By Ellen Clegg
Using surveys, spreadsheets and other tools of political science, Joshua Darr has been working to bring statistical power and precision to the question of the relationship between news deserts and the nation’s divisive partisan discourse.
Darr, a researcher at Louisiana State University, published an intriguing study a few years ago that found a signal amid the noise of the 2012 presidential race. Darr and two research partners – Matthew Hitt of Colorado State University and Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M University – checked election returns in counties where a newspaper had closed and found that voters there were more likely to pull the lever straight down the ticket for a single political party. The reason, they theorized, was that without a reliable source of local news, voters went national. In other words, when local papers closed, news consumers turned to national outlets like CNN, MSNBC, Fox and the New York Times.
Confronted with a lack of information about local issues and candidates, and buffeted by the nasty rhetoric staining that presidential race, they were more likely to cast nuance aside and vote their party. As Darr told me in an interview shortly after his study came out: “There’s plenty of research that we cite in the paper showing that national sources have more polarizing language, that they talk more about elite partisan conflict. And that reading about those things can make people more polarized themselves.”
It’s a promising line of inquiry, one that could draw much-needed public attention to the impact of greed-fueled corporate acquisitions of local newspapers. Quantifying social outcomes that are linked to the loss of a robust Fourth Estate could help make the case for potential remedies, such the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, a measure cosponsored by U.S. senators Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John Kennedy, R-La., and U.S. representatives David Cicilline, D-R.I., and Ken Buck, R-N.Y., that would allow publishers to team up to negotiate collectively with digital platforms.
In 2019, Darr received an unexpected gift from Julie Makinen, the executive editor of the Desert Sun, a Gannett paper in Palm Springs, California: the chance to test his theories in a real-world laboratory. Makinen read the group’s research on split-ticket voting in the Journal of Communication and reached out. Makinen and then-opinion editor Al Franco decided to see what would happen if the Desert Sun op-ed page stopped running national political columns for the month of July 2019 and devoted space solely to local issues and local voices. As Makinen wrote at the time: “… folks who have lost their local newspaper or have given up on it turn to national news outlets. Then, they apply their (increasingly hardened) feelings about national politics to their local city council or state legislature. The result? More partisanship close to home.”
Makinen and Franco put out a call for local opinion columns and letters on local issues like downtown development, the environment and historic preservation. They worked with first-time writers, activists, and business leaders to refine their copy for publication. During the super-local month, Darr and his colleagues conducted surveys of Sun readers in the Palm Springs area. As a control, they surveyed readers in Ventura, California, where the Ventura County Star, another Gannett paper, kept using national columnists during the same time period. Darr, Hitt and Dunaway published their results in March in a book called “Home Style Opinion: How Local Newspapers Can Slow Polarization.”
Their conclusion: “… after this quasi-experiment, politically engaged people did not feel as far apart from members of the opposing party, compared to those in a similar community whose newspaper did not change. While it may not cure all of the imbalances and inequities in opinion journalism, an opinion page that ignores national politics could help local newspapers push back against political polarization.”
The experiment is not without controversy. The Trump-Biden presidential race and the Covid pandemic arguably showed how much local election laws, local public health policies and local governments matter in setting the course of the nation’s future. Abandoning coverage entirely – and opinion page columns do constitute a form of coverage all their own – could seem irresponsible to some. Darr countered that view in a telephone interview, saying, “It’s important for people to be able to express their opinions on national politics, and there are myriad ways to do that. But I don’t think there’s necessarily a good reason for local newspapers to devote some of their precious op-ed page space to things that aren’t local. I think they should be maximizing their comparative advantage in the marketplace by giving people things that they can’t get anywhere else.”
Darr also told me that political scientists have a term for the politicization of, well, everything: political translation. “Something that wasn’t previously political becomes political. And it increasingly seems like party is an overarching identity that includes all these other identities underneath it. Whenever an issue comes about, it seems as though people have to figure out the partisan framing in order to understand it.”
Darr, Hitt and Dunaway concede that the Sun experiment did not diversify opinion in terms of bringing in new voices. Instead, people in power who could employ PR agencies to write op-ed pieces dominated the pages. As Makinen told the authors: “Our results show that a home style opinion page alone may not diversify the pool of writers. If history is any indicator, upending these entrenched hierarchies will require deliberate effort by editors, activists and organizations.”
But the authors turn that into a call to action. “We propose that philanthropists and newspaper owners prioritize training and supporting opinion editors. … Finally, we suggest reinvigorating professional associations, which could distribute trainings and best practices to opinion editors, particularly regarding diversity and representation,” Darr, Hitt and Dunaway write. Noting that journalism philanthropy has quadrupled in the last decade – they report that $1.7 billion in journalism grants were given out between 2009 and 2019 – they express a hope that “more philanthropic dollars should be given to supporting, hiring and retaining [opinion editors].”
The Desert Sun was not immune to economic pressures that weigh on every newsroom. Franco took a buyout in 2020, and the newspaper’s printing press was shut down and moved to Phoenix. Inspired in part by Darr’s experiment, Makinen and others in the community formed a nonprofit and raised enough money to hire a new opinion editor.
Where would he like to take his research? Darr told me he would like to launch a similar experiment in a large, diverse city to “test some hypotheses about international news and communities, or the impact of increasing the diversity of op-ed writers.” He’d also like to research what happens when a local news site gets launched, whether a nonprofit or a newsletter or Substack, to see “what it means for the local news ecosystem.”