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March 16, 2021, 12:36 p.m.
Audience & Social

Doubling down on local opinion journalism, McClatchy will create community advisory boards for every opinion team

The community members will join internal meetings, participate in interviews for candidate endorsements, and recommend topics for editorials and contributed opinion pieces.

In recent years, opinion editors at McClatchy have looked for ways to increase the diversity of voices in their sections. Soliciting op-eds from the community and recruiting new columnists can help, but the process can feel, to some, like checking a box. Now, under a new national opinion editor, the newspaper chain will try to inject a range of perspectives earlier and more often in the editorial process.

McClatchy is rolling out 12 community advisory boards, one for each of its opinion teams. It’s also, for the first time, publishing five principles — including advocating for social justice and police reform, creating a roadmap for the post-pandemic economy, and examining the rural-urban divide in America — that it will use to guide its opinion coverage in newspapers across the country.

“By the end of the year,” McClatchy’s new national opinion editor, Peter St. Onge, promised, “all of our opinion teams will have advisory boards.”

As McClatchy opinion editor — a job he takes on in addition to his role as North Carolina editor at The Charlotte Observer and The News and Observer in Raleigh — St. Onge will work with a dozen editors in cities across the country. McClatchy, the second-largest newspaper chain in the U.S., operates more than two dozen newspapers, but while some news organizations have their own opinion sections, others are led by teams that oversee opinion content across multiple publications in the same region.

(Also, yes: McClatchy declared bankruptcy in February 2020 and its sale to the hedge fund Chatham Asset was finalized in August. McClatchy has had multiple rounds of layoffs in recent years, along with additional cost-cutting measures, including furloughs, during the pandemic.)

Local opinion editors have “independent voices and make independent choices about what they cover,” St. Onge noted, but he’ll serve as a “sounding board” for headlines, stories, and special projects. He also helps steer coverage across publications.

In his introductory post, St. Onge lists five guiding principles that will be implemented across the various McClatchy publications:

  • We will advocate for social justice, fairness in economic and educational opportunities and an end to systemic racism and inequality.
  • We will lead the conversation in our communities as we emerge from the pandemic and begin to rebuild, laying out a roadmap for jumpstarting local economies and promoting economic growth that benefits all.
  • We will examine the growing rural-urban divide, investigating the policy and cultural implications of the chasm that’s creating two different Americas while seeking solutions to bridge that gap.
  • We will advocate for police reform measures that address racial and economic inequities as well underlying societal issues; we will place a priority on transparency and accountability in law enforcement while highlighting effective policing.
  • We will champion good government and democratic ideals, advocating for transparency.

The five were chosen after emerging as “common themes” in responses collected from local McClatchy opinion editors.

The emphasis on the economic and political gap between rural and urban areas is particularly interesting because the divide reflects the lines of polarization in the U.S. as well as an information landscape where rural areas are more likely to become news deserts.

As newspapers serving smaller communities fold, some metropolitan papers have embraced a more regional reach. The Charlotte Observer, for example, is based in an urban center but, as St. Onge says, you don’t have to drive very far to reach a rural community. “Our task as opinion writers is to not just focus on the small geographic circle but the larger ones, too,” he said. “Those are our communities, as well. That’s our readership.”

Instead of launching a dozen advisory boards at once, McClatchy started with one community advisory board in Miami and — after the editorial page editor of the Miami Herald, Nancy Ancrum, reported back about what was working well, and what wasn’t — rolled out three more incorporating that feedback. In February, opinion editors in Fort Worth, Wichita, and North Carolina named three or four community members to sit on community advisory boards. The remaining advisory boards will launch before the end of 2021.

A closer look at the Community Advisory Boards offers a hint at what voices McClatchy thinks it hasn’t been hearing. All three have chosen at least one Black community member and at least one active in local conservative politics.

At the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the board consists of the president of the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, a psychiatrist and social justice advocate, and a young mother who works for a conservative political group.

