Joshua Darr, a professor at Louisiana State University, is right in the “What Works” sweet spot: His research delves into the divisive partisan rhetoric that infuses our national political debate and whether communities with a vibrant local news source experience less polarization.
In the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Darr about his research, as well as the Trusting News project report on how local and regional news organizations can do a better job of connecting with conservative audiences.
Recently I had a conversation with a hyperlocal news editor who wanted to talk through a dilemma. Her website, which covers such matters as town boards, schools, housing, public health and charity events, is resolutely nonpartisan. From the beginning, her goal has been to bring together people from varied backgrounds and with different political beliefs. Yet her sense was that most of her readers, like her, were liberal. What could she do to reach out to conservatives?
Her dilemma is not unique. Surveys show that people trust local and regional news more than they do the national media. Ideally, local news can help overcome the hyperpolarization that is tearing us apart at the national level and foster a spirit of community and cooperation.
Increasingly, though, the divisions that define national life are inescapable. Our school systems are rippling with rage over masks, vaccines and how kids are taught about racial justice. Discussions about policing have devolved into binary sloganeering about defunding the police or backing the blue.
And well-meaning journalists, mostly liberal but wanting to give a voice to everyone, wring their hands.
Last week, the research project Trusting News, a joint venture of the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the American Press Institute, released a report on how local and regional news organizations can do a better job of connecting with conservative audiences. More than 3,400 self-identified conservatives responded to a survey, and 91 of them were interviewed by 27 media outlets around the country. (In New England, the participants were New Hampshire Public Radio, Vermont’s Burlington Free Press and The Day of New London, Connecticut.)
The report, written by Marley Duchovnay, a research associate at the University of Texas’ Center for Media Engagement, and Gina M. Masullo, associate director of the center, makes six recommendations. Three of them are of particular interest:
“Build relationships with people who have conservative and right-leaning viewpoints in your community and listen to them.”
“Include a variety of voices from people with conservative and right-leaning views in stories. Journalists should be cautious of using ‘conservative’ or other terms as catch-all labels for people who may have very different beliefs.”
“Consider diversity of political beliefs and backgrounds when hiring for the newsroom.”
The first two bullet points are just good journalism: get to know your community, and don’t assume everyone on the right drives “a pickup truck with the Confederate flag on the back,” as Masullo put it at a webinar held last week to explain the findings. The third, though, is potentially problematic. News organizations don’t ask job candidates about their political views, nor should they. So how do we go about ensuring ideological diversity in the newsroom?
“I think more the idea is to, in your recruitment strategy, try to hit rural areas, more conservative areas,” said Masullo. And yes, that seems fine in theory. But with the journalism economy continuing to shrink, hiring is not an everyday occurrence — and the need to hire people of color to diversify overwhelmingly white newsrooms has to be a top priority.
I was also struck by another finding in the report — that material from wire services in local media outlets contributes to perceptions of liberal bias more than the local content does. At the webinar, the presenters cited Mark Rosenberg of the Victoria Advocate in Texas, who told them: “National news drives distrust in the media far more than local news, it was surprising and frustrating to hear. 95% of what I do is local, but the syndicated copy and columns is what is driving distrust. That is something that recurred in all three interviews that I did.”
To invoke the old cliché, this presents both a challenge and an opportunity. For daily newspapers like the Advocate, which have positioned themselves as a single source for community, national and international news, it’s difficult to imagine how that problem could be solved — especially when some of the respondents complained even about The Associated Press, known for its lack of bias.
Most weekly papers and hyperlocal websites, though, focus exclusively on their community, which means that they avoid offending conservatives who don’t want to see national and international news that has what they consider to be a liberal slant.
One approach that even the editors and publishers of daily papers could consider is thinking about how they can de-emphasize national news, including syndicated columns, in their opinion sections. Earlier this week my research partner, Ellen Clegg, interviewed Joshua Darr of Louisiana State University about a study he conducted along with two other scholars. The study attempted to show what happened when the Desert Sun of Palm Beach, California, dropped national opinion content for a month and went exclusively local. The result was a slight but measurable decline in polarization.
“The experiment is not without controversy,” Clegg writes. “The Trump-Biden presidential race and the COVID pandemic arguably showed how much local election laws, local public health policies and local governments matter in setting the course of the nation’s future. Abandoning coverage entirely — and opinion page columns do constitute a form of coverage all their own — could seem irresponsible to some.”
Still, for many daily newspaper editors, running syndicated material in the opinion section isn’t a way to serve readers so much as it is an aversion to new ways of doing things. More local opinion journalism, combined with some national content from the left and the right, would seem like a good mix.
A crucial concern that isn’t really addressed in the report but that did come up at the webinar is the importance of not pandering to people with right-wing views. Though the goal of broadening the conversation and bringing more voices into the tent is a laudable one, we can’t forget that it’s conservatives — radicals, really — who have gone off the rails, embracing lies about the outcome of the last election, the Jan. 6 insurrection, vaccinations, mask-wearing and such. Trusting News director Joy Mayer, though, told the participants that the very nature of the study tended to weed such people out.
“The people who self-selected into this research were not the people with the most extreme views and the most extreme distrust,” Mayer said. “If you are willing to spend an hour sitting and talking to a local journalist, you have to believe that they want to change. You have to believe they’re worth an investment of your time. The whole world is not made up of people who would be grateful for an hour to spend with a journalist.”
