Editorial pages in ‘Trump Country’ respond to demand for new columnists

Gary Abernathy, publisher and editor of the Hillsboro, Ohio Times-Gazette, during an October 2017 interview with BBC Radio. Photo by David Wright/The Times-Gazette.

WAYNE GREEN, the editorial pages editor at the Tulsa World, was in a bind. After Donald Trump won the US presidential election, carrying Oklahoma with more than 65 percent of the vote, Green wanted to give World readers a resonant selection of national conservative voices from The Washington Post’s news service and syndicate. The problem for Greene—and for other self-described “Trump Country” opinion editors who subscribed to the Post’s news service—was that the DC news outlet’s traditionally conservative columnists, writers like George Will and Jennifer Rubin, were highly critical of the president.

“We were struggling,” Greene says. “We were getting negative feedback from readers who didn’t feel represented on our op-ed page.”

Nearly all of the Post’s syndicated columnists, even the conservative ones, opposed Trump. (Will was critical of Trump long before he was tapped to top the GOP ticket, and his disdain has not abated.) But the viewpoints of Will and the other conservative columnists did not necessarily align with those of Trump supporters who live between the coastal media centers. They certainly did not speak for readers in Tulsa County, which went for Trump in the 2016 election with 58 percent of the vote. Greene says he “felt uncomfortable with the mix we were getting.”

ICYMI: Drive-by journalism in Trumplandia

Then, about six months after Trump took office, a new columnist in The Washington Post’s lineup caught Greene’s attention. The Post had tapped Gary Abernathy, publisher and editor of Ohio’s Hillsboro Times-Gazette, to try to represent a portion of the roughly 46 percent of American voters who sent Trump to the White House.

The Times-Gazette’s Trump endorsement had been “reported—and often ridiculed—far and wide,” Abernathy wrote in his first Post column.

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After the election, some news media leaders pledged to reexamine their approach. If they are even slightly successful in retooling political coverage, perhaps by 2020 a small southern Ohio newspaper’s endorsement of a major-party candidate for president won’t qualify as national news, no matter which candidate it chooses.

Abernathy offered a locally sourced explanation for why evangelical Christians, in particular, were sticking with the president. Rather than being motivated by “ignorance and hypocrisy,” Abernathy wrote, “Conversations with actual evangelical Christians at a recent gathering here…suggest a different picture. These voters—and almost all of them voted—see Trump’s flaws but perceive him as a fellow sinner willing to fight the forces of the establishment on their behalf.”

Abernathy also mounted an argument for why Trump voters more generally had no reason to abandon him. “Trump has remained as constant as the northern star,” he wrote in December. “The outrageous tweets, the bluster, the self-aggrandizement, the insults—Trump the commander in chief is virtually identical to Trump the neophyte candidate.

Greene liked what he saw. And, according to him, so have the Tulsa World readers.

“I think people appreciate his modest tone,” he says. “He tries to speak for this part of the country without becoming polemical about it. It’s interesting. I’ve gotten very little pushback from liberal readers about him. They know where they live.”

 

He’s not just a pro-Trumpish voice. He’s more of a Trump voter voice. He’s a different kind of voice than we’ve had on our pages.

 

A FEW WEEKS AFTER THE 2016 ELECTIONS, Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi wrote that national and regional newspapers “have struggled to find and publish pro-Trump columns for months.” Phil Boas, who oversees The Arizona Republic’s editorial department, told Farhi that there were no pro-Trump voices among the Republic’s staff or syndicated columnists. “A number of pro-Trump readers accused us of betraying our state and its conservative ideals,” said Boas.

Now, more than one year into Trump’s presidency, Abernathy has become what many editors struggled to find in 2016: a consistent and increasingly prominent columnist who can speak to the concerns of Trump voters.

Ruth Marcus, the deputy editorial page editor at the Post, says Abernathy’s inclusion is part of an effort at the paper to make its opinion voices more diverse. She was the one who initially reached out to him, addressing herself in an email as a representative of “big media”—a term Abernathy often uses to describe national news organizations he accuses of being biased against Trump.

“He’s not just a pro-Trumpish voice,” Marcus tells CJR. “He’s more of a Trump voter voice. He’s a different kind of voice than we’ve had on our pages. We are, as other news organizations, other op-ed pages, really wanting to find the diverse viewpoints expressed in the election.”

Abernathy writes from the perspective of a Trump voter in a place he thinks of as Trump Country, for an audience that has grown well beyond Hillsboro. His column is distributed to 600 clients, mostly newspapers, through The Washington Post News Service. Because the News Service moves up to 200 stories per day, a spokesman was not able to say which publications or how many have picked up his columns. But he’s showed up in the St. Paul Pioneer Press in Minnesota, the Dallas Morning News, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Currently, Abernathy writes two to three columns a month for the Post, where he is a paid contributing columnist. Rather than “just another conservative writer,” Abernathy sees his niche as “representing rural America, writing from places like this,” he tells CJR.

Abernathy grew up in southern Ohio and started his newspaper career at the Hillsboro Times-Gazette, the paper he now leads. He was a reporter there for eight years before moving on to a job as city editor at The Marion Star, also in Ohio. He worked in politics for a while, including stints as communications director of the Ohio Republican Party, executive director of the West Virginia Republican Party, and staff positions for several Republican congressmen. He returned seven years ago to the Times-Gazette. In his own paper, Abernathy opines mostly about local issues, such as the Highland County auditor running unopposed for an eighth term.

