In the age of social media, cable talk shows and fast-moving news cycles, what value does opinion journalism, including the opinion and editorial pages of newspaper publishing, bring to the lives of people in a community?
Modern technology has surely opened up civic debate. Editorials and columns in newspapers, and opinion essays in magazines, suffered from limited space and also a kind of bias toward the privileged. The columnists and editorialists were recognized figures, usually from the establishment, and predominantly white and male. The public’s voice was limited, largely, to letters-to-the editors.
Newspaper executives began weighing the ways opinion sections helped or hurt their enterprises in at least the 1990s or early 2000s. But in our current digital, political moment, existential questions about the role of opinion journalism have taken on a new urgency. Some publications have stopped offering editorials. Others have doubled down but become more intensely local. Still others have opened up their editorial pages to more voices in new formats. The urgency about how to be relevant is intensified by financial pressures. And nearly all publications are looking closely at the importance that opinion journalism has to their most loyal readers and to members and subscribers.
These questions and experiments were at the forefront of discussions at “Reimagining Opinion Journalism,” an American Press Institute summit earlier this year. We gathered more than 50 leaders in opinion journalism and other experts in dialogue across divides, outside of news. The conversations looked at innovations in opinion content across the country, as well as lessons we can learn from other fields, like psychology and conflict resolution, about productive conversation. We explored what the present and future could look like for better dialogue facilitated by opinion sections.
As a follow-up, we want to continue the discussion about the future of opinion journalism in a way that will add more ideas and involve more people. We are beginning that effort by asking three people from that first gathering to share the new directions their organizations are taking in their opinion work. The resulting essays linked below represent a range of possibilities news organizations are exploring when it comes to the role of opinion journalism in today’s digital, polarized age. The essays are:
- “Why McClatchy opinion sections are speaking boldly.” In Kansas City, Colleen Nelson describes how McClatchy newspapers nationwide are leaning into their editorial voice and influence. McClatchy papers’ opinion writers are encouraged to break news and exercise a strong voice in timely matters of local debate. Opinion sections are important drivers of reader revenue for McClatchy properties and they are pouring more resources into the work.
- “How The Tennessean’s opinion section wants to combat polarization.” In Nashville, David Plazas describes how The Tennessean and USA Today Network: Tennessee put energy toward emphasizing civil discourse. Their “Civility Tennessee” campaign followed the 2016 election, creating in-person and digital spaces to facilitate exchange on local issues, with plans to continue again in 2020. At the same time some people have criticized the idea of civility, the newspaper has upheld it as a virtue it wants to model, defining it as a component of good citizenship.
- “Why the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel replaced opinion content with solutions journalism.” In Milwaukee, David Haynes describes how the Journal Sentinel has traded traditional opinion formats for a different way to support local debate. A newly formed “Ideas Lab” now exists in place of the editorial pages, filled with solutions journalism. Through this reporting that looks at responses to complex issues like housing and healthcare, plus additional engagement, the paper is fulfilling a purpose of opinion content but without the commentary.
These essays represent lessons from three different approaches. At the same time, they just skim the surface of what opinion sections should explore amid today’s polarization and online environment. There is still significant work to do in making many of these spaces inclusive and representative of the public. We invite others who are trying new approaches to be in touch. We hope more essays will follow, and that organically a body of new knowledge about the future of opinion journalism — as distinct from simply opinion and argument — may emerge.
If you’re interested in exploring with us how opinion sections can better support inclusive and productive discourse in today’s digital, polarized age, please sign up for updates about API’s opinion section efforts. If you have a topic or experiment you’d like us to consider for an essay in this series, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why McClatchy opinion sections are speaking boldly
When Raleigh News & Observer Associate Opinion Editor Ned Barnett and his boss, Peter St. Onge, were tipped off to a political dirty trick that was playing out at the state Capitol, they didn’t wait for the newsroom to publish a story.
While reporters rushed to contact sources and break the news, the opinion team jumped into action as well, confirming details and quickly beginning work on a scathing editorial decrying the Republican House Speaker’s secret plan to ram through a consequential veto override when most Democratic lawmakers were absent. By noon, Barnett and St. Onge, the North Carolina Opinion Editor for McClatchy, were ready to publish an editorial declaring that the Republican “connivers” in the legislature were “beyond shame.”