If journalists who run local news projects want to serve everyone in their community, and not just the more liberal elements, then the fundamental ideas outlined in the report are worth paying attention to: listen; be fair; don’t resort to cheap labels in describing those with different views.
I don’t know if it can help. But getting past the divisions that are ripping us apart is perhaps the most vital challenge facing us today. If there is to be solution, it’s got to start at the local level.
Bad news about the media business is nothing new. From the moment that the commercial web slipped into view in the mid-1990s, news organizations have been on the losing end of a long war over how — and even whether — journalism should be paid for.
Some recent developments, though, offer reasons for hope amid the gloom. Consider:
• BuzzFeed recently acquired HuffPost and immediately took an axe to it, laying off 47 employees, with the threat of more cuts to come. I will concede there’s nothing positive about that. But the debacle points to the limits of media funded by venture capital and could encourage more sustainable models.
• The notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital was on the verge of acquiring Tribune Publishing, whose nine large-market daily papers include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and, locally, the Hartford Courant. But a group of billionaire investors led by Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum stepped forward to propose breaking up the chain and operating the papers locally, some of them on a nonprofit basis. And, at least at the moment, it looks like they might win.
• As media observers had long feared, the departure of former President Donald Trump from the White House led to an immediate decline in news consumption — not just at the cable news networks, but at national and regional newspapers too. Yet the post-Trump slump represents a chance to emphasize local news, which has more of an effect on readers’ actual lives and helps build community.
What a lot of this comes down to is the end of the idea that scale will save the digital news business. “Local doesn’t scale” has long been the motto of community-based entrepreneurs. But now it’s looking like scale doesn’t work at the national level, either, with a few notable exceptions like The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Josh Marshall, founder of a small but successful political website called Talking Points Memo that depends mainly on reader revenue, described the dilemma in a recent essay for The Atlantic. For years, he wrote, venture capitalists kept pouring more and more money into digital news outlets hoping that they would someday become large enough to dominate their rivals, rake in a bounty of ad revenues and give the investors a chance to cash in.
Instead, the digital ad money went to Google and Facebook, leaving these outlets without any way forward.
“The whole digital news industry has been based on lies,” Marshall wrote, adding: “Investors realized that the tantalizing prospect of ad revenue lock-in that had always appeared just over the horizon was an illusion, so they shut off the investment spigot … In digital publishing, scale was the god that failed.”
If bigger isn’t necessarily better, that points to an opportunity for local news, whose tribulations have been the subject of considerable discussion over the past several years. Last November, I wrote that reviving community journalism could help overcome the angry polarization of the Trump era. Now three scholars have conducted a study showing there may be something to it.
According to an overview by Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab, the researchers — Joshua Darr of Louisiana State University, Matthew Whitt of Colorado State University and Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M — conducted a survey of readers after The Desert Sun of Palm Springs, California, decided to drop from its opinion pages all syndicated columns and references to national politics for one month.
Darr, Whitt and Dunaway compared The Desert Sun’s readers to those of a control paper and found that polarization was less than what might otherwise have been expected. The numbers were small and didn’t really prove anything one way or the other. But, as the three wrote, the effect was notably salutary regardless of the actual numbers, since the experiment pushed the paper to pay more attention to what was taking place in its own backyard.
“Local newspapers are uniquely positioned to unite communities around shared local identities, cultivated and emphasized through a distinctive home style, and provide a civil and regulated forum for debating solutions to local problems,” they wrote. “In Palm Springs, those local issues were architectural restoration, traffic patterns and environmental conservation. The issues will differ across communities, but a localized opinion page is more beneficial for newspapers and citizens than letters and op-eds speckled with national political vitriol.”
It’s worth noting, too, that The Desert Sun — a Gannett paper — is small enough to be regarded as a truly local paper. According to the Alliance for Audited Media, the Sun’s combined digital and print weekday paid circulation is 15,862, and 16,993 on Sundays. But will the experiment have a lasting impact?
According to Julie Makinen, the paper’s executive editor, the answer is yes. Although the ban on national politics lasted only lasted for a month, she wrote approvingly about the study last week and added that it “is useful to us in that it helps point the way for further improving our opinion pages as we bring on a new editor for the section.”
Which brings me back to where I started. If scale is “the god that failed,” as Josh Marshall puts it, and if local news and opinions are an answer to rebuilding both journalism and civic engagement, what should come next?
Damon Kiesow of the Missouri School of Journalism, whose professional stops include a stint on the digital side at The Boston Globe, recently tweeted out a link to a piece he wrote more than a year ago that seems even more relevant now than it did then.
Because most local newspapers are owned by national chains, he wrote, those papers often end up getting caught in a strategy of pursuing scale even though it makes no sense for them. Journalistically, it means loading up on syndicated content. On the business side, it means chasing advertising dollars — or pennies — that are going to go to Google and Facebook in any case.
“To succeed,” he wrote, “local media have to abandon scale and refocus on community. Advertising remains part of the equation. But reader revenue, donations, foundation funding — yard sales if necessary — are all in the mix.” He concluded that “the internet is infinite; your community is not. Go small, or we are all going home.”
For a generation now, much of the news media have been seeking magical one-size-fits-all solutions to the economic destruction created by technology and out-of-control capitalism. The problem is that there are no easy answers, and scaling up has only made things worse. Those who have succeeded have done so through the hard work of figuring out what their communities need — and then going about the business of serving those needs.