The Times-Gazette invites a “healthy debate” from its readers, says Abernathy, who adds that his paper’s Facebook page includes comments from “people on there regularly ripping the president.” Abernathy also refers to Hillsboro as “Trump Country”—a term embraced by many in the region , including editors who reside in districts that Trump won in 2016. While Trump claimed 52.1 percent of the vote in Ohio, that percentage rises to 76.3 in Highland County, where the Hillsboro Times-Gazette is published.

Marcus says reader reaction to Abernathy has been really good. “He’s a different kind of voice than we’ve had on our pages,” she says. “It was our intention to find people—not just somebody inside the Beltway—who can write with some intellectual rigor and insight in a pro-Trump way, but also to reflect the part of the country that’s not very well represented in our pages.”

 

If we’re going to do our job, those voices need to be heard. We need to have writers who can respectfully articulate the points of view.

 

OTHER MEDIA ORGANIZATIONS have made similar efforts to add pro-Trump conservative voices since the election. Even local newspapers in places that voted overwhelmingly for Trump had to re-evaluate the makeup of their opinion writers to sustain dialogue with their readers.

“Donald Trump changed the game in some big ways, and not just for The Washington Post but for a lot of other places,” says Tim Swarens, opinion director and columnist for the Indianapolis Star in Indiana, where Trump won 56.4 percent of the vote. “Some of the old-line conservative columnists, the traditional conservatives, they wouldn’t describe themselves as ‘out of step,’ but they are out of step for where the conservative movement has gone.”

For decades, the Star’s editorial pages were seen as staunchly conservative—so much so that, about 15 years ago, the paper actively recruited more liberal voices for balance. But its opinions still did not sufficiently align with the many readers who supported Trump, says Swarens. Ultimately, the Star recruited its own editorial cartoonist, Gary Varvel, to write columns. Varvel, who identifies as a conservative evangelical Christian, has since written columns that defend Vice President Mike Pence’s practice of not dining alone with a woman other than his wife and argue that Trump’s successes have been underreported.

“If we’re going to do our job, those voices need to be heard,” Swarens says. “We need to have writers who can respectfully articulate the points of view.”

The Star is getting ready to launch a conservative newsletter, “Views from the Right,” for which it will draw opinion from 109 Gannett papers plus USA Today. “It’s hard some weeks to find enough conservative content,” Swarens says. “I think that’s very reflective of where the news media are in general. There are conservative voices out there but there aren’t a lot of them. When you separate those who are supporting the president, it’s pretty small.”

Brian Cooper, editorial page editor for the Telegraph Herald in Dubuque, Iowa, faces the same challenge.

“There are conservative columnists, and then there are Trump-backing conservative writers,” he says. “We’ve had traditionally conservative syndicated columnists who nonetheless are critical of Trump, so the published results did appear one-sided when the liberal writers were added to the mix.” The Telegraph Herald altered the frequency of some conservative writers in response—for instance, adding more of Jonah Goldberg, a syndicated Los Angeles Times columnist, and less of Michael Gerson, a syndicated Washington Post columnist. The paper also added an unabashed Trump-supporting cartoonist in AF Branco.

Gallup poll averages put Trump’s approval ratings between 35 and 45 percent for each week since his inauguration. “That’s not a great number, but we can’t write that population off,” Swarens says. (The same poll tracker puts Trump’s approval ratings between 77 and 90 percent among respondents who identified as Republicans.)

“Those are people who have stuck with him for more than a year of turbulence,” Swarens says. “I’m in a deep-red state, and I am a conservative, and I struggle to understand that. It’s not easy. It’s not a simple thing to try to get, but I think it’s really, really important as journalists we do our job.”

 

Never have they done anything that is because they wanted me to take a different view. It’s always been to improve my column and make my case stronger.

 

ABERNATHY TAKES HIS ROLE as a journalist seriously, and understands that good journalism is grounded in fact. “I’m a journalist first, devoted to fairness,” he says. “I express my opinion on the opinion pages.”

Last September, Abernathy issued an open invitation for “big media” to visit Hillsboro. “Visitors may well return home without changing their minds about what they consider the misguided political views they encountered,” he wrote. “But they will almost certainly find themselves unable to cling to whatever animosity they may have previously held.”

Abernathy says more reporters have come around since Trump was elected, and have done a “slightly better job” in their efforts to better understand the depth of Trump’s appeal between the coasts. Still, he says, it’s not enough for reporters to come through for a “one-time thing.”

“If you’re really going to reflect the roughly half of the country that voted for Trump, it’s going to be reflected in the tone of the reporting and not just in having more reporting,” Abernathy says. “I can’t see that happening. That would require, frankly, making an effort not just to hire more reporters to cover voters in the middle part of the country but to hire reporters who come from a conservative background and conservative set of ideals.”

For now, Abernathy enjoys his national platform. Post editors allows him to write what he likes, and do not try to influence him or get him to change his perspective, he says.

“Never have they done anything that is because they wanted me to take a different view,” he says. “It’s always been to improve my column and make my case stronger.”

Although he doesn’t read the online comments to his pieces—which can reach into the thousands, as they did for a recent column about what he termed the national media’s “embarrassing” embrace of ousted FBI Director Anthony McCabe—Abernathy says he does answer readers who email him.

“When they email me, they’re much more respectful and using their real name and they really want to have a conversation,” he says. “The nicest emails start out saying, ‘You seem like a reasonable person, so I can’t understand how you support Donald Trump.’ Then they really sincerely want to have a conversation.”

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an associate journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.