Reimagining local opinion journalism

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.A photo of Kevin Loker

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


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.


Chapter 2

Bring non-news insights to the opinion section

Journalists often like to learn and mimic the good work of their peers at other news organizations. 

But if we think about local opinion journalism as a vehicle for greater civic discourse, there is a world beyond news that opinion editors might also gain valuable insight from.

We at the American Press Institute are on the heels of an API Local News Summit on Opinion, Civic Discourse and Sustainability in Austin, TX. At the summit, like one we held in 2019, we purposefully brought together not just opinion editors but also civil society organizations and researchers who are focused on bridging and facilitating constructive conversations across Americans’ many lines of difference. The idea is simple: When it comes to better civic discourse and problem-solving in our communities, we are all in this together.

It’s easy to become insular in our solution-seeking for challenges facing local news, including in opinion sections. But a group like Good Conflict might help us imagine and then train letter-to-the-editor writers or commenters to have more constructive conflict. A group like Braver Angels might teach us strategies for recruiting community perspectives across the political spectrum. And More in Common can give us insight into how surveys and psychological research might influence the types of conversations our opinion pages seek to foster.

We plan to share specific takeaways on this theme at our summit in the coming weeks. But the general idea is worth posing now: If you widen your view of whom to learn from — even in your own community — what ideas and partnerships might follow?

– Kevin Loker, API director of strategic partnerships and research


  • To broaden who you learn from, spend 20 minutes Googling and signing up for newsletters or following social media accounts from relevant civil society organizations or individuals who work on topics such as bridging, pluralism or social psychology. As starters, consider the Power of Us and More in Common newsletters.
  • Next, look in your own backyard. What local universities or colleges might have expertise that you might learn from — or even partner with? Are there specific local academics who could be partners and not just op-ed writers, given their research? Are there centers working on conflict resolution or civic engagement that might value your platform and also bring insight or capacity to further leverage it? 


Martín Carcasson, founder of the Colorado State University Center for Public Deliberation, details what he’s learned in almost 20 years of applying deliberative practice to community discourse — and how this approach can be applied to opinion journalism. As newsrooms reimagine opinion forums, like the CPD’s partner the Coloradoan, he encourages them to consider these five basic functions.

  • Provide a place for people to express their opinions. Newsrooms should work to expand the voices participating, simplify access and reach out to traditionally marginalized or missing voices. 
  • Provide access to opinions of other people. When left open, forums tend to become either havens for the like-minded or unproductive spaces full of polarized outrage and misinformation. 
  • Provide a place for and a model of quality interaction and discussion. Establishing ground rules, moderating techniques and fact-checking is essential. Focus on positively reinforcing quality engagement, rather than primarily policing or calling out bad behavior. 
  • Provide analysis of the conversation that contributes positively to the public discourse. With all the ways for people to express their opinions, the noise can be overwhelming. An important function of a local opinion forum must be working to summarize and analyze the information. 
  • Contribute to local community building. Shifting away from Red-Blue partisan politics to local issues can, on its own, have a significant depolarization and re-humanization effect. 


Chapter 3

Expand the voices and audiences for local opinion journalism

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:

A poster with a drawing of ideas about how visuals can attract new audiences.

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


    • 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.


Chapter 4

Share the stories behind the opinions

Let’s say you could only ask one question of someone you need to accomplish something together with — maybe a teammate, a coworker or a neighbor. Which of the following is more helpful?

“What is your opinion on X?” 


“How did you arrive at your opinion on X?”

The first gives you statements. And it’s not necessarily oriented toward getting a lot of context. The second gives you a story. It may be rich with information, some things you understand and some you don’t. It may leave you wanting to know more.

I love hearing any discussion that mirrors this difference. It is common in the “bridging” space — the nonprofits and researchers trying to help people live together or solve problems across Americans’ many lines of difference.

I also hear it among opinion editors. Across the country, thoughtful editors are seeking more op-eds and contributions that get away from publishing pure “opinion,” which some might read as assertions based on data or perhaps bonafides. They are seeking more first-person storytelling, a recognition that the perspectives people have — critical to civic discourse — are coming from somewhere. And to work together, it’s worth further understanding why.

We heard this all at our API Local News Summit on Opinion, Civic Discourse and Sustainability. For example, bridging group Braver Angels discussed how it comes into play for working across political divides. Megan Finnerty, founder and former director of the Storytellers Project at Gannett/The USA TODAY Network, talked about how stories invite people of different backgrounds into the same conversation. And we also heard about First Person Charlottesville (above), and how collaborations between outlets may be particularly effective for this goal.

Consider this: How might first-person storytelling fit into your reimagining of local opinion journalism — and what does that mean for how you steward resources?

– Kevin Loker, API director of strategic partnerships and research


  • Find a vehicle for first-person storytelling. First-person essays (or multimedia) can live among other more standard “opinion” content — or it can have its own brand, accounts or products. Evaluate what will help you reach a wider audience.
  • Consider partners. Some outlets or groups speak to different parts of communities most easily. And local news collaboratives are increasingly more common. Can you work together with other news organizations to raise up people’s lived experiences as part of improving civic discourse collectively?
  • Consider events. The Storytellers Project is one way in-person storytelling might attract audiences (and revenue). But there may also be smaller, more intimate events that help people share their own stories and build capacity for improving civic discourse locally.


Hélène Biandudi Hofer, a cofounder of Good Conflict, brings community members together to engage in dialogue about contentious topics in a productive manner. Hofer has partnered with news organizations to elevate local voices and issues by focusing on the stories behind people’s stances.

A slide on questions that invite meaningful dialogue: -What's oversimplified? -Where do you feel torn? -What do you wish the other side understood about you? -What do you wish you understood about the other side?

  • Lay some ground rules for forum participants. At a gathering hosted by Good Conflict and the Rochester Beacon about the intersection of faith and abortion, participants were told they were not there to debate but to listen, learn and share their stories.
  • Encourage the use of a conversation technique called looping. In order to join in and respond to the conversation prompt posed to the group, an individual has to repeat what they had just heard from another group member and check whether their interpretation was accurate.
  • Focus on local issues to slow polarization. The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, Calif., stopped running syndicated national columnists for a month in exchange for state and local writers and issues. Compared to another local paper that did not change its opinion content, readers of the Sun reported no rise in polarization, while polarization increased among readers at the other publication. 


  • El Tímpano has a regular series, Mi Historia, which are first-person stories sourced through community engagement. They’ve partnered with The Oaklandside (which has its own first-person series) to publish these stories and amplify the voices of Latino and indigenous Mayan immigrants to reach much wider audiences.
  • Nonprofit news site Baltimore Banner has run first person pieces in its “Community Voices” section on very local issues, including parking tickets.