In June 2019, the executive editor of The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, California, Julie Makinen, announced the newspaper’s opinion pages would be taking a summer break from national politics. She chose to focus only on local issues for the month of July, she explained in the newspaper, because new research had found that the loss of local news coverage can contribute to rising political polarisation in the U.S.
When the authors of that research paper read about Makinen’s plan, they recognised an opportunity to learn more about the impact of local news on political polarisation — the growing ideological chasm between Republicans and Democrats. So, what happened after The Desert Sun’s opinion section shifted its focus to local issues only?
A 85-page book released this week, Home Style Opinion: How Local Newspapers Can Slow Polarization, outlines the analysis conducted by three scholars of political science or political communication — Joshua P. Darr of Louisiana State University, Matthew Hitt of Colorado State University and Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M University. The book’s publisher, Cambridge University Press, is offering free downloads through April 21.
Among the main takeaways: Political polarisation increased among people living in the area served by The Desert Sun during the month the paper focused on local issues. However, polarisation grew less there than it did in an area served by another newspaper in California chosen for comparison, the Ventura County Star. The opinion section at the Star remained unchanged. Gannett Co. owns both news outlets, which are similar in circulation size.
“While a home style opinion page could not halt polarisation, it slowed noticeably in Palm Springs compared to Ventura,” Darr, Hitt and Dunaway write in their book. They add this “demonstrates that local newspapers can slow polarisation by adjusting the focus of their opinion page.”
While the difference between the two news outlets was small, the researchers note that a dramatic change was improbable given the one-month experiment involved one newspaper making a change to one of its sections. In the Q&A below, The Journalist’s Resource asks Darr and Dunaway about the implications of the findings.
The researchers conducted two waves of online surveys targeting adults living in the two outlets’ circulation areas — one before and one after The Desert Sun dropped national politics from its opinion section. They asked questions about a range of topics, including political knowledge, how closely participants followed local news and their feelings toward certain groups and political figures.
In total, 947 people completed the first wave of the survey and 1,050 completed the second.
Darr, Hitt and Dunaway write that they had expected fewer mentions of political parties after The Desert Sun shifted its opinion section’s focus on local issues.Earlier studies found that local politics tend to be less partisan because many local offices are nonpartisan, meaning that the people running for office aren’t identified by their party affiliation, not even on election ballots.
Their prediction was correct: The number of opinion pieces appearing in The Desert Sun that mentioned either Republicans or Democrats fell by more than half in July 2019, compared with the prior month.
The book points out that, according to survey results, local residents who noticed the change largely approved. However, a content analysis reveals that localising the opinion section “did not make the opinion page resemble the community.” At the time, Palm Springs was 83.3% percent white and 27.8% Hispanic.
In the months immediately before and after the experiment, white authors wrote just over 80% of op-eds appearing in The Desert Sun. The number rose to 92% in July, partly due to the omission of Black and Hispanic contributors who are nationally syndicated.
Knowing the book would interest our readers, we asked Darr, the lead author, and Dunaway, a former fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, for more details about their work and the implications for news outlets broadly. Here are our six questions and their written responses, edited lightly to match JR’s editorial style.
What are the main points that newsrooms should take away from the book?
Darr: Our book shows that there is value in both experimentation and assessment. Newspapers should try new things, like The Desert Sun did: most readers liked it, and corporate feedback was positive, according to their Executive Editor, Julie Makinen. This particular experiment helped The Desert Sun recruit new contributors to opinion, and those new writers kept writing. It’s a short-term cost for a long-term gain. And with assessment: don’t make a change without measuring its impact somehow! Partner with local academics or polling firms to assess the impact of your changes on public attitudes or newspaper content. Don’t let a good experiment go to waste.
Dunaway: The main takeaway is that even though editorial decisions about what is newsworthy are made on a story-by-story and day to day basis, it’s important to consider broader effects from the overall balance between national and local content in local news.
What changes would you recommend newsrooms make?
Dunaway: I am hesitant to make recommendations for making changes to newsrooms — the professionals running those newsrooms know best and they are dealing with a lot of constraints. But, if they can, I guess I would ask them to consider revisiting editorial policies that are affecting the balance between national and local content, especially if those processes are biasing the content toward a very heavy national focus.
