“Keeping opinion local: The benefits of cutting national politics from opinion sections”

From an americanpressinstitute.org post by Stephanie Castellano headlined “Keeping opinion local: The benefits of cutting national politics from opinion sections”:

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.

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.

Maintaining a focus on local opinion content, meanwhile, appears to have a healthier effect: When the Desert Sun, a daily newspaper 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….

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. Makinen was troubled enough by these findings to reconsider the balance of local and national content in the newspaper….

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%… 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….

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.

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