Reader interest in the news was peaking, and Barnett’s incisive and insightful commentary quickly caught fire online, eventually becoming Raleigh’s most-read editorial to date.
With their fast metabolism, strong news judgment and digital-first approach, St. Onge and Barnett highlighted how opinion journalism can and should attract more readership and drive digital subscriptions in our news organizations.
Now, with the announcement of a new initiative, McClatchy is making a bet on the value of high-quality opinion journalism and its essential role in attracting and retaining loyal readers. The company, which includes 30 news organizations, is creating a single opinion structure that will deliver high-impact, community-focused journalism and a better return on audience and digital subscription conversions.
Previously, opinion editors, opinion writers and local columnists had been scattered across McClatchy with a hodge-podge of reporting lines and an array of directives and strategies. Now, all opinion journalists in our newsrooms will work directly with and report up to me in my role as National Opinion Editor.
As we work to make better use of our collective opinion firepower, we’ll develop and implement best practices for opinion journalism and grow our audience by delivering editorials and columns that readers are willing to pay for.
This innovative effort will preserve and prioritize local opinion journalism while sharing our best ideas for reinvented editorial boards across the company. McClatchy opinion journalists will still regularly consult with their newsroom editors and will focus intensely on local and state issues, while providing readers with unique commentary they can’t find anywhere else.
Opinion journalists play an important role in our communities, and losing our news organizations’ editorial voices would leave a void in the cities that we cover. But McClatchy’s opinion initiative is not simply a high-minded mission. It’s also a carefully considered strategy.
Our expectation is that high-quality, locally focused opinion journalism will play a central role in our news organizations’ success. And my objective is to show that McClatchy’s commitment to opinion journalism will yield a significant return on this investment.
Of course, many other news organizations have cut or entirely eliminated their editorial boards, publishing stripped-down opinion pages that primarily consist of syndicated columns and a smattering of letters to the editor. Less-than-impressive audience numbers and concerns about controversial commentary turning off readers have made opinion journalists an endangered class in numerous newsrooms.
But in McClatchy, we’ve found that an updated approach to opinion writing — one that’s focused on original reporting, local commentary and timely editorials and columns — can attract more readers and help turn them into subscribers. Analytics also tell us that our current subscribers read staff-written opinion journalism in large numbers. So, we’ve implemented strategies that minimize the amount of time our opinion journalists spend on legacy print-focused tasks, allowing them to write more editorials and columns that make an impact.
I arrived in Kansas City two-and-a-half-years ago facing both a daunting and a thrilling challenge: Rebuild The Kansas City Star Editorial Board from the ground up. Tony Berg, who was The Star’s publisher, and Mike Fannin, the editor, launched what many viewed as a bold experiment, investing in more opinion journalists at a time when many editorial boards across the country were shrinking rapidly.
Their decision to zig when it seemed that everyone else was zagging has paid dividends. Readership for The Star’s opinion journalism has increased substantially, and our analytics tell us that opinion journalism is playing a significant role in converting readers into subscribers.
In Kansas City, we’ve hired opinion journalists with reporting chops who deliver editorials and columns that go far beyond commenting on already-reported news. Our team has made accountability journalism and original reporting central features of our work, advocating for transparency and good government while calling out bad actors in both political parties.
Kansas City Star Editorial Board members are digital creatures who shoot and edit video and focus on when their editorials and columns will publish online — not when or even if their work will see the light of newsprint. We’ve certainly made mistakes along the way, but we’ve learned from our failures (Hint: Editorials about holidays, anniversaries or any annual event that you’ve always covered and couldn’t possibly skip this year aren’t attracting any readers.) And we’ve approached analytics as a trove of information that can help us write better headlines, optimize our publishing schedule and understand our audience.
Now, as we expand these opinion efforts company-wide, our goal is to reimagine editorial boards across McClatchy, letting go of traditional print-focused “must-dos” and developing best practices for opinion journalists with a digital metabolism. The time when editorial writers could follow up on news stories a couple days later and just add the outrage or an “attaboy” is a distant memory.
Original reporting is an essential component of high-impact opinion journalism, as is unique content that readers can’t find elsewhere. Simply adding to the cacophony of Trump commentary in the digital universe isn’t a winning strategy for local news organizations.
