Read these voices on reimagining local opinion journalism
The American Press Institute is continuing to help news organizations reimagine local opinion journalism to promote healthier civic discourse and to better understand its role in news business sustainability.
As part of our work, we are “passing the mic” to people in opinion sections and out to share what they are doing on this topic.
How can opinion journalism effectively expand the range of voices it represents in traditional sections and other platforms? What can opinion editors and writers continue to learn from bridge-builders, civic groups and other experts outside of journalism about facilitating healthy civic discourse? In what ways can and should opinion and commentary drive revenue and business sustainability?
These are the kinds of questions we’re asking. We began exploring them with more than 60 people, including local opinion editors and experts outside of journalism, at our 2023 API Local News Summit on Opinion, Civic Discourse and Sustainability.
Read the essays below:
- “How local opinion sections can transform into public forums: Insights from public deliberation.” Martín Carcasson, founder of the Colorado State University Center for Public Deliberation, details how deliberative practice can help shape local opinion coverage. One result, Coloradoan Conversations, has built quality interactions and engagement within The Coloradoan’s opinion section.
- “Clarify your opinion product’s mission to boost audience financial support.” The Flip Side, a newsletter that shares a variety of curated op-eds and commentary on one topic, is largely user funded. Annafi Wahed details what she and her team did to boost fundraising from their audience.
- “Invest in staff to grow local opinion journalism’s reach with diverse communities.” After the 2020 racial reckoning, NJ Advance Media reinvested and diversified its opinion section to shape coverage of New Jersey’s diverse communities. Robin Wilson-Glover, director of digital opinion, writes how she reshaped her department and NJ.com’s opinion section.
- “Bring constructive conflict to local opinion journalism.” Newsrooms are teaming up with Good Conflict to host in-person conversations about polarizing issues, and the results are promising. Hélène Biandudi Hofer, cofounder of Good Conflict, shares techniques to invite meaningful discussion and how newsrooms can incorporate them into their opinion sections.
They follow additional reflections from news leaders published in 2019, when API first convened opinion editors and bridge-builders outside of news.
To learn more about this work and potential opportunities to participate, please contact Kevin Loker, director of strategic partnerships and research, at email@example.com.
Clarify your opinion product’s mission to boost audience financial support
Editor’s Note: The American Press Institute is helping news organizations reimagine local opinion journalism to promote healthier civic discourse and to better understand its role in news business sustainability. This essay by Annafi Wahed, co-founder and CEO of The Flip Side, is part of a series of essays on the topic, and explores the fundraising and audience revenue opportunity local media have in spelling out an opinion-minded product’s goals.
Local news organizations are faced with several challenges when it comes to informing discussion about important issues, standing out amid information overload and, of course, finding financial support for their work. Polarization only makes this harder, including for local opinion journalism. At the national level, we are finding that being clear about your aims — and thoughtfully building a product to help with that — can lead to direct financial support from your community.
The Flip Side, which I co-founded, has a clear mission: to reduce polarization by bridging the gap between liberals and conservatives. Every day, our editorial team combs through dozens of sources — left, right and center. We focus on one topic and select the most thoughtful and well-articulated op-eds and commentary to highlight in a five-minute curated email. Facebook and Twitter show you the worst of both sides; we show you the best.
The growth of our start-up newsletter itself showed the mission resonated; over 50,000 of our subscribers came via word of mouth and referral. And while our newsletter is already making a tangible difference in people’s lives — helping them understand and connect with family, friends or coworkers with whom they disagree — we always knew it was just the first step. We’ve spent the past year researching and speaking with engineers, designers, academics and community moderators about how best to design an online community where meaningful discussions can take place.
We just launched a new online discussion platform that uses human-centered design and a custom ranking algorithm to reward thoughtfulness and bipartisanship, rather than trolling or clickbait. We were fortunate to have raised a pre-seed round from an angel investor in 2020, and are generating revenue from both premium subscriptions and ad sales. Still, we’re not quite at break even and — like some resource-strapped opinion sections may find themselves — need to pursue additional funding to pursue our important work.
Whether national or local, large potential backers of new ideas often bring their own interests to the table. We met with several venture capital firms in Q2 and Q3 2022, when they were at the height of their mania. They advised us to put our newsletter on the blockchain, to create NFTs of our mascot, to build in the metaverse. One venture capitalist suggested we create a dating app that would match users according to their reading habits. The idea of creating a healthy online community for political and civic discourse was not sexy enough; they wanted novelty.
The nonstop news cycle keeps us plenty busy; we had no desire for side quests. And so we turned to crowdfunding, betting that our mission would resonate with many people in and outside our current audience. We raised $267,453 via Wefunder (which allows non-accredited investors to invest), and an additional $125,000 from two angel investors (both of whom are longtime subscribers; as was our pre-seed investor). The comments from our Wefunder investors speak to the same thing as the dollars do: people wanted to support the vision we laid out for a less polarized America.
