In Laconia, New Hampshire, publishing a letter from someone who denied that the Holocaust took place ended up leading to something positive — a long-term exercise in engaging the community around the paper’s opinion journalism.
The letter, according to an essay at the American Press Institute’s website by Julie Hart, The Laconia Daily Sun‘s digital editor, was from a well-known person who had said he was considering running for public office. That, and the paper’s longstanding policy of publishing virtually every letter it received, led to those hateful words making their way into print. Hart acknowledged that people at the Sun quickly realized they’d made a mistake.
With the help of grant money, the paper embarked on a project to bring together people with different points of view for some deep conversation and reflection to see if they could bridge the ideological divide. The exercise involved techniques such as “looping,” with Hart describes as helping people “re-state what they’re hearing from a partner in conversation to demonstrate active listening and objectively capturing information, regardless of whether or not they agree.”
The one sour note was the Sun’s decision to drop editorial cartoons after a Mike Luckovich effort critical of police shootings of Black people led to “angry phone calls, advertisers canceling their marketing campaigns, a slew of Facebook comments and calls to boycott.” As you can see, Luckovich’s cartoon was over the top, but using judgment in deciding which cartoons to publish would have made more sense than a blanket ban.
Still, the Sun’s efforts are admirable and fit in well with the idea that local journalism can be a vital spark for civic engagement. As I’ve written previously, community life can be an antidote to the hateful discourse that now pervades national politics (sorry, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that it’s mostly on the Republican side), and that reliable journalism is a key to making it happen.