Local news organizations have immense potential to reimagine their opinion journalism, and to become a true public forum for raising and solving problems locally.
But a public forum is only as good as how it represents — and includes — members of the public.
Opinion editors I’ve spoken with often accept that their opinion and commentary sections have left out critical voices. The same practices that affect the rest of journalism have occurred in opinion, and arguably at times there has been even more tendency in opinion to give voice to the powerful. Op-eds, for instance, are easier to write if you have time and resources, or do so for your job.
That’s why I’ve been so encouraged by a cadre of opinion editors who are seeking to break free from past practices, to become creative in how they lift up a range of community voices, and to better structure their work for inclusive dialogue across Americans’ many lines of differences.
At our recent API Local News Summit on Opinion, Civic Discourse and Sustainability, participants from different organizations worked together to sketch “roadmaps” that navigate challenges in expanding voices and audiences for local opinion journalism.
We explored, for example, how better visuals in opinion may open doors to new perspectives in local opinion journalism:
We look forward to sharing more of the collective ideas and insights. In the meantime, consider this: When you look at your local opinion journalism, what elements can you tackle individually to increase the views and experiences included in the conversation?
– Kevin Loker, API director of strategic partnerships and research
TRY IT OUT NOW
- Start by examining letters to the editor. Letters are a standard and contained feature of many local opinion sections — and offer a “test kitchen” for expanding reach and voices. Evaluate your practices for soliciting and publishing letters, and consider:
- How might we collect “letters” or similar content via video or audio? The Los Angeles Times publishes video letters to the editor. Some people may be more comfortable or more persuasive sharing their perspective orally rather than written down.
- What else could play a similar role as letters, but is easier to participate in, or sounds less formal? The Coloradoan’s Coloradoan Conversations initiative is built on a commenting platform (Coral) and offers a different way for residents to participate in local conversation. Some residents may be less willing to write and submit a “letter,” but happy to share one or two sentences via a comment.
- Recognize the influence of staffing — and job descriptions. Who is on an (often small) staff influences the conversations and work. So, too, does the type of role you hire for. When was the last time you examined the opinion editor job description? What duties does it emphasize? If one goal is to diversify audience and representation, what does it or any other role say about social media platforms, multimedia, product design, or, perhaps more simply, reaching out to communities previously left out of coverage?
Following the death of George Floyd in 2020, NJ Advance Media — which operates NJ.com, the largest news site in the state — reevaluated its news coverage. Robin Wilson-Glover, director of digital opinion, was the only Black editor in the newsroom at the time and ran the outlet’s Opinion section. She details how she diversified both her team and its coverage.
- Hire opinion staff that reflect the community — and whose job is to engage more of it. New Jersey was 54% white and diversifying rapidly, which was not reflected in the NJ Advance Media newsrooms. The newsroom hired two journalists of color for the Opinion section, a managing producer (whose job focused on outreach) and a columnist (who had experience in multimedia).
- Emphasize that diverse engagement with opinion journalism can shape representation in news coverage, too. NJ.com identified its Opinion section as a way to hear from underrepresented communities involved in current news events or issues who typically didn’t deal with legacy media. By increasing the discourse on local issues, it might be easier for communities to learn about each other’s viewpoints and find solutions.
- Model representation by sharing more images and videos of people from communities of color on your platforms. So often, the faces of people of color on mainstream news sites are of Black and brown crime suspects, used primarily because police departments offered them up so readily. In NJ.com’s opinion section, the faces depicted rarely involved crimes and instead would be the faces of everyday people with ideas about change.
WHAT OTHERS ARE DOING