In addition to having a strong, clear mission, here are some other things we did that helped us fundraise from our audience:
- We are clear about where we’re coming from. I’m upfront about my liberal bias; my co-founder is upfront about his conservative bias. Our commitment to bipartisanship (or more accurately, equal partisanship) engenders a lot of trust and credibility.
- A study of Wikipedia articles showed that politically diverse teams produce higher-quality work than articles edited by moderate or one-sided teams.
- Websites with more extreme and less politically diverse audiences have lower journalistic standards; some propose using the political diversity of a website’s audience as a quality signal. Here’s our audience breakdown:
- We’re specific about what we’re building (and what the audience is supporting). Many people talk a big game about building a healthy community; few actively design for it. Our pitch deck outlines specifically how our new platform is different from Facebook, Twitter and the comment sections of most media outlets. The structure is also focused and predictable, unlike perhaps some opinion sections:
- We focus on one topic a day and begin with a summary of liberal and conservative viewpoints both sides can trust.
- We have a bipartisan team of moderators, and make all moderator actions public.
- Instead of a “like” button, we have: “Helpful/Unhelpful” and “Agree/Disagree.” We weight the “Helpful” + “Disagree” vote combination most heavily, as it’s a strong indicator of a well-written post.
- Our algorithm prioritizes cross-partisan engagement over other metrics. For example, a post with three “Helpful” votes from left-leaning users and five “Helpful” votes from right-leaning users is ranked higher than a post with 10 “Helpful” votes all from left-leaning users.
- We’re planning to launch an “Ambassador of the week” badge, which will be awarded to the user who receives the most “Helpful” votes from the opposing side in a given week.
- We tied our fundraising appeals to real-time events. I began one email with this paragraph: “Each time I sat down to write this letter in the past two weeks, there had been a new development in the world of social media. Elon Musk is (probably) buying Twitter after all. Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, is buying Parler. Meta is… making legs. A ‘vibe shift’ is underway. Meanwhile, the chaos that is the midterm election cycle continues unabated.”
- We launched a ‘minimum viable product’ and would refine it with audience input. We didn’t wait for perfection to get going. With an MVP live by Q4 2022, we were getting real-time feedback. When someone had questions about our roadmap, we could point to real use cases that had already come up. For example, we have users who like to write long posts, and others telling us they felt overwhelmed by the volume. So we added a nudge that asks folks to write a TL;DR version at the top of their post if it’s over a certain number of characters. We also added image upload capability for user profiles because multiple people asked for it. Moving from theory to practice, even with a clunky user journey, can show investors what you’re capable of.
- People like giving feedback as you pursue a mission they value. We gave examples of new features under consideration, and let our audience know that joining the community fundraising round means they get to help shape our next phase: “Would you like your own private ‘library’ in our forum where you’ll be able to save articles and posts to come back to later? Should we launch monthly salons where we bring together thought leaders with diverse perspectives to share their knowledge and expertise? Expand our Deep Dives?… We’re in the earliest stages of a new and exciting journey, and want YOU to become an owner and help shape the trajectory.”
Even after all this, we still have a ways to go to reach our $1 million fundraising goal for this year. Here are the objections we have to overcome:
- “Do people actually want a balanced view?”
- Not even 237,000+ newsletter subscribers and thousands of rave reviews are enough to convince the skeptics. In a recent poll, asked who’s driving polarization, respondents were four times as likely to blame “political and social elites” (61%) than “how ordinary Americans think and behave” (15%). The enthusiasm of our audience vs. the skepticism of the investor class bears this out.
- “You’re creating a false equivalency.”
- Even though we do not give a platform to misinformation or conspiracy theories, our equally partisan format is unfortunately a hindrance for some investors. In cases like this, I do my best to remind them that in a democracy, everyone gets a vote. If we want to continue living in a democracy, we have to learn to coexist with even the people we are concerned about. If we want our preferred policies to win the day, we have to persuade at least some of them.
- “The best minds in Silicon Valley haven’t been able to solve the problems of echo chambers and growing polarization. What makes you think you can?”
- I explain that content curation, moderation and community building are fundamentally about social and political sensibilities first, and tech stack second. As Nilay Patel wrote, “the problems with Twitter are not engineering problems. They are political problems.” Local media have opportunity here, too.
“It’s easier to imagine colonizing Mars than it is to imagine building new forms of public infrastructure,” Eli Pariser said on Ezra Klein’s podcast last year. Well, a Mars mission is years away at best. And our virtual reality worlds are still ghost towns. More importantly though, it’s very likely that our earthly problems will follow us to both outer space and cyberspace. Try as we might, we cannot run away from our tribal, political selves.
There are innumerable books, articles, think tanks, speeches and studies analyzing the sorry state of our socio-political discourse, but comparatively few groups working on viable, scalable solutions — or local idiosyncratic ones. Of course it’s important to understand and analyze our problems and their causes, from the destabilizing effects of globalization to primetime “news” provocateurs and pernicious big tech algorithms, but we are at a point of diminishing returns.
