In 2019, the Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs, Calif., dropped national politics from its opinion page for one month. Before the experiment, stories about President Trump and Congress dominated the op-ed page, even 2,500 miles away from Washington: Fewer than half of the op-eds and letters were about California. When the newspaper limited its opinion section to only local content, distinctive Palm Springs issues like architectural preservation, education, and traffic got more attention.
My colleagues and I surveyed people in Palm Springs and found that this change had a positive impact on the community, especially among the most politically engaged readers. When the Desert Sun featured only local opinion pieces by local authors, the newspaper got more readers, people disliked those on the other side of any issue less, and readers felt less socially disconnected from one another. Local stories make people realize what connects them, while coverage of national politics makes people think like partisans engaged in an all-consuming, “us vs. them,” far-off conflict.
This research was on my mind when I went to Birmingham, Ala., last weekend to attend the annual meeting of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, anticipating that a sense of dread might hang over the proceedings. As a professor who studies the effects of local news, I know that recent trends in the media industry are ominous not only for opinion columnists but also for American democracy.
Gannett, America’s largest newspaper chain, recently recommended changes to its affiliates’ opinion pages. There will be fewer syndicated columnists and letters to the editor and no more editorials that, in Gannett’s words, “tell voters what to think.” Gannett’s directive noted that editorials and opinion columns are among the most frequent reasons that readers give for canceling their subscriptions, and many of the chain’s opinion pages across the country are poised to cut back production or fold up shop in response.
In the face of this threat, I met plenty of committed opinion journalists in Birmingham who rightly believe in the power of the opinion page. Columnists are trained in the art of observation: The most common joke they made, in response to nearly every small, funny occurrence, was “That’s a column right there!” This talent for connecting storytelling with current events makes an impression on readers. Studies show that op-eds can have enduring persuasive effects — a rare finding in studies of the media — and can set the political agenda for citizens and elected officials alike. Local columnists can use their reputation and intellectual freedom to explore deep, complex, and oft-ignored community histories or serve as watchdogs to protect consumers and citizens.
The columnists can have this influence, however, only if they have a widely read and respected platform. It was telling, and a bit worrying, that most of the presentations focused on how to survive the changes in the industry with profitable side hustles and applying skills elsewhere. One speaker detailed how easy it is to self-publish books. Another shared her success with designing online classes. Almost every presentation was about adaptation: Start making videos on TikTok, optimize your personal website for search engines, or create a school and sell merchandise! It seems that opinion columnists can read the writing on the wall.
I was invited to Birmingham to discuss my recent book about the experiment in Palm Springs, “Home Style Opinion.” Our findings led me to think that Gannett may have a point: Local opinion pages that are mostly about national politics may not be worth preserving. Columnists and editors should resist the temptation to spend valuable space on the national controversy of the moment. The market has changed: There is simply too much free competition online.
But cutting back or eliminating opinion pages is not the answer. Gannett and other newspaper owners should reinvest in what makes an opinion page work: amplifying local voices, presenting a diverse array of opinions in a respectful way, and serving as their community’s public forum.
Some of Gannett’s largest affiliates are already going local. The opinion editor of the Des Moines Register, in Iowa, committed to a local-first approach back in March, discontinuing national columnists and featuring more “issues of interest in Des Moines neighborhoods or fast-growing suburbs.” The Louisville Courier-Journal, in Kentucky, responded to Gannett’s recommendations by asserting the newspaper’s commitment “to lift community voices,” “read the stories of our neighbors,” and prioritize local writers.
These editors understand that a local newspaper’s main advantage in today’s sprawling media marketplace is its geographic focus: Nobody covers a community as thoroughly as its newspaper, even today. The opinion page is an essential part of that coverage because it seeks out and organizes a diverse array of community perspectives. It is the least “professional” part of the newspaper: a place where you can learn about the issues facing neighbors, community leaders, and elected officials in their own words. Unlike the neighborhood Facebook and NextDoor groups that so often fill in local news deserts, where the brashest and most extreme voices rise to the top, an opinion page is edited according to journalistic ethical standards of fairness, accuracy, and fact-checking.
There is still time to equip newspapers with sufficient resources, including paid, full-time opinion editors, who are needed to sustain a locally oriented community forum in their pages. Newspaper owners like Gannett need to be more deliberate in their corporate cuts, retaining what matters instead of slashing the good with the bad.
Independent newsrooms with strong opinion sections, such as — if I may — The Boston Globe, should also refocus on local voices. Print shutdowns by Gannett in the Boston area, including my hometown Newton Tab, make it more necessary than ever to find and feature local perspectives that can fill those gaps. (Just a suggestion, Globe Opinion editors!)
National politics has enough commentators. To survive the current crisis in local news, America’s local opinion pages should follow the advice and example of the editor of the Desert Sun: “Let’s talk about home.”
Joshua Darr is associate professor in the Manship School of Mass Communication and the Department of Political Science at Louisiana State University and the coauthor, with Matthew Hitt and Johanna Dunaway, of “Home Style Opinion: How Local Newspapers Can Slow Polarization.”