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April 1, 2021, 11:47 a.m.

Maybe just shut up about national politics if you want to reduce polarization?

Shifting the focus of a newspaper’s opinion section from national (Trump! Pelosi! distant, scary!) to local (schools! development! nearby, impactful!) can reduce political polarization, a new study finds.

It’s Thanksgiving 2021, and thanks to the magic of vaccines, you’re celebrating it back in your hometown with your family. What a wonderful occasion — threatened only by the annual potential for you and Uncle Theo to get into fights about gun control, abortion, Donald Trump, “illegals,” and (in odd years) pedophile cannibals and the true meaning of “pizza.”

Your family is polarized about some big issues. How should you deal with it over turkey and stuffing?

— Spend some time in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving watching Fox News and researching who Dan Bongino is, the better to understand your uncle’s point of view.

— Spend that time instead reading left-wing Twitter and preparing several dozen devastating owns with which to counter your uncle’s expected arguments.

— Organize a structured dialogue in which you and your uncle have uninterrupted times to express their views in a clear way, focusing on your shared humanity and the fact that you both want what’s best for the country.

— Just shut up about national politics and talk about, well, anything else: the weather, the weird cousin in Ohio you all hate, football, how the mall you used to hang out in is really sad now. Anything else.

Efforts to reduce political polarization in America have often looked a lot like , , and .

presumes the problem is the echo chamber. You and your uncle each consume too much news that aligns with your viewpoints, and exposure to the other side’s arguments will give you a new appreciation for them.

presumes the problem is a lack of facts and fact-checking. The reason your uncle doesn’t agree with you is that he’s been told a bunch of lies, and if you can only show him the truth, debate-style, you can come to a new understanding. (He thinks the same thing about you, by the way.)

presumes the problem is the absence of humane contact. You spend too much time around people who agree with you about everything, and that’s led you to reduce the other side to a caricature. Get in the same room with some agreed-upon ground rules and talk it out — you’ll realize it’s a person on the other side of the aisle, not an ideology.

Those are all fine and good. But what are you actually going to do if you want to lower the temperature at Thanksgiving? Probably option : You’re probably just going to shut the hell up about national politics. It’s the one subject that gets everyone’s motor revving, so just talk about something else.

Some new research out this week suggests that, for all the high-minded good intentions behind those other strategies, shut the hell up about national politics can actually reduce political polarization — not just at a dinner table, but in an entire community.

That’s according to a new short (68 pages) book called Home Style Opinion: How Local Newspapers Can Slow Polarization. (It’s free to download until April 21, so grab that PDF.) The authors are LSU’s Joshua Darr, Colorado State’s Matthew Whitt, and Texas A&M’s Johanna Dunaway. Here’s the abstract:

Local newspapers can hold back the rising tide of political division in America by turning away from the partisan battles in Washington and focusing their opinion page on local issues.

When a local newspaper in California dropped national politics from its opinion page, the resulting space filled with local writers and issues. We use a pre-registered analysis plan to show that 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 local California paper in question is The Desert Sun, the Gannett paper in Palm Springs. On June 7, 2019, executive editor Julie Makinen announced the opinion pages would be “taking a summer vacation from national politics”:

For the month of July, we’re taking a break from all the machinations of Washington and putting the focus back here at home.

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.

So, as an experiment, for 31 days, the Sun ran opinion pages focused entirely on local issues. No national columnists, no Trump takes, nothing.

For some of you, this may sound like a horrible diet: What will I do for a month without Marc Thiessen, or Leonard Pitts? What will we talk about, if not Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi?

Well, let me gently suggest there’s lots more to discuss: How about homelessness in the Coachella Valley? The state of our schools? Our unfunded pension liabilities?

Of course, it doesn’t have to be all about problems. The op-ed pages are also a forum for highlighting the good in our midst.

Darr, Whitt, and Dunaway — who you may have figured out were the “trio of university researchers” Makinen was referencing — then tracked political polarization among Palm Springs-area residents before and after the all-local month. As a control, they did the same for those in the circulation area of another California Gannett paper, the Ventura County Star, which ran its opinion pages as usual.