With that in mind, our journalists will be focusing on several guiding principles aimed at growing readership for opinion journalism in McClatchy:
- Be aggressive: Break news in editorials and columns. Write strong “call to action” editorials. If the newsroom has already reported on an issue, find a way to advance the story or develop a new angle. Tell readers something they don’t know.
- Be timely: Move at the speed of news and ride the wave of reader interest and attention. Don’t write on a print schedule.
- Be local: Focus on issues that hit close to home for our audiences. Readers aren’t coming to The Kansas City Star Editorial Board for our thoughts on the State of the Union address. Our original reporting and commentary on corrupt local officials or misspent tax dollars or even the rooftop dog park that saw multiple pups fall to their deaths will attract more loyal readers — and have a bigger impact on public policy. (Sadly, the dog park tragedy is a true story.)
- Be experimental: Reach new audiences by trying different approaches that go beyond editorials, columns and letters to the editor that all fit neatly on the print page. Interview newsmakers on Facebook Live. Or shoot video of candidate endorsement interviews. Should you launch a podcast? Could community events generate revenue or new subscriptions? Experiment, fail fast and let go of what’s not working.
By building this McClatchy opinion team, we’re making a commitment to timely local opinion journalism with the clear expectation that this intense focus on proven, opinion-specific strategies will help convert more readers into subscribers. Stay tuned.
Colleen McCain Nelson is opinion editor at McClatchy and editorial page editor and vice president of the Kansas City Star. She can be reached by email at email@example.com. This essay is part of a body of work on reimagining opinion journalism.
How The Tennessean’s opinion section is working to combat polarization
For years, columnists and analysts have observed and lamented the growing polarity in American politics.
Too often, they act like bystanders, pointing out problems but rarely offering more than platitudes in response to societal woes.
We have talked about echo chambers, red and blue voters, and the effects of social media in exacerbating that divide.
However, we have not talked enough about how media industry leaders can and must offer solutions for better conversations that improve human relations and preserve our democratic principles.
The Tennessean Editorial Board has long touted “We stand for civility” as one of the four pillars of our mission. Until 2017, it merely served as window dressing.
It sounded nice and made sense, but there was no real substance behind it.
In late 2017, USA TODAY NETWORK Tennessee Editor Michael Anastasi challenged me, as opinion and engagement director for The Tennessean, to focus on a year-long project on civility.
My initial response was: “Does anybody really want civility today?”
After deep reflection, I accepted the challenge and began writing the strategy for the “Civility Tennessee” campaign.
We had seen success in past efforts on community listening and in convening the public on a variety of topics, from transit to affordable housing to public education. We envisioned the campaign as taking shape via public events and robust discussion forums on our social media platforms.
This became the purpose statement of the Civility Tennessee strategy: “‘We stand for civility’ is one of the four pillars of The Tennessean Editorial Board’s mission. This campaign seeks to put this mission into action by leading our audiences and the overall community to embrace civil discourse and pledge a commitment to civility.”
However, we also knew from the start that to do this effectively, we would have to accomplish two things:
- Work to redefine civility in a way that would appeal both to people who were tired of the toxicity in politics and also to those whose believed that civility is used as a means to silence dissent.
- Work with trusted partners in the community who would lend their brand equity to make sure this effort succeeded.
To the first point, we found inspiration in the roots of civility: the Latin word “civitas,” referring to the duties of the citizen.
Our aim was to show that we were not calling on people simply to be nice or polite. No, we were calling on them to be good citizens, who embraced, challenged and elevated their community.
We secured partners in Vanderbilt University, Lipscomb University, Belmont University and the Nashville Public Library for events both large and small that included author Q&As and discussions on topics such as voter turnout and Nashville’s proposed transit referendum.
Despite the challenges of social media, we knew we had to be present in that space and experiment with different types of conversations.
The closed “Civility Tennessee” Facebook group has become a laboratory for tough conversations on a variety of issues.
To date, while some disruptive voices have been encouraged to leave the group, we have not had to ban anyone. We believe that is because we do not admit anyone unless they answer these three questions in the affirmative:
- Do you want to join a group that pledges to be a place for respectful dialogue even on difficult issues?
- Are you committed to modeling civil behavior that will encourage these types of dialogue?