When we talk to our subscribers and those who chose to invest, we hear the same thing again and again: “Thank you for actually doing something about the problem.” (In the hundred-plus interviews we conducted, not a single person mentioned the blockchain, NFTs or the metaverse.) News audiences across the nation are hungry for builders and doers. They want to support problem solvers and solutions. The more concrete we can be about what their financial support means in terms of being able to build products/services/verticals and make an impact, the likelier they are to support our work. Let’s build things worthy of their support.
Annafi Wahed is the co-founder and CEO of TheFlipSide.io, a media startup building the next generation platform for news and civic dialogue.
How local opinion sections can transform into public forums: Insights from public deliberation
Editor’s Note: The American Press Institute is helping news organizations reimagine local opinion journalism to promote healthier civic discourse and to better understand its role in news business sustainability. This essay by Martín Carcasson, founder of the Colorado State University Center for Public Deliberation, is part of a series of essays on the topic, and explores how insights from outside of journalism might empower local opinion sections, as is happening at The Fort Collins Coloradoan.
I am a deliberative practitioner, a relatively new career choice that I believe will become more and more common and critical to local communities. One location it may become influential is in reshaping local opinion journalism.
Here is where I and perhaps others are coming from. My job as a Communication Studies professor and the founder and director of the Colorado State University Center for Public Deliberation (CPD) is focused on helping my community have the sorts of conversations and collaboration they need to address their shared problems more effectively. I was initially trained to do the difficult work of evaluating the quality of arguments, trying in particular to distinguish between strong and weak arguments. We believe that the better our arguments, the better our decisions and ultimately stronger our communities will be.
Initially, my research focused on analyzing national political discourse. I quickly grew weary, however, because my research clearly showed that our political system often rewarded weak arguments and punished good ones. So I shifted my work from national politics to local, and from being a critic and analyst to being a practitioner. Connecting with the broader deliberative democracy movement and organizations like the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, my focus now is serving as a principled impartial resource to the community, using what I know about communication, argumentation and social psychology to try to turn the tide and build systems that bring people together across perspectives and encourage quality argument and engagement.
The forum added a positive component to our local deliberative system.
The forum added a positive component to our local deliberative system.
I founded the CPD in 2006 as an experiment to see if concepts that seemed to work in the classroom to spark better conversations and collaborative problem-solving could also work in the community. The CPD was based on the idea that democracy requires high quality communication and collaboration, as well as the realization that those features are growing more and more difficult to achieve. Indeed, research in social psychology informs us that humans are naturally wired much more for polarization and outrage than deliberation and collaboration. That problem is compounded when we realize our political systems, typical public engagement processes and media incentives tend to reward tactics that trigger these negative tendencies. The growing prevalence of what Amanda Ripley has called “conflict entrepreneurs,” who understand human nature and profit off of peddling simple narratives to their audiences, only makes the situation worse. Bottom line, the natural quality of our public engagement was highly problematic.
For its first ten years, the CPD primarily planned and hosted innovative public engagement events, often working directly with local governments, school districts and community organizations. The events were designed to spark very different conversations. In dedicated courses, we trained CSU students as small group facilitators to support the events, and used deliberative process design to avoid triggering the worst of human nature and tap into the best. We developed techniques to hear from the community, developed discussion guides specifically designed to spark discussion, built a broad toolkit of engagement techniques, continuously refined our facilitation training, and have run over 500 meetings in our 17 years.
While we sparked good conversations and uncovered valuable insights about local issues, we recognized that only a small percentage of residents would ever actually attend an in-person event. Around that time, the research on deliberative democracy had made the “systemic turn,” shifting from a focus on events to seeing communities as deliberative systems with multiple relevant institutions and sources of either high quality or low quality deliberation. I saw my role as the CPD director shift to considering this broader system and thinking about how we might strengthen it. As we sought ways to expand our reach, I was invited to attend API’s convening in 2019 focused on reimagining opinion journalism and depolarizing public debate. That gathering helped me realize the immense collaborative potential between deliberative practice and local journalism.
Bringing non-news insights to local journalism
In the fall of 2022, the Fort Collins Coloradoan (a local Gannett newsroom) and the CPD were awarded a Local News Ideas-to-Action grant from API, and we launched the Northern Colorado Deliberative Journalism Project (DJP). The collaborative project now involves multiple CSU departments, local media outlets, the local public library district, and community organizations such as the League of Women Voters, all focused on reimagining local journalism by infusing it with insights from deliberative practice. The primary motivation for the DJP was the need to build capacity in communities for better conversations and collaborative problem-solving, but we also quickly recognized that we could take on the crisis in democracy while also addressing the crisis in local journalism. Our belief is as local news outlets build up their deliberative toolkits, communities will see the renewed value of local journalism and step up to support them. Based on some initial community conversations, we developed a set of key tasks to guide our work.
