Be clear about the mission of your opinion section
I grew up reading my local opinion section in print in small-town South Dakota. When I was in middle school, it was a way to access (at least some) views about important issues facing the community and consider what I thought about it all myself.
Today, as traditional sources have shrunk or closed, many opinion sections are still roughly the same, even with the ubiquity of opinion online via social media and other platforms. In fact, you could argue these sections have not changed much since they started decades and decades ago — pre-internet, pre-TV, pre-radio.
Many people have a picture of what to expect when reading an opinion section: Hot takes from a predictable left and/or right-leaning columnist. Hate-read one, love the other. Letters to the editor that may be curated, or not, and aren’t often organized around real conversation or problem-solving.
But the structures and practices we’ve had for opinion journalism today don’t have to be the structures and practices we continue to use. We can stop doing things. We can intentionally start doing others.
If you were to start with a blank canvas, how would you build a new kind of local opinion and commentary section, from scratch, for this moment?
That’s essentially the place some newer news organizations find themselves in today. And it’s not too far from what some legacy newspapers are dealing with — reimagining how to steward the resources they currently have.
In the age of social media, community members (and journalists alike) now share their perspectives at dizzying speed. For this newsletter series, we will explore the many considerations opinion editors across the country are making as they try to make their work stand out amid information overload, and attempt to spur inclusive local civic discourse.
We’re gathering more than 60 people from news and civil society organizations in Austin, Texas for an API Local News Summit on Opinion, Civic Discourse and Sustainability. Executive Director and CEO Michael D. Bolden is also moderating an ISOJ panel on the evolution of opinion journalism. Keep an eye out for key takeaways in upcoming newsletter installments.
Continue reading for ways to frame your opinion section and to learn what other newsrooms are doing to modernize their opinion sections.
– Kevin Loker, API director of strategic partnerships and research
TRY IT OUT NOW
First, consider your mission statement for opinion. Do you have one? How narrow or big is it? Does it fit a need in today’s information environment? Does what you do point to it well?
- Mission statements are generally eight to nine words and can be created with the equation verb + target population or setting + outcome.
- Mission statements that go beyond that length are harder to recall and typically go long because they include the WHY (vision) or the HOW (strategies). Mission statements are the WHAT.
- Here are some potential mission statements your opinion section may aim for, inspired by ideas we’ve seen:
- We curate perspectives to help you develop and challenge yours.
- We stand up for our community and offer a platform for others to do so.
- We uplift individual experiences so we can come together to address shared challenges.
- We create a space to reveal paths forward for our community.
- Check out Trusting News’ guide on how to explain your mission.
A clear mission is like a North Star — it can ground you in how you decide to structure your opinion section and what content you choose to include or leave out.
In a guest essay, Annafi Wahed, co-founder and CEO of The Flip Side — a newsletter that highlights multiple viewpoints on a chosen topic — argues clear missions can also help you gain audience revenue for an opinion-focused product:
- When crowdfunding their platform, The Flip Side skipped novelty offerings and promoted their mission — to help bridge the gap between liberals and conservatives — and raised more than $392,000. The comments from their Wefunder investors speak to the same thing as the dollars do: people wanted to support the vision they laid out for a less polarized America.
- The Flip Side’s structure is predictable and focused: it offers multiple viewpoints on one topic each day, it’s moderated by a group with a range of viewpoints whose actions are transparent and its algorithm prioritizes cross-partisan engagement.
- The platform’s commitment to equal partisanship requires trust and credibility, and Wahed and her co-founder were upfront with investors and their audience about their biases and where they are coming from.
WHAT OTHERS ARE DOING
- The Coloradoan partners with public deliberation experts at a local university to reimagine its opinion section, inviting residents to share their views on local matters in a structured way.
- The Tennessean started newsletters under opinion for Black and Latino Tennessee Voices, which are extending into events, to tell stories “for and with” different local populations
- The Baltimore Banner, a nonprofit news site, has gone against a trend in nonprofit media and has started an opinion section “to provide opportunity and space for people representing a broad range of communities and institutions to have their say, to tell their stories.”
- Charlottesville Tomorrow is partnering with In My Humble Opinion and Vinegar Hill Magazine not for “commentary” content, but for first-person storytelling — to “tell the story of our community together.”