- Will you encourage others to model civil behavior to continue healthy conversations?
We have taken conversations from the social space into the real world, including a book club discussion of Jon Meacham’s “The Soul of America” at the public library, and a field trip to a school board meeting to emphasize that civic engagement is exceptionally effective and needed at the local level.
The group numbers 330 as of Oct. 18 and is slowly growing. We value quality of engagement over quantity of posts and followers.
Friendships from people on left and right have blossomed in that group and it has become a sounding board for sharing ideas and frustrations, as well as invitations to events.
Civility Tennessee was scheduled to end on Dec. 31, 2018, but the popularity of its events persuaded the editorial board to make it a continuous effort — one that is especially important as we enter the 2020 presidential election.
Note: The editorial board comprises Michael Anastasi, Tennessean Executive Editor Maria De Varenne and me.
Origins and events
The soft launch for Civility Tennessee happened shortly before Thanksgiving of 2017.
In a column titled “Is civility in America possible anymore?” I invited readers to submit ideas about how to solve polarity in America.
“We do not have to accept this divisive time as the ‘new normal,’ and I would challenge readers to write letters to the editor (maximum 150 words) to share your views on this question: ‘How can the United States become more civil?’” I wrote.
I promised to run the letters on Thanksgiving — the first Thanksgiving of the Trump administration —because “Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on what brings us together, and hopefully the advice readers provide will create some enlightening conversations at the dinner table.”
My column grabbed the attention of the NPR radio show “1A,” which invited me to speak about civil discourse with other guests on one of their episodes.
The reader response to my column was enormous and we dedicated an entire page to their ideas.
Three big themes emerged regarding civility:
- Challenge your own views.
- Don’t start unnecessary fights.
- Politicians need to model civility.
We then started laying the groundwork for events and articles over the next year.
Critical to the effort was not just publishing staff columns, but also inviting people to write guest columns and letters in The Tennessean on the subject of civil discourse, human-to-human engagement and the challenges of trying to be a good citizen amid the surge of white supremacy, mass shootings and other ills plaguing our society.
We reached out to local leaders of the nonprofit Better Angels, which unites red and blue voters in deep conversation. They gave us valuable insight into how they bring different people together for civil, productive conversations, and how they encourage them to keep the conversations going.
As I continued working on the strategy, we came to consensus on what our values would be:
- To encourage conversations that are civil and respectful, even if they are hard.
- To enhance civic participation in important conversations of the day.
- To help promote voter registration efforts.
- To increase news literacy and enhance trust of The Tennessean and sister publications.
Our official launch was on Jan. 12 with a column I wrote to introduce the effort titled “We are launching Civility Tennessee to restore faith in each other.”
Here is a list of highlights from 2018:
- On Jan. 30, we held our kickoff event hosted by former Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos. It was a conversation with Jim Brown, a Nashville-based author whose book “Ending our Uncivil Wars,” was published in 2017. Brown is also the lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Businesses and has been a conservative voice in state politics. We started this effort with him precisely because of the accusations of liberal bias we and other media organizations face.
- On Feb. 22, I hosted a live, interactive video interview with poet Stephanie Pruitt about how to start and continue conversations on race and racism. Pruitt is an African American community leader who has great experience using art to engage people on tough subjects.
- On March 28, Marcel Hernandez, executive director of Be About Change, spoke with me on live video about gun violence. We arranged this conversation because of the Parkland, Fla., mass shooting that had happened the month prior. Hernandez leads conversations with juvenile offenders and has experience talking about gun violence and gun politics with young people.
- On April 10, we organized a public debate on the controversial transit referendum in partnership with the Nashville Public Library and WSMV Channel 4 News. Evening Anchor Tracy Kornet and I moderated the debate between two gentlemen representing pro- and anti-transit plan views.
- Our most-watched live video of the year, which took place May 16, was about sexual assault. Rachel Freeman, president of the Sexual Assault Center, talked about why victims do not report abuse against them for a long time, and YWCA Vice President Shan Foster talked about his group’s AMEND Together program, which helps young men learn to identify and avoid “toxic masculinity” while developing respectful behaviors toward others, especially girls and women.
- On June 6, Tennessean staff members served as conversation facilitators at the Community Iftar, an event organized by the city’s Human Relations Board to engage the Muslim community during Ramadan. The focus of the event was civility and it was inspired by our Civility Tennessee work.
