I’ve repeatedly used this platform to complain about the deficits of what have been called “ghost” newspapers, like the remnants of our local Indianapolis Star. Unlike the 2000+ papers that have simply disappeared over the past several years, ghost papers still exist, but in a form that is no longer adequate to the needs of the community. Here in Indianapolis, the Star (never a particularly good newspaper) no longer bothers to inform the public about the various agencies of local or state government; it devotes its reduced reporting resources mainly to sports and entertainment, with occasional forays into “human interest” stories. As a result, significantly fewer people look to the Star as a common source of information for residents of central Indiana.
(I’m happy to note that the Star’s deficiency has sparked creation of a new nonprofit covering the Statehouse: the Indiana Capital Chronicle. May they prosper!)
The loss of local newspapers hasn’t just deprived us of local news. It has also deprived us of analyses of that news, columns and letters to the editor expressing a variety of opinions over the meaning and significance of the matters being conveyed.
The Star is a Gannett paper (which explains a lot about its sorry state), and it turns out that Gannett isn’t simply uninterested in providing local communities with needed information.A reader recently sent me a column (snatched from behind a paywall) outlining Gannett’s recent decision to minimize inclusion of analysis and opinion.
Gannett, America’s largest newspaper chain, recently recommended changes to its affiliates’ opinion pages. There will be fewer syndicated columnists and letters to the editor and no more editorials that, in Gannett’s words, “tell voters what to think.” Gannett’s directive noted that editorials and opinion columns are among the most frequent reasons that readers give for canceling their subscriptions, and many of the chain’s opinion pages across the country are poised to cut back production or fold up shop in response.
It is certainly the case that devoting editorial pages to opinions focused on national events adds to our current American polarization. But as the writer noted, space devoted to opinions on local matters has the opposite effect–it brings readers’ attention back to the local community and strengthens local connections. He insists–I believe correctly–that Gannett and other newspaper owners should “reinvest in what makes an opinion page work: amplifying local voices, presenting a diverse array of opinions in a respectful way, and serving as their community’s public forum.”
A local newspaper’s main advantage in today’s sprawling media marketplace is its geographic focus: Nobody covers a community as thoroughly as its newspaper, even today. The opinion page is an essential part of that coverage because it seeks out and organizes a diverse array of community perspectives. It is the least “professional” part of the newspaper: a place where you can learn about the issues facing neighbors, community leaders, and elected officials in their own words. Unlike the neighborhood Facebook and NextDoor groups that so often fill in local news deserts, where the brashest and most extreme voices rise to the top, an opinion page is edited according to journalistic ethical standards of fairness, accuracy, and fact-checking.
Opinion columns and vetted letters to the editor aren’t the sort of “opinions” that litter Facebook and Twitter–posts that are all too often little more than insults and/or invective.
Good opinion writing is analytical–it is based upon the factual reporting, but goes beyond the surface to explore the significance of the reported facts and opine about their likely meaning and possible consequences. Opinion writers almost always come with a bias or point of view, and good opinion writers are explicit about their ideological commitments, but they also come with background in the subject-matter that allows them to illuminate what the bare recitation of “who what where when and why” cannot.
There’s a reason they are sometimes called “think pieces.”
The author of the column from which I’ve pulled these quotes–a journalism professor–points out that effective columnists are trained in the art of observation. And as he says, a talent for connecting storytelling with current events makes an impression on readers that the bare recitation of facts usually doesn’t.
Studies show that op-eds can have enduring persuasive effects — a rare finding in studies of the media — and can set the political agenda for citizens and elected officials alike. Local columnists can use their reputation and intellectual freedom to explore deep, complex, and oft-ignored community histories or serve as respected watchdogs to protect consumers and citizens.
The evisceration or outright loss of local newspapers over the past couple of decades has deprived us of a critically important asset–a forum informing us about our local government, business and community–and now, of informed opinion probing their significance.