For the last year and a half, we have experimented with the concept of deliberative journalism. We have hosted several online community gatherings to discuss the idea and hear what residents want from local journalism, we have held webinars on issues such as addressing misinformation, and hosted deliberative forums on topics such as “reimagining local journalism.” The CSU Journalism and Media Communication department developed a Deliberative Journalism class to specifically support the project, along with other classes that have specific assignments connected to the project.
The potential of non-news insights in local opinion and commentary
The most significant development thus far, however, has been the Coloradoan relaunching their opinion page with the DJP’s help. The Coloradoan Conversations platform is an online forum focused solely on local issues. Each week, one or two questions are posted online and then published in the Sunday print edition, and responses are collected from participants that must go through a free registration process. The Coloradoan staff, with assistance from the CPD, write up “recaps” after a week or two, summarizing the discussion, drawing key insights, highlighting specific comments and working to move the conversation forward.
A team of CPD staff and students are being trained to support the discussions, participating at times with questions and comments to encourage productive interaction (adapting skills from their in-person facilitation training), assisting with fact checks or informational needs, and doing analysis to contribute to the recaps. The analysis borrows from research on deliberation and argumentation, engaging questions of fact, bringing out underlying values and tensions, highlighting key themes and evaluating the quality of the interaction.
Coloradoan Conversations is clearly still a work in progress, but we are encouraged with the amount of engagement and the slow but steady improvement in the quality of interactions. Our goal, as expressed in a recent editorial marking a year of conversations, is to build a useful local forum that contributes positively to our community’s ability to address its shared problems. Said differently, the forum added a positive component to our local deliberative system. Long term, we hope it becomes a model for other communities, particularly in terms of a university-local media collaboration.
Five functions to guide reimagined ‘opinion forums’
We see a number of functions the forum can fulfill, some basic and others rather labor intensive (a key reason we designed this from the beginning to involve students — resulting in a win-win of students gaining valuable skills connected to dedicated coursework while providing critical capacity to their community).
The most basic function of an opinion page and local online forum is to provide a place for people to be able to express their opinions. Ideally, a broad range of voices are involved, and, following a traditional function of journalism, newsrooms should work to expand the voices participating, simplify access and reach out to traditionally marginalized or missing voices. While this initial function is critical to a pluralistic, free society, is it merely an initial step, and one that many other platforms allow now. Perhaps in the past, the local opinion page was a key location for such expression, but with social media, individuals have unlimited opportunities to express their opinions publicly.
The second key function is closely related to the first, but focuses on the reader rather than the writer: provide access to opinions of other people. The internet has also greatly expanded this opportunity, but since it is mostly not focused on the local community, it has greatly defused and distracted from the local conversation and the critical need to create a sense of local community. In addition, when left open, forums tend to become either havens for the like-minded or unproductive spaces full of polarized outrage and misinformation.
As a result of the limitations of the first two functions, our project is exploring how to make these work better, while also considering higher order deliberative functions. Bottom line, we don’t want the forum to just be a collection of individual (often problematic) opinions, but a place for authentic engagement, the refinement of opinions, and, ideally, the co-creation of new, innovative ideas. Such goals are in line with deliberative practice. When we avoid triggering the worst in human nature, we have a better chance of tapping into the best, such as human creativity and imagination. When we stop focusing on simply attacking or ridiculing those we oppose, and actually turn our focus to addressing actual shared problems, humans can positively surprise you.
Perhaps in the past, the local opinion page was a key location for such expression, but with social media, individuals have unlimited opportunities to express their opinions publicly.
Perhaps in the past, the local opinion page was a key location for such expression, but with social media, individuals have unlimited opportunities to express their opinions publicly.
As a result, a third key function of our forum is to provide a place for and a model of quality interaction and discussion. Here, both the participants and the organizers have important roles. There are several components to this, such as traditional use of ground rules (in this case, USA Today Network CORAL Conversation Guidelines) and moderating techniques. Developing methods and the capacity for quality local fact checking is another key aspect. Overall, we hope to focus more on positively reinforcing and inviting quality engagement, rather than primarily policing or calling out bad behavior. We work to praise posters that help support quality discussion, either with their contributions or the way they interact. In a typical facilitation style, we don’t praise particular ideas — we are impartial — but we can praise positive behavior such as providing links to quality information, asking good questions, responding to questions from others, and, in one of our favorites, publicly recognizing a shift in perspective. In doing so, we can actually provide an example of how to engage tough issues productively, something unfortunately rather rare in our public discourse.
A fourth key function falls primarily on the organizers of the forum: provide analysis of the conversation that contributes positively to the public discourse. I often explain that the work I do with the CPD, particularly leading up to our events, involves “making sense of the noise.” With all the ways for people to express their opinions, the noise can be overwhelming, both in terms of information overload and, due to human nature and concepts like confirmation bias, our flawed individual ability to process information well. As a result, an important added function to a local opinion forum must be working to summarize and analyze the information. We can use the collected data to get a better sense of the issue, particularly identifying misinformation and key questions to engage, understanding the underlying values, and potentially learning about new ideas and possibilities.
