How one news outlet uses volunteer opinion writers to build civic engagement

Graue Mill, Hinsdale, Illinois. Photo (cc) by Lyle.

By Dan Kennedy

Now here’s an interesting idea for engaging the community in local news. The Hinsdalean, a free weekly paper in Chicago’s suburbs, has a stable of 10 local opinion writers who take on such weighty topics as Christmas memories, moving back to town after living abroad, and thoughts about the meaning of regret. And here’s the best part: they’re term-limited.

I learned about this recently in a conversation with Julie McCay Turner, managing editor of The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit website northwest of Boston. Julie is from Hinsdale, and she keeps up with her hometown through the paper’s lively website. She discovered this unique exercise in civic involvement through a column by the paper’s editor, Pamela Lannom, who was soliciting new writers to replace the five who were cycling out. One slot will be reserved for a high school senior. No politicians, please. And writers are not allowed to use these unpaid positions to tout their businesses or nonprofit organizations.

“Over the years I’ve come to think of many of these writers as my friends,” Lannom wrote. “I might not see most of them more than once a year, but the stories they share create a connection. Reading their columns each week is one of my favorite parts of my job.”

Local opinion can help drive interest in community news and help to overcome the polarization that characterizes national culture these days.

Several months ago I wrote a piece for GBH News about a study conducted by three scholars on what happened after The Desert Sun of Palm Springs, California, dropped from its opinion pages all syndicated columns and references to national politics for one month.

The researchers compared The Desert Sun’s readers to those of a control paper and found that polarization was less than what might otherwise have been expected. The numbers were small and didn’t really prove anything one way or the other. But, as the three observed, the effect was salutary regardless of the actual numbers since the experiment pushed the paper to pay more attention to what was taking place in its own backyard.

“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,” they wrote. “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.”

The Hinsdalean itself is a great story, and characteristic of what happens when the legacy news outlet falls victim to market failure. Hinsdale once had a paper called The Doings, which ended up getting absorbed by the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune was subjected to years of downsizing and bad ownership under Tribune Publishing — a situation that only grew worse recently when Tribune was sold to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital.

The Hinsdalean, meanwhile, was founded nearly five years ago and has established itself as an award-winning news source. Here’s how its About page begins:

The first issue of The Hinsdalean was published Sept. 28, 2006. This weekly newspaper is dedicated to covering Hinsdale, focusing on the people who live and work here. The founders built the newspaper around the philosophy of community journalism the way it was meant to be. That philosophy recalls simpler times when one newspaper covered one town. The Hinsdalean, which is delivered free each Thursday morning, is the only newspaper that delivers every issue to every home in Hinsdale.

Independent local news is succeeding in hundreds of communities across the country. We need more.

Author: Dan Kennedy

I am a professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a contributor to GBH News in Boston. My blog, Media Nation, is online at dankennedy.net.

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