- On July 28, we hosted a book club meeting to discuss Jon Meacham’s “The Soul of America” at the Nashville Public Library. Fifty members spent a Saturday morning talking about ways to better our conversations in a discussion moderated by me and Lipscomb University faculty member Linda Peek Schact.
- On July 30, Hume-Fogg Magnet High Librarian Amanda Smithfield was my live video guest about how educators can help teach children to be civil. She has been a community champion for civil discourse, organizing monthly pizza luncheons where students are expected to be prepared to talk about community issues of the day.
- The largest Civility Tennessee event of the year occurred on Aug. 27 when we held a panel discussion on voter security, engagement and turnout at Lipscomb University with Secretary of State Tre Hargett, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, state Sen. Steve Dickerson and Shanna Hughey, president of ThinkTennessee. More than 500 people came to watch the discussion and ask questions. The event was broadcast live.
- On Oct. 23, we held a Q&A with author Keel Hunt at the Nashville Public Library on his latest book “Crossing the Aisle: How Bipartisanship Brought Tennessee to the Twenty-first Century and Could Save America.” Keel is a former journalist, aide to a former governor and community leader who showed how past examples of bipartisanship in the state made Tennessee stronger and economically resilient.
- The last official event of the year was a conversation on Dec. 10 with outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam on higher education. It became a test on civil discourse because at the end of his talk, students began protesting the event, demanding that Haslam grant clemency to convicted murderer Cyntoia Brown. Haslam explained his reasoning regarding the case and while the protests continued, we ended the event without any arrests or violence. He told me on his way out: “Democracy is messy.” A few weeks later, he announced that he had granted Brown clemency.
The year 2018 was also an election year. There were multiple city elections sparked by the resignation of former Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, who was involved in a sex scandal that cost taxpayers money.
Open gubernatorial and Senate seats encouraged The Tennessean along with statewide community partners to hold a series of forums and debates across Tennessee to inform people about the candidates and what they stood for. The locations ranged from the University of Memphis to Lane College in Jackson, Tenn., to Belmont University in Nashville.
The Tennessean Editorial Board also added a new question to its candidate survey: Will you pledge to be civil?
Civility Tennessee was not without controversy or its detractors.
The summer drama of former presidential spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders getting kicked out of a Lexington, Va., restaurant and the subsequent calls for civility convinced some that “civility” was nothing more than a euphemism for acquiescence.
I wrote a column titled “On civility: don’t be nice, be a good citizen.” That helped reframe for the editorial board and our readers what this campaign was all about.
The alternative weekly The Nashville Scene awarded us one of its annual “Boner Awards,” for the campaign. While their scathing description of our events and mission was not all accurate, the publicity helped elevate the work we had been doing.
2019 and beyond
Since we had not intended to continue Civility Tennessee into 2019, we had not organized an aggressive series of events like we did in the previous year.
However, we made it a point to spread the word about the campaign beyond Nashville.
We took the message to Franklin, Tenn., for discussions with local elected and business leaders; to the University of Tennessee’s Health Science Center in Memphis; and to Minneapolis to address mayors, business leaders and young professionals in six different venues on the value of reframing conversations at the invitation of the regional chamber of commerce and the local Urban Land Institute.
The trip to Memphis — where I had medical students work in small groups around tough topics in their world — encouraged me to write a column on civil discourse and vaccinations. Some of the students could not understand why some members of the public were rejecting the science of immunization and yet it showed that there was much work to be done in effectively informing the public and encouraging physicians to have better conversations with their patients.
For the second year in a row, we included a question about civility in candidate election questionnaires. All of the nearly 100 municipal election candidates who answered the survey said they would agree to be civil.
The principles of Civility Tennessee have helped guide our public forums, including an Oct. 19 town hall meeting that addressed inequities facing public school children.
The campaign received several recognitions in 2019. The USA TODAY NETWORK honored Civility Tennessee with the annual national Transformation Journalism Award and the On Point Purpose Award. We were a finalist for the News Leaders Association Burl Osborne Award for Editorial Leadership and placed first in the editorials and public service categories of the Tennessee Press Association Awards. Editor & Publisher named The Tennessean a finalist in the international EPPY Awards for best use of social media and crowdsourcing. (Note: The EPPY winners will be announced on Oct. 23.)
