When we moved to St. Louis in 1979, the city had two daily newspapers – the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. The Post-Dispatch leaned left editorially, and the Globe-Democrat leaned right. Both papers did a good job of local news coverage; generally, opinion and editorializing were confined to the editorial and op-ed pages, or an opinion columnist featured on the first or second page. Another source of local news were the weekly suburban newspapers, like the West County Journal and South County Journal. Along with local TV news, St. Louis was well-served with local news coverage.
Fast forward 40 years. The Globe-Democrat disappeared for good in 1987. The Post-Dispatch acquired the Suburban Journals, and they, too, disappeared. TV news usually covers what it’s always covered – shootings, car wrecks, and other highly visual news stories. The Pulitzer family sold the Post-Dispatch to Lee Enterprises.
The Post-Dispatch still sat atop the news in St. Louis, but it was a much-diminished position. From about 2005 onward, the news editorial staff (and presumably other staffs on the paper) shrank. The newspaper closed its Washington bureau. While the number of pages dropped, what was left was increasingly filled with wire service copy. Today, a reader typically finds more stories about national news, provided by Associated Press and the Washington Post. Local music reviews are still written by local reporters, but many movie and book reviews come from syndicated sources.
St. Louis is not atypical. For most other metropolitan areas, one newspaper has survived. In some places, like New Orleans, the daily paper is not printed every day but is available online.
Three communications academics have been studying what’s been happening. Joshua Darr is at LSU, Matthew Hitt is at Colorado State University, and Johanna Dunaway is at Texas A&M. The three have been studying the state of journalism for some time. One day, Darr discovered a reference to some of their work. The editor of The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, California, had made a rather startling announcement. The editor has seen the work the three academics were doing, and she was intrigued enough to try an experiment. For the month of July in 2019, the Sun would publish nothing about national news on its editorial and op-ed pages. No op-ed columns, no editorials, no editorial cartoons, and no letters to the editor would be printed if they concerned national news. Instead, the focus would be local news.
The three academics swung into action; this was an unexpected opportunity to test their theories in a real-world situation. They set up a study, with another regional newspaper serving as the comparison.
The Sun focused its opinion pages on local issues. And what happened? Readers engaged with local issues. People started listening to each other. People respectfully disagreed and debated with each other.
And what was happening in July of 2019 on the national scene? Robert Mueller testified to Congress about his report on the Russian collusion investigation. Democratic primary debates were held near the beginning and end of the month. President Trump was holding rallies. But the opinion pages of the sun focused on local news. One indication of what happened: references to Trump went from about one third of all editorials, letters, and columns to zero.
You can read a short summary of the study’s findings at Northwestern University’s Local News Initiative. The study itself, Home Style Opinion: How Local Newspapers Can Slow Polarization, is available at Amazon.
What The Desert Sun showed, lending evidence to the theories of the three academics, was that focusing on local news reduced political polarization. Now consider all those news deserts – places with no news media or newspapers (which are growing in number) and those, like St. Louis, where national news dominates the opinion pages. A focus on national news may be great for the bottom lines of The New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press, and The Wall Street Journal, but it’s impoverishing local communities and adding to political polarization.
I thought about what the Post-Dispatch’s editorial and op-ed pages, and various opinion columns in other parts of the newspaper, would look like if they focused on local news. No more snarky editorial cartoons about Republicans, Trump, and conservatives in general. No more Leonard Pitts and Eugene Robinson wringing their hands over anything remotely conservative and championing anything the Democrats might do, no matter how ridiculous or damaging. No more Dana Milbank, the columnist who coordinated his 2016 articles with the Clinton Campaign and got caught doing it. No Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, with his screeching hysteria about Republicans, Trump, and evangelicals who won’t listen to him. No more local editorial writer Kevin McDermott aiming for the National Snark Writing Award.
Instead, we might see people writing about how to grow St. Louis. We might participate in discussions and debates about crime, our dysfunctional county government, redistricting of wards in the City of St. Louis, and how some schools managed to function during the COVID-19 pandemic when so many closed. We could take a hard look at how public education is organized and funded. We might find out why so many communities (like my own) allowed street maintenance to fall way down the priority list.
In other words, we might learn about and participate in the things that really matter in our day-to-day lives.
In this series:
Top photograph by Waldemar Brandt via Unsplash. Used with permission.