Such a function is complex, and can open local journalists to criticism, but has become a critical need for local communities that I believe journalists are best situated to address. It connects to what Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel label “sense making” as a new task for journalists in The Elements of Journalism. The goal is to find ways to help shift raw data/opinion to information, information to knowledge, knowledge to insight, and ultimately insight into wisdom and better decisions. The internet has exponentially expanded the amount of data on the front end, but our communities severely lack in their ability to move down the line. The Coloradoan Conversations recaps are the most obvious examples of attempting to fulfill this function, but we will continue to explore how to do this better, tapping into the substantial research in deliberative practice on the importance of framing issues for deliberation.
The fifth and final function of the forum is to contribute to local community building. Our political discourse is dangerously polarized, but that polarization is often exaggerated and manufactured, and is largely a function of human nature combined with a national zero-sum political system that unfortunately triggers the worst of our natural “us v. them” brains. Shifting away from Red-Blue partisan politics to local issues can on its own have a significant depolarization and re-humanization effect. Social media platforms thrive on dividing us (in order to narrowly categorize us and sell us products), whereas the traditional local paper can focus on the community overall. Local media can tap into the positive power of “us” without necessarily relying on the motivational threat of a “them.”
From diffuse opinion to local cooperation
A key aspect of deliberative practice is transforming how people see themselves as they engage issues. We seek to shift from an adversarial mindset to a collaborative one, and from the easy assumption that problems are primarily caused by wicked people, to recognizing the inherent wickedness of social problems. When we shift from seeing each other as opponents we must defeat to collaborators shoulder to shoulder working a problem together, we begin to build the environment for the kind of talk that helps communities thrive. This kind of work can spark a virtuous cycle — the more you do deliberative work, the easier it becomes: relationships are built, caricatures are exposed, trust and mutual understanding develops and new civic muscles are formed.
When we avoid triggering the worst in human nature, we have a better chance of tapping into the best, such as human creativity and imagination.
When we avoid triggering the worst in human nature, we have a better chance of tapping into the best, such as human creativity and imagination.
In conclusion, the work of the DJP broadly and Coloradoan Conversations specifically is clearly still in its developing stages. In many ways, these functions are aspirational rather than currently being fulfilled. As we continue to engage and combine research and practice in fields such as journalism, deliberation, democratic innovation, conflict management, social psychology, argumentation and others, we are constantly finding new tools and possibilities. We are closely following and learning from other innovative journalism strands such as Solutions Journalism, dialogue journalism, citizen-centered journalism and collaborative journalism. The dedicated courses tied to the DJP give us the flexibility and people power to explore, experiment and create, and we will continue to share what we’ve learned with all who may be interested.
The challenges facing democracy and journalism are significant, but crises also tend to spark creativity and innovation. In particular, there are genuine reasons for hope at the local level, where processes can be developed that provide residents with authentic alternatives to the dysfunctional, polarized environments that too often dominate. The CPD experience has shown that many are yearning for that alternative and will support it when given the opportunity. The Coloradoan, while early on, has seen subscription conversions tied to its reimagined opinion forum.
As local media work to adjust to new realities and reestablish their role in their communities, we are confident that serving a more explicit deliberative role will be embraced and potentially transformative.
Martín Carcasson, Ph.D., is a professor in the Communication Studies department of Colorado State University, and the founder and director of the CSU Center for Public Deliberation (CPD).
Invest in staff to grow local opinion journalism’s reach with diverse communities
Editor’s Note: The American Press Institute is helping news organizations reimagine local opinion journalism to promote healthier civic discourse and to better understand its role in news business sustainability. This essay by Robin Wilson-Glover, director of digital opinion at NJ Advance Media, is part of a series of essays on the topic, and explores how staffing and resources matter for building inclusive and relevant opinion content at a legacy news organization.
The slow public lynching of George Floyd three years ago birthed the reckoning that would alter newsrooms across the country. There was a clarion call for change and our newsroom in New Jersey listened.
We reevaluated our news coverage at NJ Advance Media — which operates NJ.com, the largest and the most popular news site in the state — and took a deeper look at how we cover communities of color, especially our public safety coverage. We re-established our Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee and tasked the group to define our challenges and come up with ways to meet them.
Our parent company, Advance Local, led the way in our hiring effort. At the time, our newsroom was like many others. Our staff was not reflective of the state, which was 54 percent white, non-Hispanic and diversifying rapidly. We wanted then, as we do now, for our staff to reflect the composition of our state. How else could we represent what New Jersey was and what it needed unless we reflected that diversity?
Diversity was especially important in our Opinion section, which directly represented the voice of the community. It was run by me, the only Black editor in the newsroom at the time. The section had become more critically important after we closed our comment sections, as it proved too difficult to moderate. Those sections were our main outlet for feedback on our coverage.
