Newspaper opinion pages focused on local issues reduce polarization

By Johanna Dunaway Joshua P. Darr and Matthew P. Hitt 5 minutes Lily

If you are confused about opinion journalism and what it is, you are not alone. Many Americans are. But even so, the editorials, opinion columns and letters to the editor that fill the opinion pages could help bridge political divisions in the United States and offer aid to struggling local media.

Given this confusion and disagreement, it may seem unlikely that opinion journalism can have a positive influence. But our research shows that it is possible.

We are academics who study politics and the media. We have found that local newspapers – and local opinion journalism in particular – can bridge political divisions and attract more readers.

Dynamic community forum

Opinion journalism is not news reporting; he stands out for his stated point of view. It has three basic formats: editorials; opinion columns, or “opinion pieces”; and letters to the editor.

Editorials are written in the voice of the newspaper by the editorial board, often made up of editors, owners and community members. Opinion editions are typically written by professional columnists or community leaders. The letters are written by regular readers.

Opinion editors ensure that the views of non-journalists appear in the newspaper, help the general public interpret major events, and can change readers’ minds on these issues. The best opinion pages function almost like a town square, allowing readers to discuss and debate issues important to both their communities and beyond.

In June 2019, Desert sun Editor-in-chief Julie Makinen has announced a big change for the newspaper’s opinion pages: no national policy. [Screenshot: The Desert Sun]

But the economic crisis in local news is making it harder for the opinion page to realize its potential as a vibrant community forum. Declining incomes and shrinking staff have forced local newspapers to use more union columnists from outside the newspaper community whose work is generally national in scope. Some newspapers have eliminated the position of opinion editor altogether.

Without a dedicated staff to research community writers and edit their work, newspapers’ reliance on unionized columns means more opinion columns focused on “right-versus-left” ideological conflicts between the two national political extremes, and not on local issues.

More national politics?

Our book shows how to do the opposite – getting rid of national politics on the opinion page and reinvesting in local opinion content – can help newspapers attract readers and ease tensions in their communities.

The desert sun from Palm Springs, Calif., tried this out for July 2019: no union columns, no cartoons about national politics, no letters about then-President Donald Trump.

We measured how this experience changed the published material and the attitudes of people in the community.

It was a major change. In June, the month before this change, half of The desert sun ‘S opinion page were nationally unionized columns, and a third of all columns referenced Trump. In July, national syndication was gone, along with all the stories about the president. California subjects were in the center of less than half of all columns in June, but 96% were focused on California in July. Mentions of the Democratic and Republican parties fell by more than half, from 25% of all columns to 10%.

Local issues filled the page: issues such as artistic and cultural preservation, downtown traffic and development, education and the environment received much more attention. The uniqueness of Palm Springs shone, once given a chance.

We surveyed readers before and after The desert sun ‘s experience, in Palm Springs and another city, Ventura, including the local newspaper, the Ventura County Star, has not changed his opinion page. We wanted to see if the change in opinion journalism changes the way people think and feel about their political opponents.

Political polarization, that is, when people feel estranged from the opposing party, has slowed down considerably in Palm Springs compared to Ventura in some groups:

  • Those who read the newspaper;
  • Those who know a lot about politics; and
  • The people who participate in politics the most.

These groups are the people most likely to share their views and inform others, potentially extending the newspaper’s influence in the wider community. Even though only a fraction of the community read the newspaper regularly –The desert sun ‘The total s circulation is just over 26,000 – a change like this could have bigger payoffs.

The desert sun ‘Readers appreciated the change: Online op-ed readership almost doubled in July, and in reader surveys we responded to the experience, nearly five times as many readers said they approved than said they disapproved of the experience. The experience helped the newspaper recruit more opinion writers, who then continued to write in the months that followed.

Reinvest in public opinion

Supporters of local news could follow the lessons of this research by raising money to pay opinion editor positions and funding creative thinking like The desert sun ‘s experience.

The alternative is for the opinion pages to fade and stop reflecting their communities. A local-only opinion page won’t restore the business model that has supported newspapers for decades, but our research shows it can bring some readers back and bridge some of the political divisions that can separate American communities.

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