Last year the local newspaper in Palm Springs, California, The Desert Sun, dropped national politics from its editorial pages for one month. The publisher wanted to test the findings from university study that showed a correlation between national politics and an increase in polarization within the population. So, they abstained from any form of publishing opinion pieces at the national level. From the editor:
That means no columns, no cartoons and no letters about the president, Congress, the Supreme Court, etc. Have a burning opinion about any of those things? Save it up, we’ll get back to that in August.
Why this recess? Let me explain.
Earlier this year, a trio of university researchers from Louisiana State, Texas A&M and Colorado State published a fascinating — and troubling — study that found that the ongoing extinction of local newspapers across the nation contributes to political polarization…
We all know that national news coverage these days has an intense focus on the partisan war in Washington. According to the research study, published in the Journal of Communication, 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.
Instead, The Desert Sun focused discussing local issues from “traffic, development, downtown revitalization, schools, and other local issues you can’t read about on NYTimes.com.”
The results are interesting.
Some topics moved from also-rans to mainstays; local arts moved from 4 percent to 28 percent of published letters to the editor. Editorials and op-eds focused much more on education and environmental issues. The share of pieces that mentioned either the Democratic or Republican Party fell by 60 percent.
One unexpected change: When the subject matter got more local, the authors writing became more corporate. Before the experiment, about three-quarters of op-eds had been written by opinion journalists. Moving to local dropped that to one-third. Who filled the gap? Executives from local companies and local elected officials, mostly. In a way, that makes sense: There isn’t a pool of local opinion journalists waiting to be pulled into service, and more specialized local topic matter favored people whose jobs connect with those topics in some way.
And according to the report, web traffic to the opinions page doubled during the time of the experiment. When is the last time you read about traffic to a newspaper website doubling?
Interestingly, the experiment didn’t end partisanship. Still, it did slow it down when compared to other cities with local papers that continued to publish syndicated national opinion pieces during the same period. It’s a shame the newspaper didn’t run the experiment for longer, say 180 days, because I’d wager that the population would feel less stress, be more cordial to one another, and see an increased interest and participation in local activities and programs.
Having read about this study and the outcomes, I wish Twitter and Facebook made similar moves. The Internet might actually feel hospitable again.