To grow opinion, we had to grow, too
Opinion content was chiefly provided through op-eds and Letters to the Editor, curated by me and individuals at three of our affiliated newspapers — The Easton Express, the Jersey Journal and the South Jersey Times. Only The Star-Ledger, our largest affiliated newspaper, had an editorial board with three regular writers. We couldn’t begin to adequately represent the diverse, underrepresented voices in our community. We had to change, too.
We settled on one new hire for Opinion. The marching orders for this manager would be to seek opinions from local New Jersey residents from different cultures and all walks of life who were involved in current news events or issues. We wanted to find people in underrepresented communities who didn’t typically deal with legacy media and give them a voice. This individual would certainly interpret the facts differently and have different priorities, see policy initiatives differently and recommend different solutions.
We were eager, as well, to get more videos and images of people from communities of color on our site and this manager could do this. So often, the faces of people of color on mainstream news sites are of Black and brown crime suspects, used primarily because police departments offered them up so readily. In Opinion, the faces depicted would rarely involve crimes and instead would be the faces of everyday people with ideas about change.
While this wouldn’t be local news, the content was a way to provide additional local coverage. By expanding Opinion, we hoped to provide information that would lead to more civic participation in government, local schools and grassroots community organizations. By increasing the discourse on local issues, we would make it easier for communities to learn about each other’s viewpoints and find solutions.
Doubling down on our growth
As we searched for candidates, two journalists stood out. Given our mandate for change to expand diversity in our newsroom, we hired them both. One fulfilled a request from the journalists of color in our newsroom on the DEI Committee to hire more managers of color who could help direct coverage, set a tone on the staff and hasten change. The title we settled on was Managing Producer/Diversity of Voices.
The second Opinion hire became a columnist, providing a young Latina voice in our coverage. This was advantageous because our sole Black columnist had retired several months earlier, and we desperately needed to interpret the news through additional cultural lenses.
Eighteen months later, we’ve learned that Opinion content may not drive nearly as many page views as news or sports but we’ve found that it does have an audience and — importantly — that readers will pay for the content. Further, this investment is bringing younger audiences to our content, which is critical for the future. Our new columnist, Daysi Calavia-Robertson, has steadily grown an audience and is now one of our most popular columnists on the site. In addition to her column, Daysi communicates with readers on Facebook, TikTok and Instagram, where she has nearly 12,000 followers.
A video reel of her interview with a Latina whose daughter went missing three and a half years ago garnered nearly 440,000 views on TikTok. A reel on a rally to protest the shooting death of a beloved community activist by police officers got more than 200,000 views on Instagram and 100,000 on TikTok. And a reel about a diaper giveaway got nearly 170,000 views with many commenters thanking NJ.com for the valuable information.
What new roles does local opinion journalism need?
At NJ.com, the organization created a new role of Managing Producer/Diversity of Voices. This role was charged with seeking opinions from local New Jersey residents from different cultures and all walks of life who were involved in current news events or issues — the intention was built into the job description:
The Managing Producer/Diversity of Voices is responsible for a new initiative to elevate the voices of diverse and underserved communities, including Spanish speakers. The job requires finding members of diverse and underserved communities who will develop opinion pieces that provide the writers’ perspective on news events and current issues.
The managing producer will also produce content in a medium he or she most excels and work with support in the room to strategically experiment with written, video, audio, newsletter, event formats or other emerging spaces.
This manager will also manage functional relationships with freelancers and manage performance-based metrics for team and individual employees. Communicating frequently with the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee and the Diversity, Culture and Identity reporter will also be essential. This managing producer will report to the Director of Digital Opinion, working closely with the multimedia, social and newsletter teams to help produce content.
In your own news organization, what needs could you work into a new or updated job description, if you do plan to hire? Video? Social media?
The impact of our staffing is clear
Daysi says a comment she hears again and again from readers is how happy, relieved or even thankful they are that there’s a journalist on staff at The Star-Ledger and NJ.com that speaks Spanish. There are times that she has interviewed someone in English and can tell they’re struggling, so she switches to Spanish and she says she can instantly see that they’re relieved.
Some of that joy is not only from being able to express themselves freely but in knowing that since she’s Latina they share a base of understanding about each other’s lives, their backgrounds and their culture.
“When I’m able to bridge that gap and tell the stories of people in New Jersey’s diverse communities, I know I’m making an impact,” Daysi says.
Our new Opinion manager, Ande Richards, has been successful as well. She has managed to find organizations that traditionally haven’t appeared in mainstream media and exposed debates in communities that aren’t typically covered. Last fall, tens of thousands of our readers read op-eds on Hindu nationalism. Ande’s coverage of the NAACP’s national conference in Atlantic City drew praise from the Black community, and the local chapter credited her coverage with the growth of their youth scholarship program.