We are getting ready to amplify our Civility Tennessee efforts as we approach 2020. We recently connected the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office, which oversees elections, and a new statewide voter registration initiative called Vote Tennessee to work together on engaging voters through guest columns, virtual interviews and events.
Citizens can change the toxic discourse that pervades our society, but it requires work, dedication and discipline. As media leaders, we can use our power of convening and informing to help citizens on this journey. Our democracy needs us more than ever.
Why the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel replaced opinion content with solutions journalism
Like so many other great ideas, this one began over a beer.
It was the fall of 2017, and my editor George Stanley and I were in a cocktail lounge in Washington, D.C., during a break at that year’s ASNE convention.
Ten years of cutbacks in our newsroom had forced a reckoning: The last writer on our editorial board was about to retire during a buyout offer, and we couldn’t fill the job. A team of 11 was down to one — me.
We kicked around ideas. Should we recruit a team of volunteer writers from the community and double down on commentary? Should we try to get funding for an intern? Should we just kill the pages?
Finally, George asked, “What if we made you our solutions guy?”
He stumped me. At that point, I had no idea what he was talking about. But that comment sparked what became a pretty radical idea: We replaced opinion journalism at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel with solutions journalism.
We report on a range of local topics in what we call the Ideas Lab — from gerrymandering and needle exchange programs to teen suicide and reckless driving. But instead offering our opinions, we report on responses to social problems – looking for independent evidence that proves these ideas actually work.
Our news team had seen huge impact from adding reporting about best practices to major investigative stories. For example, a report on how much better Columbus, Ohio, was at finding safe, clean housing for people with severe mental illnesses led to improvements in Milwaukee that helped hundreds of people.
The evolution of our opinion pages began in December 2017, when we published our first solution-focused article, examining an idea to allow red-light cameras in Milwaukee. It culminated in February when we launched the Ideas Lab with a diverse new staff.
The Ideas Lab has two main roles to play in our newsroom: to inform the public through a solutions journalism framework and to engage with the public through a combination of online tools and in-person events.
Op-eds and political columns are gone. Editorials are rare. Though we reserve the right to use our editorial voice — on First Amendment and public right-to-know issues, or when minority rights are in jeopardy — we’ve written only three editorials in a year. We publish letters to the editor once a week in our Sunday print edition.
Otherwise, our pages focus on evaluating ideas to solve problems and adding context to the news.
In the past month, we’ve written about how bystander intervention programs are helping to reduce violence on Wisconsin’s college campuses; on how 30 years of deindustrialization crushed Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods; and on how protected bike lanes can develop a more robust cycling culture and make the streets safer for everyone — including motorists.
The early evidence is that readers like what they see.
We had very few complaints as we phased out traditional commentary. I didn’t hear from a single reader asking for more editorials.
We often do hear from readers who appreciate that we are turning an independent lens on pressing problems in the community.
Two additional promising metrics: Pages views are up and so is the time readers are spending with our work.
Opinions going unread and unheard
The evolution from commentary to solutions took time and a little budgetary creativity. But the biggest hurdle actually was not financial.
It was me.
After a decade as an opinion writer, I was biased. An editorial board was essential for leading community discussion, I believed. How could we give that up?
I had long thought that an opinion page was less about the specific arguments being made than it was about providing a space for people to convene and consider a range of arguments. That’s where the real learning could take place, I believed, in this marketplace of ideas.
But the more I looked at readership numbers, the more it became apparent that we didn’t have many shoppers in this marketplace any longer.
Editorials, letters to the editor, and especially op-eds from community experts were tanking. Our two political columnists, one writing from the left, the other from the right, were barely keeping their heads above water.
We had lost our readership. Or perhaps, we never had one in the first place. I still recall a former colleague years earlier explaining why I shouldn’t worry if it didn’t seem like many people were reading our page. “Our readership is small, but we get the opinion leaders,” he said.
But as readers headed for the exits, corralling “opinion leaders” alone wasn’t going to be enough. We were losing our impact in the community.
Why did opinion writing fail to attract an audience? I have a theory.