Darr: How newsrooms treat their opinion section will vary widely between states and types of newspapers, but there should be a dedicated employee — and yes, I recognise the budget limitations of this suggestion — who is tasked with editing and recruiting for the opinion page. Our studies and others find that op-eds can have persuasive effects. Newspapers that allow those pages to simply fill with nationally syndicated content or other op-eds about national politics are missing out on an opportunity to engage their local readers and emphasise their comparative advantage in the marketplace for news. Having at least half an employee dedicated to the opinion page should pay dividends, if newspapers have the resources.
What if newsrooms don’t make those changes?
Darr: We are worried about the nationalisation of politics: the increasing tendency of American politics, and American political news, to centre on Washington, DC, and the federal government. If people are unaware of what’s going on in their communities, they may not think it’s that important. But it very much is: most elections take place at the state and local level, and policies at that level have major impacts on people’s everyday lives. Local newspapers serve these critical information needs, and if they do not invest in opinion as well, people will start to see their local newspaper as merely a secondhand version of the national news they can now receive directly, through subscribing to national newspapers online or watching national cable news. While people are undoubtedly interested in national politics, if local newspapers cannot supply the thing that makes them unique in the marketplace for news –original, relevant content about the community and from the community — their precipitous decline may continue.
The change you studied took place over one month. How do you think the results would differ had this been a long-term change — implemented over the course of a year or five years, for example?
Dunaway: My expectation is that the effects would hold for longer, even if they were not any stronger. In other words, there is no real reason we would expect that polarisation would continue to slow once national content is re-inserted into the opinion page. Any effect we see is most likely only going to last for as long as national content is reduced or withheld, extending mainly to the weeks and months immediately thereafter.
Darr: This experiment took a lot of effort from the editors of The Desert Sun: Makinen did a lot of outreach to community leaders, while Al Franco, then-opinion editor, had to edit and work with new and existing writers to fill the space left by national politics. It would have been difficult for this experiment to persist longer than a month, unless they had more staff. Over the course of a year, it would certainly be possible, if there was more staff devoted to the opinion page: once people have written for the page, they are more likely to do so again, so the initial investment likely pays off. (The Desert Sun itself is actually looking for an opinion editor after Franco accepted a buyout from Gannett). If a newspaper doesn’t want to eliminate national politics, it may at least want to increase the share of state and locally focused op-eds. The existence of a statewide non-profit wire service can greatly help with that: we found that The Desert Sun relied heavily on CalMatters, a nonprofit state-focused news service, during their July experiment. If infrastructure like that existed in more states, an experiment like this could be conducted and potentially last longer.
Even though your study focused on newspapers in California, do you think your findings apply to newspapers in other states? Would they apply similarly to small, medium and large newspapers?
Darr: Palm Springs is not a typical community, and California is a unique state. That being said, we think these results are relevant to newspapers and news infrastructures in other states. Services like CalMatters, though they tend to amplify powerful voices like CEOs, are nonetheless a great source for state politics information, and more states would benefit from having them. As for types of newspapers: very small newspapers like weeklies may not have much national content, but we hope they take the opportunity to experiment about something else: It’s worth it to mix things up and see what works, if they have the resources. Larger newspapers may have national correspondents, with the ability to frame national issues in local context, which could mitigate some of the polarising effects of national politics. Middle-sized newspapers, like The Desert Sun, may find this experiment particularly useful as they decide where to allocate their resources. But for all newspapers with nationally syndicated content, we hope this encourages some reconsideration: If you’re letting your opinion page go fully national, you’re missing an opportunity.
Which would have a larger effect on polarisation — changes to the editorial page or changes to news article content?
Dunaway: It’s hard to make a prediction, but I cannot help but think that news would have an even stronger effect. That’s one of the things that makes this newspaper experiment neat — it’s most likely a conservative estimate of the potential local newspapers have for curbing rising polarisation.
Darr: We don’t test changes to the news content, and we are not arguing that information about national politics is unimportant. Op-eds really are impactful, however: one study on the subject finds large treatment effects of op-eds that last for at least one month, which is impressive given that most persuasion effects are short-lived and quite small. People do want to learn about national politics, but they have more ways to do that than ever: it is truly ubiquitous. Local newspapers, and particularly their opinion pages, have the opportunity to serve as a community forum that delivers the information readers need on a daily basis, instead of serving more partisan conflict and vitriol. It’s up to newspapers, news funders and opinion editors to build a distinctively local forum like that — what we refer to as “home style opinion” — to push back against the polarisation that’s overtaken politics.