Ande finds people in the community who talk often about social injustice and created what longtime Congressman John Lewis called “good trouble.” She also manages to get on NJ.com the voices of people who mainstream audiences rarely hear from, including individuals who are currently incarcerated. In July, our readers were eager to read about an inmate who impregnated two others who were incarcerated. Ande gave that person, a transgender woman, a voice.
@njdotcom We sat down with Dulce’s mother Noema Alavez Perez. Click the link in bio for the emotional interview about her daughter’s disappearance. #newjersey #dulcemariaalavez #njnews ♬ Documentary music that raises tension – Ken Nakagawa
Lawrence Hamm, the leader of a social action group in Newark, N.J., said the change in coverage has been noticed in his community and appreciated.
“At a time that local news coverage has been decreasing, the need for media coverage in Black, Latino, working and poor communities has increased. Social, economic conditions in those communities is growing worse. Police shooting deaths have actually increased since the death of George Floyd,” Hamm said.
“At a time like this, coverage by the media is critical, and we’ve seen that additional coverage and attention. This has been the valuable service that Ande Richards has brought to this community.”
As we reach out to a broader audience we have some challenges and decisions to make, including which voices we won’t include. Each news site must make its own decisions. We decided that op-eds from readers who don’t substantiate their opinions with facts are tossed. Op-eds on issues we’ve written about recently are shelved.
Readers have also noticed the extra voices, which has encouraged them to write, and for some to write more frequently. Our bandwidth, however, allows us to publish fewer than half of the op-eds that our readers submit, which sometimes engenders disappointment for those willing to contribute. We try to explain and hope for their understanding.
While we have reached many new communities, we know we’ve only scratched the surface. There are hundreds of communities that we have not yet approached. We’ll also have to get past a recent trend at some media outlets of contracting Opinion sections to curb costs. Despite the popularity of online commentary sites and large legacy news media, some small local news sites have given up on providing enlightened and reasoned commentary.
The good news is that NJ Advance Media, like most others, still values engaging with readers and fulfilling its role as a public servant for readers and our democracy. And, George Floyd’s death still remains a powerful reminder of our responsibilities and our role in society.
Robin Wilson-Glover is the director of digital opinion for NJ Advance Media, a member of The Star-Ledger Editorial Board and co-chair of the company’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bring constructive conflict to local opinion journalism
Editor’s Note: The American Press Institute is helping news organizations reimagine local opinion journalism to promote healthier civic discourse and to better understand its role in news business sustainability. This essay by Hélène Biandudi Hofer, cofounder of Good Conflict, is part of a series of essays on the topic, and explores how opinion editors might create space for deeper engagement that helps residents overcome local division.
On a fall evening last year, I was brimming with excitement, anticipation, suspense, and, if I’m being honest, a trace of fear.
Good Conflict was minutes away from an experiment in collaboration with the Rochester Beacon to engage community members in dialogue on the intersection of faith and abortion. The Beacon’s editors, who were in the room with me, and I didn’t know what to expect. We were going to ask people to be curious about another person’s perspective on a contentious issue. They were going to engage without the comfort of a screen or the ability to debate.
Constructive, healthy discourse has lost its way today, dwarfed by polarization which continues to rise in our communities. Polarized views often find a home on the opinion sections of publications near and far. Typically a space for national politics and issues that a local publication might not cover, especially in the age of dwindling media sources, the opinion section has been a mainstay for decades. However, things are changing.
A couple of years ago, the New York Times decided to retire the term “Op-Ed.” While letters to the editor would still be encouraged, the publication did away with the label. For years, the page lived across the editorial page, welcoming news and views from different vantage points. In a digital world, the paper wrote, there is no “geographical ‘Op-Ed,’ just as there is no geographical ‘Ed’ for Op-Ed to be opposite to. It is a relic of an older age and an older print newspaper design.”
Opinion sections often get mixed reviews. Some readers believe that with the rise of digital media, news is often cloaked in opinion. Others see it as a platform to provide much-needed perspective in a polarized society.
These are changing and challenging times for the news media to navigate opinion while connecting with readers nationally and locally by informing them. What if we were to reframe opinion to engage communities and curate storytelling networks that bring people and communities together?
That’s what happened with the Rochester Beacon project.
Listening, learning and sharing — not debating
We partnered with the Beacon to examine whether individual beliefs and perceptions about difficult, contentious topics can be expanded through written and video journalism and moderated discussions using the Good Conflict approach.
The approach was developed by journalist, writer and conflict mediator Amanda Ripley and myself. We aim to help journalists, editors, producers and news directors adapt what they do for our current age of political polarization.
Our work is based on what researchers now know about what humans need to thrive in a diverse, highly interdependent, information-saturated and fast-changing world. It helps newsrooms effectively apply insights from neuroscience and the practices of conflict mediation, solutions journalism and social psychology to the storytelling process.
This approach fit neatly with the Beacon’s mission. The non-ideological nonprofit news platform was launched in 2018 with the mission to foster open-minded discussion of important social, economic and political issues, providing a forum for diverse voices.
