Local newsrooms can combat polarization, if only they have the margins

Today, CJR is pleased to share the Journalism Crisis Project newsletter with Media Today readers. The newsletter is part of a joint project between CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism that has tracked newsroom cutbacks amid the pandemic and examined the state of journalism on the ground, particularly at the local level. The Media Today will return tomorrow. 

Recently, former president Barack Obama spoke with the New York Times’ Ezra Klein about persuasion and pluralism. During his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama told Klein, “it was still possible for me to go into a disproportionately white conservative town in rural America and get a fair hearing.” As an example, Obama offered what he described as a typical interaction with a local newspaper in small-town southern Illinois. “Usually, the local paper was owned by a modestly conservative, maybe even quite conservative guy,” Obama said. “He’d call me in. We’d have a cup of coffee. We’d have a conversation about tax policy, or trade, or whatever else he cared about. He might have a small editorial board of two or three writers.” In the end, the paper would publish an amicable write-up on Obama’s candidacy.

This worked, Obama told Klein, because local people approached him without spoon-fed preconceptions. “If I went into those same places now, or if any Democrat who’s campaigning goes in those places now, almost all news is from either Fox News, Sinclair’s news stations, talk radio, or some Facebook page,” he said. “Trying to penetrate that is really difficult.”

Much has changed since 2008. The Pew Research Center reported that Republicans and Democrats have moved further apart in views on voting access, race and gender, and the value of higher education, along with the possibility of unity and compromise. Between 1994 and 2017, the first year of the Trump presidency, the average partisan gap on ten “values questions” addressing subjects such as the role of government, national security, and environmental protection more than doubled. Those partisan divides are informed, in part, by where people get their news. “Republicans who looked to former President Donald Trump for their news about the 2020 election or the coronavirus pandemic were more likely to believe false or unproven claims about these events,” Pew researchers wrote in a later study. “While Americans widely agree that misinformation is a major problem, they do not see eye to eye about what actually constitutes misinformation. In many cases, one person’s truth is another’s fiction.”

ICYMI: When misinformation meets scarcity: A Q&A with Kiera Butler

While partisan divides have increased, local newsrooms have struggled. Since 2008, the number of journalists in US newsrooms has been cut in half. At least 1,800 geographic communities that had a local newspaper in the year 2004 had no local source of original reporting left by 2020. Municipalities made up of low-income residents are twice as likely to be news deserts; rural municipalities are also more likely to be underserved. Hedge funds have squeezed local newsrooms for profit. Anticompetitive tech platforms have siphoned advertising dollars and attention; their algorithms have altered human behavior and, with it, the information ecosystem. Over the past year, the pandemic pummeled an already beleaguered media market, leading to widespread cutbacks: layoffs at local newspapers, radio and television stations, magazines, and digital publications; significant print reductions; and the closure of more than sixty news outlets. Though some local outlets have built back much of what they lost over the past year, an unstable industry has been further shaken, and the local news ecosystem is nowhere near as healthy as it was fifteen years ago.

Last week, Joshua Darr, a political-communications researcher, wrote for FiveThirtyEight about the correlation between local news and partisanship—specifically, between the absence of local news and increased partisanship. In 2018, Darr and his colleagues found that communities without local news outlets turned instead to national reporting and were more likely to vote for a single party up and down the ballot, rather than splitting their ticket. After reading Darr’s research, Julie Makinen, executive editor at the Desert Sun, decided to eliminate national politics from the paper’s opinion page for a month in 2019. The experiment attracted Darr and colleagues, who surveyed Desert Sun readers and found that their political polarization slowed, while opinion-page traffic nearly doubled. The results were encouraging; still, Darr warned in his FiveThirtyEight piece, “the market is simply not providing local newspapers the resources they need to deliver the civic benefits they’re capable of.”

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The Desert Sun, for its part, has tried to carry on by prioritizing local news as the de facto standard—using wire content as little as possible, maintaining a robust local opinion section—but it hasn’t always been an easy road. The editor who was in place when the paper tried its 2019 experiment took a buyout in December; Makinen was left without an opinion editor, and without a budget to replace him. Believing strongly that Darr’s research had demonstrated the value of the role, she worked alongside a few community members to set up a new foundation supporting local journalism. Their first fundraising effort was to raise money to hire an opinion editor. They came up with $60,000 in just four months; the paper hired a new opinion editor in May.

“It’s very easy to fill your opinion page with columns from a wire service; that takes five minutes a day,” Makinen says. “But editing local columns, soliciting local columns, processing letters to the editor, going back and forth with people to refine what they’re trying to express, Zooming the local editorial board, writing editorials, and getting consensus is time consuming.” In other words: prioritizing robust, time-intensive, local-first reporting requires having the margins to do so, and that’s a luxury many local newsrooms can’t afford.

Makinen believes wholeheartedly in the value of local opinion content; in her experience, a robust opinion page creates an open line of communication between readers and newsroom staff. She has also found that, while such opinion pieces aren’t necessarily the highest-read content, they can drive subscriptions.

“I would love to see a survey of how many local newspapers still have opinion, or publish letters to the editor, have an editorial board or local columnist,” Makinen says. “The loss of these kinds of forums has not been well studied. People think that because of Twitter, we don’t need this kind of thing. But one of the values of an opinion page is that it’s a moderated space. People get to take turns, and it’s not just people in your own bubble. It’s people who live in close proximity to you, but you probably don’t know them. You can have a certain back-and-forth with them in this forum.”

It’s a complicated picture. The partisan divides that have proliferated over the past decade represent, in some cases, positive movement toward progressive social change. The shakeup of the local news ecosystem has offered opportunities for journalists to consider how to better serve all communities. Still, the nationalization of political discourse hinders such progress by flattening conversation and reducing political engagement to talking points. Local news might better support nonpartisan progress, but it needs the resources to do so. Therein lies the challenge.

Below, more on local journalism and the challenges it faces:

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Op-ed: Strengthen our democracy by funding public media

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Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites