The Role of Local Newspapers in Curbing Polarization

Back to Fall 2022: Volume 111, Number 3

By Mike McGrath

In the summer of 2019, the Desert Sun a daily newspaper in Palm Springs, California, announced that it was “taking a vacation from national politics.” For the month of July, the paper would publish no op-eds, cartoons, or letters to the editors about the goings on in the nation’s capital. Instead, the Sun would only publish opinion journalism that focused on local or state concerns.

“In an era where there seems to be countless forums for people to scream about national politics,” wrote executive editor Julie Makinen in a column explaining the decision, “are we devoting the right amount of space to local and state issues?”

The Palm Springs experiment was inspired by the research of three scholars, Joshua P. Darr, Matthew P. Hitt, and Johanna L. Dunaway, which suggested that the ongoing decline of local newspapers in the United States may be increasing levels of political polarization.

The study found that voters who lived in communities with newspaper closures were slightly (but measurably) less likely to split their vote between candidates from different parties. Split ticket voting is a sign that voters are less entrenched in their partisan bunkers.

The findings make sense. With more and more consumers getting their news online, the attention of the public has been nationalized, resulting in a greater focus on political players and institutions that tend to be more partisan and polarizing.

“Local newspapers provide a valuable service to democracy by keeping readers’ focus on their communities,” wrote the researchers in an article on Harvard’s the Nieman Lab website. “When they lose local newspapers, we have found, readers turn to their political partisanship to inform their political choices. If Americans can tear themselves away from the spectacle in Washington and support local news with their dollars and attention, it could help to push back against the partisan polarization that has taken over American politics today.”

When the researchers found out about the Palm Springs experiment, they decided to conduct a case study on it. The results of their research were published in a book in March of 2021, Homestyle Opinion: How Local Newspapers Can Slow Polarization.

The researchers analyzed the content of the Sun’s opinion page during July of 2019, interviewed newspaper staff, and conducted online surveys of readers. They compared the results with surveys taken in Ventura, California, where the local newspaper was publishing opinion pieces on national issues and political conflicts.

They found that levels of “affective polarization,” that is, the active dislike and distrust between supporters of opposing political parties, did increase in Ventura during July, a period with lots of partisan conflict in the news, but not among readers of the Sun. “Removing national politics reordered the priorities of the opinion page, and the attitudes of Palm Springs residents, by bringing opinion back home and deemphasizing party politics,” they concluded.

The experiment was not without its challenges. The Sun’s editors struggled to fill the hole left on the opinion page by the lack of material focused on national issues. Many local newspapers, as they lose staff and advertising revenues, must lean heavily on syndicated opinion columns from outside sources.

To help fill the hole, the Sun published a substantial number of columns from CAL Matters, a nonprofit syndication service that provides articles on policy issues important to Californians. The CAL Matters columns tended to reflect the voices of institutional leaders more than grassroots Californians, the study found.

But the editors were successful in recruiting ordinary Palm Springs dwellers to write opinion columns and letters to the editor on the issues that were important to them. And the study found that most readers who knew about the policy of focusing on state and local issues approved of it.

More than 2,000 newspapers disappeared between 2003 and 2018, and for many of those that survived, readership numbers and staffing levels declined dramatically. In the good old days of print journalism, local newspapers provided a mix of local, state, and national news—and opinion columns—as well as sports and entertainment. They helped hold local institutions accountable and gave readers a shared sense of what was going on in their communities.

“Local newspapers are uniquely positioned to unite communities around shared local identities, cultivated and emphasized through a distinctive home style, and provide a civil and regulated forum for debating solutions to local problems,” wrote Darr, Hitt, and Dunaway. “In Palm Springs, those local issues were architectural restoration, traffic patterns, and environmental conservation. The issues will differ across communities, but a localized opinion page is more beneficial for newspapers and citizens than letters and op-eds speckled with national political vitriol.”

Earlier this year, two of the authors of the book, Joseph Darr (Louisiana State University) and Matthew Hitt (Colorado State University) were interviewed by Timothy J. Shaffer (University of Delaware) in an episode of the National Institute for Civil Discourse podcast.

In a wide-ranging conversation, the researchers discussed their findings from the Palm Springs study, the importance of local journalism in holding local institutions accountable, the changing environment for the news industry, and the challenges faced by local newspapers in a marketplace dominated by online news aggregators and national news outlets.

Listen to the episode:

Mike McGrath is the National Civic League’s director of Research and Publications and editor of the National Civic Review.

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