LSU’s Darr: Fight Polarization by Hiring More Local Opinion Editors

Joshua Darr, an Assistant Professor at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication, has written a book with Matthew P. Hitt of Colorado State University and Johanna L. Dunaway at Texas A&M University, “Home Style Opinion: How Local Newspapers Can Slow Polarization.” The book reveals their finding that the polarization of news consumers is slowed when a local news outlet's opinion section concentrates on local issues rather than national politics. The authors believe this finding should inspire local news outlets to keep and hire opinion editors to make those sections more local and more vibrant. Their book is free online until April 21, 2021, and will be available soon in print. This is an edited transcript of an interview of Darr by Mark Jacob of the Medill Local News Initiative.

  • Mark Jacob

    Can you summarize the latest research?

    Mark Jacob
  • Joshua Darr

    We had previously written about how, when a newspaper closes, polarization increases in the area where it closed. Part of our conclusion was that people switched to reading about national politics when they lost a local newspaper. So Julie Makinen, executive editor of the Palm Springs (Calif.) Desert Sun, said: We’re a local newspaper that airs stuff about national politics, and so how can we address this? Well, we will drop national politics from our opinion page for a month. That was done in July 2019. Which meant no letters mentioning the president, no nationally syndicated columnists, just strictly local and California issues and topics. We immediately saw that this was an experiment, this would be really cool, because our previous work had said when local goes away, polarization increases. We wanted to measure the opposite: If news becomes more local, will polarization go down? We fielded surveys in the Palm Springs area as well as in Ventura, which was another community around L.A. that had a Gannett paper, the Ventura County Star, that did not drop national politics that month. And so we wanted to have a comparison community for our experiment set-up. We combined that with a content analysis of what filled the void at the Desert Sun, how big the void was when they dropped national politics. Previously about a third of their opinion page content that mentioned the president; that dropped to about zero. They had a lot of national content that went away, and they filled it with a mix of original local stuff and local and state syndication by a service called CalMatters, which is a nonprofit.

    Joshua Darr
  • Mark Jacob

    CalMatters is the kind of thing that we’re starting to get more of, which could provide content for local op-eds, right?

    Mark Jacob
  • Joshua Darr

    Yes. We didn’t know much about that going in. But the existence of a state and local op-ed wire really made this possible in a lot of ways. The Desert Sun tripled their CalMatters columns in July, relative to June and August. Anyway, we found relative to Ventura, the rise in polarization slowed in Palm Springs specifically for those who read the newspaper, those who read a lot about politics and those who participate a lot in politics.

    Joshua Darr

The fact that Americans increasingly dislike each other based on party and don’t really want to hang out with each other based on party, those particular facets of polarization are something that local newspapers should care about.

  • Mark Jacob

    Is polarization getting worse?

    Mark Jacob
  • Joshua Darr

    It does seem that way. Certainly the kinds that we measured are. We specifically measured what political scientists call “affective polarization,” which is just how much you like or dislike your side vs. the other side. We actually aren’t measuring issue polarization – how far apart are your policy preferences. This is about: Do you like the other side? Do you dislike the other side? The “social polarization” side of it is: How comfortable are you in social situations with the other side? The question that is used for that I always think is interesting: How would feel if your child married a member of the opposing party? The fact that Americans increasingly dislike each other based on party and don’t really want to hang out with each other based on party, those particular facets of polarization are something that local newspapers should care about because local newspapers traditionally play such an important role in creating communities and fostering community identity. There are tangible things they can do if they have the resources – which is a big if – to bring that community together.

    Joshua Darr
  • Mark Jacob

    That’s one of the action points in the book: the view that local news outlets need to invest in opinion editors.

    Mark Jacob
  • Joshua Darr

    That was very clear because we did interviews with Desert Sun opinion editor Al Franco, who subsequently accepted a buyout from Gannett, and Julie Makinen, who is still there as executive editor. It became very clear in our conversations with them that having a staffed opinion editor position is extremely important if you want to try to do something like this. And the alternative to that is just to accept national wire content.

    Joshua Darr
  • Mark Jacob

    Which is less expensive and less labor-intensive but, as your research shows, has other effects on polarization that are negative.

    Mark Jacob
  • Joshua Darr

    Right. It drives people apart. If you’re going to cut corners and save money and think you can do that in opinion, you’re going to have these negative consequences from it. It does seem like a nice place to cut if you’re trying to cut spending, which a lot of these newspapers are, with the collapse in revenue that’s happened. But the alternative is national, polarizing content. If you can devote even half of an employee’s job description to opinion editor, you should. Because it does take a lot of work. New people they had to solicit from the community, people who hadn’t typically written before, need more editing. They did seem to get a lot of community input, community cooperation. The thing about it is, it’s a short-term cost for a long-term gain because once people have written and get the hang of it, they’re more likely to write in the future. People who wrote for the first time in July 2019 have continued to write for the paper.

    Joshua Darr
  • Mark Jacob

    What’s the role of philanthropy in funding these opinion editor positions? Do you think that has potential?

    Mark Jacob
  • Joshua Darr

    I would like to talk to philanthropists because I think a lot of the philanthropy money goes into reporting – and I’m not complaining about it – but there may be a kind of aversion to opinion journalism, and that they don’t want to be seen as sort of supporting opinion pieces. There are places that are cutting their editorials or cutting their opinion editor position. We use the Providence Journal as an example of that in recent months when they dropped their opinion editor and they said they weren’t going to run editorials anymore. We show it can be part of the solution, and is a fairly low-cost way to get more local voices into the paper. Some of these local philanthropy groups that are investing in local reporting should at least consider an investment for funding local opinion editors.

    Joshua Darr

Some of these local philanthropy groups that are investing in local reporting should at least consider an investment for funding local opinion editors.

Joshua Darr, Assistant Professor, Louisiana State University
  • Mark Jacob

    Any examples of that happening?

    Mark Jacob
  • Joshua Darr

    Like I said, Al Franco took his buyout from Gannett, so the opinion editor who oversaw this is already gone. So Julie Makinen went to the community, and there’s a community group that started a philanthropy organization that raised money to fund the position. And so she’s recently hired a new opinion editor. The paper was able to do that because of community-level philanthropy.

    Joshua Darr
  • Mark Jacob

    Did the Palm Springs Desert Sun see any improvement in circulation or any other business metric?

    Mark Jacob
  • Joshua Darr

    There was not necessarily a circulation improvement. But they did see their online readership of opinion content nearly double in July. So people were reading it more online, which I would argue is something you can tell advertisers and get them to spend a little more.

    Joshua Darr
  • Mark Jacob

    Have you heard of any local outlets considering a similar experiment?

    Mark Jacob
  • Joshua Darr

    We haven’t. There have been a couple things where people are redoubling their commitment to local opinion, but nothing on this scale. Quite frankly, from a social science perspective, this just set up so well. If a place wants to experiment like that, I think there’s a lot we can learn. We can talk all we want of the value and the benefits of local news, but the more powerful version of that is backed up by really strong scientific research in saying, here’s the actual, tangible benefits and not the amorphous, intangible benefits that we know are there.

    Joshua Darr
  • Mark Jacob

    In that way, both the community and the news organization are strengthened.

    Mark Jacob
  • Joshua Darr

    Of course they’re related. As communities go, so goes local news, and vice versa.

    Joshua Darr

Article image by Caleb Wright used under Unsplash license (Unsplash)

About the author

Mark Jacob

Editor

A former Metro Editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jacob is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is the co-author of eight books on history and photography.

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