When news organizations face cuts, opinion editors and writers are some of the first on the chopping block: Their work can be replaced by that of national syndicated columnists, saving precious dollars.

But new research suggests that the long-term effects of that decision may be detrimental to local news organizations. Local news audiences, treated to too much national opinion content, can become further polarized. Some may end up turning away from their local news source out of frustration.

Josh Darr headshot

Joshua Darr is co-author of “Home Style Opinion: How Local News Can Slow Polarization.”

Maintaining a focus on local opinion content, meanwhile, appears to have a healthier effect: When the Desert Sun, a daily newspaper serving Palm Springs and the surrounding Coachella Valley in Southern California, dropped national politics from its opinion section, researchers found that polarization in its community spread more slowly. The newspaper also saw a surge in letters to the editor from local contributors on local topics.

We spoke with one of the researchers, Joshua P. Darr, an assistant professor of political communication at Louisiana State University, about how the Sun managed this experiment, how he and his colleagues tracked the results, and practical considerations for other local news outlets that are thinking about abandoning national opinion content.

Darr and his fellow researchers Johanna Dunaway, an associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University, and Matthew Hitt, an associate professor of political science at Colorado State University, are authors of the newly-published book “Home Style Opinion: How Local News Can Slow Polarization,” which explores the benefits of ignoring national politics in local opinion pages. (The book is available as a free download until April 21.)

Q: Tell us about the Desert Sun’s experiment on dropping national politics from its opinion pages. What made them decide to do that?

In her editorial announcing the experiment, Julie Makinen, executive editor of the Desert Sun, said that she was inspired by our other work showing that polarization increases after a local newspaper closes, because people switch to national news. (That’s actually how we heard about the experiment — through a Google alert!) Makinen was troubled enough by these findings to reconsider the balance of local and national content in the newspaper.

Q: How did you then track the impact on polarization the experiment had on its community? What were the results?

We designed and fielded surveys in Palm Springs and in Ventura, a comparison community also served by a Gannett newspaper (the Ventura County Star), at the end of June 2019 and at the end of July into early August. This let us measure polarization in the “treated” area (Palm Springs) and a “control” area (Ventura, where the newspaper did not change in July 2019). We measured polarization two ways: “affective” polarization, measuring people’s feelings towards their party and the opposing party, and “social” polarization, about people’s comfort with socially interacting with the other side. We found that polarization rose significantly faster in Ventura than it did in Palm Springs, particularly for people who read the newspaper, have higher political knowledge, and participate more in politics. Dropping national politics from the opinion page did not stop polarization but slowed its growth significantly.

Q: How did dropping national politics change how the Desert Sun produces opinion journalism? What did it mean for editors, reporters and contributors? 

Part of the editorial announcing the experiment was asking for help: Makinen needed local readers, community leaders, and organizations to write in and fill the large void left by national politics. We found that, in the month before the experiment, less than one-half of the Sun’s op-eds and letters to the editor were usually about California topics, and around one-third of its op-eds and letters to the editor mentioned then-President Trump. In July, California topics increased to 95%, and Trump dropped off the page almost entirely — a substantial change. For California-focused op-eds, the Desert Sun relied on CALmatters, a statewide nonprofit news service, to supply columns about state politics in July. Letters from local contributors about local topics like architectural restoration and downtown traffic increased dramatically, while nationalized issues like immigration dropped away. Editing and soliciting these letters definitely took a lot of work for the opinion editor, and doing it for more than one month might have been too much. But they were able to recruit local writers during the experiment who continued to contribute in later months, so it was a short-term cost for long-term gain.

Hire opinion editors — or if you cannot add resources, at least stop firing them.

Q: You tweeted that localizing opinion sections doesn’t solve everything. What problems still exist — or were created — by removing national politics from the Sun’s opinion section? 

Opinion pages are not very diverse places in terms of gender or race: Studies show roughly 80% of op-eds are by men, and racial diversity is a consistent issue as well. While addressing these inequalities wasn’t the Desert Sun’s goal in July, the experiment in localization did not diversify the opinion page. Writers went from 80% white to 90% white. Organizations like The OpEd Project, and what remains of newspaper professional associations, should continue and expand efforts to diversify opinion contributors and strive for gender equality as well. Localization alone won’t solve these real and pressing issues in opinion journalism.

Q: What would your advice be to news organizations that want to remove national politics from their opinion sections, and focus more on local concerns?

Hire opinion editors — or if you cannot add resources, at least stop firing them. As newspapers cut staff and chains offer buyouts to employees, opinion editor is often one of the first positions to go, since the page can be filled by national columnists. We show the benefits of investing in opinion: While some might assume that opinion journalism is by nature polarizing or biased, the opinion page actually has great potential to serve as a hub for community journalism and refocus the conversation on local concerns. We’d also encourage editors to do experiments like this and involve academics in assessing outcomes. Making a strong case for the survival of local news will be helped by clear scientific evidence of its benefits, and we would love to keep working with journalists and editors to study the political effects of local news.

Diluting the local news product with national content makes less sense in today’s news environment.

Q: What else can local news outlets do to fend off the polarizing effects of national news?

Consumers can get national news anywhere now that delivery is not a concern. Online subscriptions are clearly the model of the future for national news organizations. The comparative advantage of local news outlets is their focus on the community. People are drawn to national politics and may even choose to read about it over local news if given the choice. But newspapers should try to resist the temptation to cater too much to this preference. The benefits, if any, are likely short term, and possibly at the cost of longer-term problems that hasten the demise of local news. Diluting the local news product with national content makes less sense in today’s news environment. The Desert Sun found that people wanted to read the local opinion page: Online readership of op-eds doubled in July, while opinion was more local. Moving national content further back or de-emphasizing it on the website could be beneficial as well. Lead with local voices and issues, and readers may follow.

Editor’s Note: News organizations interested in replicating the Desert Sun’s experiment can contact Joshua Darr at jdarr@lsu.edu, Johanna Dunaway at jdunaway@tamu.edu, and Matthew Hitt at matthew.hitt@colostate.edu.

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