people should know it,” said Hall, by way of explaining her we-are-definitely-not-in-Gawkerland anymore philosophy of editing. “If it’s not popular it’s not popular; it actually doesn’t matter that much, because my job is to try to have that mix.”

And fear not conservatives! Both Feyer and Hall were quick to note they “welcome conservative views.”

“Letters are independent from the editorial policy of the paper,” Feyer said.

After speculating that liberals tended to pitch the Times more and conservatives tended to pitch The Wall Street Journal, she said: “I just want you to know, I don't agree with much of what I run.”

Some pro tips: Hall can spot P.R. pitches a mile away and they are rarely interesting. Paste your submission in the body of your email (“I don't open attachments from people I don’t know"). Write the entire piece (“we don’t accept things on spec"). Personal is good. Said Hall: “When I look at what’s been really popular many of them have a personal story wrapped into a policy issue. “

Email everything! Hall reads her email every day, including the spam folder: "Every morning I look through the trash," she said. It was in her inbox that she discovered Greg Smith’s “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs,” this year’s most popular op-ed piece to date.

“There it was in my email one day, and I had lots of long conversations with him about ‘did he really want to do this?’” He did.

And for good reason. The endless conversation about the death of print aside, The New York Times still packs a serious punch. And some potentially serious cash: Greg Smith reportedly scored a $1.5 million book deal based his op-ed, which will no doubt sweeten the $150 he was paid for the initial piece.

If nothing else—advice to be engaging and a good writer applies to everything, from Twitter to the Letters page to condolence cards and should not be worth $29—Thursday’s panel was evidence of the enormous value the Times places on it content. To wit: The op-ed section alone boasts three art directors. The Sunday Review section is planned weeks in advance.

And that value translates to influence in ways that the traffic metrics employed by other sites can’t measure.

After the talk the audience trickled out onto Lexington. Were they satisfied? 

Reassured that all the news that was fit to print "was still fitting,” one young lady said: "There could have been a little more ‘how to.’"

An older gentleman, who’d been sitting near me, was thrilled with the evening. He’d once had a letter printed in the Times as a college student during Watergate and he was thinking of trying it again. His only concern? Whether the paper would stay in print; his neighbor upstairs was elderly and she didn’t own a computer.