After careful deliberation, we chose the topic of abortion in the religious context in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. It is widely known that for many who are opposed to abortion, their views are grounded in religious belief. While a number of religions and denominations are pro-choice, people’s views are expected to lie in two camps — for or against — with hardly any room for nuance and personal experiences on either side.
An element of Good Conflict’s work with the Beacon was a facilitated discussion. We invited 15 people from diverse faith backgrounds for a small-group gathering. We were elated when 14 people walked through the door, fueled by curiosity. Some were there ready to argue their point of view, others weren’t sure which way the conversation would go. There was no guest list, so people did not know who would be present.
All the necessities for a meaningful gathering were present — food, music, party favors (in the form of take-home resources) and warm and inviting hosts there to guide and support. We explained the purpose and laid some ground rules. We were not there to debate. We were there to listen, learn and share our stories — in order to join in and respond to the conversation prompt posed to the group, an individual had to repeat what they had just heard from another group member and check whether their interpretation was accurate. That’s a technique we use in Good Conflict called looping. It was developed by Gary Friedman and Jack Himmelstein of The Center for Understanding in Conflict.
After a short discussion and a quick looping demonstration, we were off to the races. One by one, each person in the room, except one, looped and bravely and vulnerably shared a personal experience that informed their view on abortion. The atmosphere shifted. Labels and initial judgments were shelved as humanity was revealed.
And guess what? Religion did not dictate every view.
People trusted the space, honored the rules and found ways to connect with each other in meaningful ways. Personal stories moved attendees and the facilitators. The understanding of how personal experiences can shape opinion left a profound impression. After the meeting, people lingered to ask: When can we do this again? What do we do next? Can we transfer this to discussions online?
A couple of months later, a Beacon editor shared an anecdote with me that demonstrates the value of this event and its potential. Two members of the group — on opposite sides of the debate — ran into each other at a community gathering. They chatted for an hour and hoped to meet again, since they had similar interests. Those individuals would readily share their experience with the Beacon for a news story later, knowing that their voices would be heard and respected, as demonstrated in the small-group discussion.
Fostering the quality of community communication
When we worked with the Laconia Daily Sun, we were able to achieve some results as well, using a similar approach with opinion section contributors. However, since that was a virtual event at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, technology and the power of in-person communication presented challenges. The news outlet launched an online community as a follow-up to our online gathering, called the Digital Public Square, so people could exchange ideas in real-time. While readers were engaged in the Letters section — a constant at the paper — limited online tools made it difficult for the news team to see progress online.
One thing is clear from both examples: News platforms can find other ways to connect with their communities. Too often, as “media chiefs,” we focus on the number of readers and forget about the quality of readers we could draw. By inviting community members to engage in deeper ways, they are likely to feel connected and appreciated and recommend the news outlet in their circles as a source of information and respect. It’s hard to hate someone you know. You can disagree, but hatred slows down.
Opinion can and should be more than a page in a newspaper or a comment below a story. I believe that when it comes to carefully facilitated discussion, the options are plenty by focusing on local issues and zeroing in on stories that directly affect readers and matter to them personally. Storytelling networks and events within our communities can shape and inform news stories, which then make news organizations personally relevant.
Elevating local voices and issues
As we reframe our approach to opinion, we should be cognizant of the fact that trying new things takes time and a willingness to keep innovating and perfecting tactics. I’m reminded of the Desert Sun’s experiment in California.
For a month, the publication did not run syndicated national columnists on the opinion section. There was no rhetoric on national politics. The paper focused on topics and writers from the local area and the state. It made the move to see if it would stem polarization, surveying readers before and after the project and comparing it with another local paper that did not change its content during that period.
Attitudes toward opposing parties and the comfort around members of those parties stayed flat at the Desert Sun, among readers with high levels of political knowledge and regular participants in politics. At the other publication, polarization increased.
If the media is continuously evolving when it comes to delivering the news — a swankier website or a new data visualization — it’s hard to assume that readers are unwilling to embrace new ways to engage with their trusted sources of information.
Let’s use shared storytelling in imaginative and tactical ways to dislodge the “us vs. them” narrative. Readers and viewers want to be heard. As a matter of fact, we all do. It’s storytelling that can bring us closer together. And, more often than not, opinion is deeply connected to a personal story. However, those aspects end up on cutting-room floors, and opinions, videos or words become a mix of cold facts, statistics, arguments and extreme points of view.
It’s up to us, as members of the press, to make the storytelling process meaningful and catalytic and, dare I say, sacred. We already know that stories cut through clutter and hype and have the power to engender trust and connection. “A sacred story is a window that offers perspective,” says writer and facilitator Mark Yaconelli. It’s through storytelling that we can transform fear, anger and pain — and learn more about ourselves and the world around us.
Every opinion is an untold story.
Hélène Biandudi Hofer is a broadcast journalist, documentary producer and cofounder of Good Conflict. She is also a board member of the Rochester Beacon.
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