Was the Sun able to follow through on its commitment? Yep. Nationally syndicated columnists disappeared; about half of their usual space was given over to syndicated opinion from California, including from the nonprofit CalMatters. “Mentions of President Trump, who normally dominates the news, essentially disappeared”: Only 1 percent of letters to the editor and 0 percent of editorial and op-eds included his name. (In the month before the experiment, those numbers had been 38 and 32 percent.)

The subject matter moved from something Ilhan Omar said to traffic, development, downtown revitalization, schools, and other local issues you can’t read about on NYTimes.com. Of note: Despite Palm Springs being a two-hour drive from the Mexican border, immigration as a subject virtually vanished from opinion section once people were asked to focus on local issues.

(One thing didn’t change: The Sun’s opinion pages didn’t get any more diverse in terms of who was writing pieces. “We find no evidence that localization improved gender equality or racial diversity: women continued to be underrepresented, as did Hispanic/Latino writers, who did not contribute to opinion in proportion to their population in the area.”)

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. But it’s worth noting that emphasizing local can easily mean emphasizing local elites.

So — the Sun pulled off the experiment. What impact did it have on polarization? The researchers focused specifically on affective polarization, which basically means thinking the other political party is filled with a bunch of dumb idiot mean jerks, not that you actually have policy disagreements. (That’s issue polarization.)

Those surveyed in the Desert Sun’s circulation area didn’t, as a whole, become less affectively polarized versus those in the Ventura County Star’s. (One opinion section can’t fix the world, people. And obviously not everyone in those cities reads the paper.)

But they did find significant evidence of reduced polarization in three specific subgroups: those who prefer to get their news from the local newspaper over other options; those who have higher levels of political knowledge; and those with higher levels of political involvement. (There’s quite a bit of overlap among those groups — they’re much more likely to have been exposed to the revamped opinion pages than others.) “The divergent changes in affective and social polarization across our two communities, while positive in all cases, show how The Desert Sun Opinion page experiment slowed polarization in Palm Springs.”

A complicating factor here is that affective polarization actually went up in both cities over the span measured. (National politics was still a thing! People were still getting plenty of news from other sources! Donald Trump was still tweeting!) But polarization increased less in Palm Springs in these groups than it did in Ventura.

Is the effect size huge? Nah.

Taken together, these results corroborate the claim of Iyengar et al.: affective polarization is tough to change, and large shifts in this metric are unlikely. It would strain the bounds of credulity if we observed dramatic decreases in affective polarization in Palm Springs as a function of a one-month experiment by a single news source, especially when limited to the opinion page. However, we observe a consistent pattern across our three conditional models: in each case, affective and social polarization rise less in the treated Palm Springs community. This dynamic demonstrates that local newspapers can slow polarization by adjusting the focus of their opinion page.

(The study didn’t look this, but I’d wager ten bucks that shifting a paper’s news pages from national to local would have a similar depolarizing effect.)

Oh, and here’s one other thing that’ll appeal to the suits: Web traffic to the Sun’s opinion pages nearly doubled in July 2019 compared to the year before.

Newspapers across the country have spent time evaluating the future of their opinion sections. Some have dropped editorial entirely; others decided to skip an endorsement in the 2020 presidential race, judging that the cost of angering one-half of their readers wasn’t worth the moral clarity. In Palm Springs, the opinion editor during the experiment, Al Franco, took a Gannett buyout last December; the position’s being filled now thanks to nearly $60,000 raised by a new local nonprofit, the Coachella Valley Journalism Foundation.

(It should go without saying that more local opinion is likely to make local foundations and philanthropists see the section as something worth supporting financially. I doubt those donors’ intent was to cover George F. Will’s syndication fee.)

When local editorial boards shrink, it’s tempting to fill the void with more nationally syndicated columnists, more national politics. These findings suggest that may do more polarization harm than good, and that investing in local opinion pages means investing in local civic culture.

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. 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. When national politics was removed from The Desert Sun, the space filled with state and local concerns, and afterward people did not feel so far apart from one another. In Makinen’s words, if we want to help local newspapers continue to make American democracy work better in spite of the existential crises they face today, “let’s talk about home.”

POSTED     April 1, 2021, 11:47 a.m.
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