At The Wichita Eagle, the group includes a retired teacher who was the first Black woman to serve as Wichita’s first vice mayor, a consultant active in her church and LGBTQ advocacy, and a businessman known for his conservative politics, including serving as the campaign manager for former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

In North Carolina, two of the four community board members are Black — an acclaimed spoken word poet and a teacher who owns one of only two Zimbabwean restaurants in the United States — and they’ll serve with a four-term Republican mayor and an immigration lawyer. (The inaugural community advisory board in Miami chose a nonprofit founder who experienced longterm homelessness, a Black tech entrepreneur, and a CEO who immigrated from Cuba when he was nine years old.)

The Fort Worth board will serve for three months while the North Carolina-based board — with two members from Raleigh and two from Charlotte — will switch out every six months. In Wichita, the editorial page editor announced three community members will serve “a four- to-six-month term.” St. Onge hopes that opinion editors launching advisory boards later in 2021 will be able to take lessons from these first experiments, like the right term length for community members.

St. Onge sees this endeavor as different from community advisory boards of the past, which tend to be retrospective, with newsrooms asking “How do you think we’re doing?” If the project is successful, he says, the board members will feel like they’re meaningfully involved in decision-making that occurs before publication.  The community members will join internal meetings, participate in interviews for candidate endorsements, and recommend topics for editorials and contributed opinion pieces. Ancrum, the opinion editor in Miami, told St. Onge that community advisory board feedback has already influenced editorials.

“I’ve said this to our advisory board members and our opinion editors, too, but this is not something we’re doing just to say we’re doing it,” St. Onge said. “The last thing I want to see is the advisory board members saying, ‘You know, this wasn’t really worth it. We didn’t get anything out of it.'”

These are unpaid positions lasting a few months. Wouldn’t it be better, if McClatchy is serious about bringing a broader range of voices into its opinion decision-making, to make more permanent hires?

“We want this to evolve and change. We don’t want to lock in voices. We want to bring in more perspectives,” St. Onge said. “I see it as an opportunity to continually invite new members of the community to have a voice in editorial discussions.”

“No one is pretending that three advisory board members is fully representative of all the communities in our markets, so we want to keep giving more people the opportunity,” he added.

A mandate for opinion journalism to be local — and break news

Under Nelson, McClatchy nudged its various opinion sections toward local and community issues rather than national ones. (“You can read 100 takes on President Trump’s latest tweet,” Nelson, who led opinion staff at The Kansas City Star, has said. “But our editorial board is the only place you can find reported commentary on what’s happening with the Kansas City Police Department.”)

St. Onge will continue to steer opinion editors to stay close to home, he said.

“We have a choice. We could be one of a swirl of voices commenting on a national issue or political moment or be one of a few voices commenting on local issues and taking what’s happening at a national level and commenting about how it affects our communities,” St. Onge said. “We found that readers really engaged with the latter, when we’re speaking to issues that affect them and holding local leaders or local representatives accountable. Readers respond to that more than when we’re just one of a million voices commenting on something that’s happening in Washington.”

St. Onge will also encourage editors to think of columns and editorials “not as opinion writing, but opinion journalism” and to report before they write.

“We think that we can not just respond to news but actually drive conversations with our reporting. Our opinion writers and editors are great journalists. They bring strong institutional knowledge and sourcing — and we break news,” St. Onge said. “That’s a point of emphasis for us. Not just performing the traditional role in which we respond to news, but actually moving those conversations ahead.”

Also on the agenda for St. Onge? Making sure readers can quickly and easily spot the difference between news and opinion content, especially when reading online. Of course, McClatchy’s emphases on reporting in opinion writing and its encouragement for editorial boards to “move at the speed of news” are prime examples of why this is more important — and difficult — than ever.

Photo of seats at the table by Pawel Chu on Unsplash.

Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (, Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     March 16, 2021, 12:36 p.m.
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