In Milwaukee and elsewhere, people are dug deep into their partisan bunkers. A Balkanization of media along partisan lines helps to make this possible — along with the heavy influence of social media. People can easily avoid hearing the “other side” if they don’t want to.
At the same time, commentary has become commoditized — and cheapened as a result. The airwaves have been flooded with opinions since the Fairness Doctrine ended. And think about your own Twitter feed: Much of what passes for commentary is actually just name-calling and hyper-partisanship — the polar opposite of what you’d call civil. The sheer volume of this white-hot commentary makes it difficult for thoughtful opinion writing to break through.
I also suspect some readers are worn out after the nonstop viciousness of partisan politics, which has only been magnified in the Trump era.
As we’ve cut costs in line with falling revenue, we’ve continually asked ourselves: What can we do for Wisconsin, of value to readers, that nobody else can do? When we’ve asked our community that question, opinion writing did not make the list.
Transitioning from opinions to ‘Ideas Lab’
So how does one transform a traditional opinion page into one focused on solutions journalism?
For us, the first stop was the Solutions Journalism Network. SJN already had come to our newsroom to talk about how journalists could do a better job of covering the “rest of the story.” I attended SJN’s Summit in the fall of 2017 and left with a better idea of how to build out a new approach to community engagement. (A plug: SJN’s website and its members are a fantastic resource even if you don’t want to go all-in as we have. Looking for story ideas? There are thousands of solutions articles in SJN’s searchable database and just as many journalists willing to help you figure it out.)
We started slowly, publishing a hybrid of traditional commentary and solutions stories to field-test the idea. By the fall of 2018, I was convinced. Solutions stories were consistently outperforming commentary, and I was getting good feedback from readers — including opinion leaders — who understood and supported our goal.
With the help of my editor, I was able to reallocate some dollars and start the process to bring a reporter on board. She started work on Dec. 31. A reorganization of the newsroom in February brought two more reporters to the Ideas Lab. We also collaborate with a fifth journalist who works out of our state network’s Appleton newsroom.
It’s still early in this experiment — we called it a “lab” for a reason — but what have we found so far?
First, readership is higher.
For the first three months of 2019, our page views per article were more than double what they were in 2018 when we were still publishing mostly traditional commentary. Overall, our traffic was up by a third even though we produced a third as many stories. That trend has continued.
Time on page is generally high for these stories, usually about double what we were seeing with commentary. And solutions stories have a long shelf life — they can be recycled multiple times with minimal fresh reporting when major breaking news brings the issue back into the spotlight and offers more teachable moments. One example: We wrote about a nonpartisan solution to gerrymandering in January of 2018 to preview a major U.S. Supreme Court case. In June, after the case was decided, we published a new version of that story with only a small bit of editing and fact-checking needed.
Using solutions reporting to build trust
Beyond our reporting, we’re focused on building trust in an era with precious little of it.
We try to do that by having an ongoing discussion with the public and being as transparent as possible:
- We have a Facebook group — now 600 members strong — where we can road test ideas, share content and explain why and how we do what we do.
- We publish a “recipe” at the end of each of our longer stories explaining who we spoke with and why we did the story.
- We use Screen Door, an online module, that allows us to ask questions of readers.
- We had our writers craft mission statements, a short version of which we publish with their stories.
- We spend a lot of time out in the community just listening.
Our goal of building trust is also reflected in the partnerships we’ve formed with trusted organizations around town — with public radio and public TV, for example, and the two major research universities.
Along with Milwaukee PBS, Ideas Lab reporter Rory Linnane produced a half-hour documentary on youth mental health earlier this year. It was screened around the state, then made available free of charge to schools along with an online toolkit educators can use to develop lesson plans. We’ve given away several hundred DVDs so far.
We’ve also launched a yearlong project to listen more intently to the needs of impoverished neighborhoods. We want to learn more about the information needs of the people who live in these news deserts and then develop a thoughtful response to what we hear. We’re working with the local public radio station on this project.
With everything we do, we try to focus first on producing rigorous, helpful journalism that convenes the public around issues they tell us matter most to them.
And that mission isn’t so different from what we aimed to do in the past with our opinion pages.
We just focus on the solutions, not the opinions.
David Haynes is the editorial page editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and editor of Ideas Lab. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. This essay is part of a body of work on reimagining opinion journalism.