Numlock Sunday: Joshua Darr on the great Palm Springs opinion page experiment
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to Joshua Darr, professor of political communication at Louisiana State University and an author of the new book Home Style Opinion: How Local Newspapers Can Slow Polarization. Here's what I wrote about it:
The Desert Sun, a local newspaper serving Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley, launched a fascinating project on their opinion page in June 2019 by dropping national politics from the opinion section and asking readers to contribute opinions about local issues. A new study comparing that paper to a similar paper, the Ventura County Star, which did not drop national politics, found reverberations across the community. While dropping national politics didn’t stop polarization in the community, it did slow it. Further, in the month before the experiment less than a half of the op-eds and letters to the editor were about California issues, but in July that rose to 95 percent. Readers also really enjoyed it: online readership of op-eds doubled that July.
The book is about a fascinating, once-in-a-lifetime natural experiment that has broad reverberations across the news industry and the world of American politics. Darr has spent his career exploring the impact that what we read in local news has on how we vote. In the summer of 2019, he and his colleagues heard about a fascinating experiment going on at The Desert Sun, and sprung into action to find out what happens when a local newspaper ignores national opinions. It’s a very cool story that gets to the heart of what local news offers, and also why it’s in danger.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
You wrote a really fun book all about how opinion journalism reflects the communities that it’s happening in. Do you want to get into what the experiment that you tracked with The Desert Sun was?
In June of 2019, my co-author Johanna Dunaway — I wrote this with her and Matt Hitt of Colorado State, she's at Texas A&M — got a Google alert that somebody mentioned our names. It turned out that it was the executive editor of The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, who was referencing a previous paper we'd written about when a local newspaper closes, polarization in that area goes up. We theorized that it was because people were reading more national news. She said, "Well, we have national stuff on our opinion page. So, why don't we just drop that?" So, they decided to drop all their national opinion content for a month. We were able to track that, and write this book, about not only how the content of that page changed and how local issues filled the void, but also how it changed the attitudes of people in that area. It was a really cool process.
Let's actually just take a step back a little bit and talk about what you research. You mentioned an earlier study that you had done, focusing on what happens after local news dies out. Can you tell me a little bit about your research?
I'm interested in local news, and what role that plays in people's political awareness and political opinions, particularly, because it's in such dire straits right now. It can't be overstated, the decline in local news that was already happening and then was accelerated by the COVID pandemic. That paper looked at areas where local newspapers closed and split-ticket voting, whether you were likely to vote for a Democrat at one level and a Republican at another. We found that in areas where a local newspaper closed, there were significantly less split-ticket voting, about 1.9 percent less. People were just voting straight party, up and down. That was, we thought, interesting. We weren't sure actually where to go next with the research agenda, but this experiment just sort of fell into our laps. We were very excited to be able to test what's basically the other side of that previous paper, which is, not just what happens when local news goes away, but what happens when it actually gets more local, when it actually strengthens in some ways, by providing more local stuff to people. Is that better?
It's such a cool experiment design that, as you just kind of mentioned, seemed to fall into your lap. You guys really swept in quickly and managed to do some very cool stuff with it. Can you tell me a little bit about kind of how the experiment was carried out and what you were able to monitor?
Sure. I have to give many thanks to the LSU Institutional Review Board for being very quick to approve this — you've got to get IRB approval before any sort of survey or experiment like this. Because we found out about it on June 8, 2019, and the experiment started on July 1. We had to get the surveys written and fielded with enough time to get the full 500 person sample before July began, and we just did get that done. That was very nice, we were very happy about that. As a political scientist, which we all are, you're trained to keep a very close eye out for natural experiments in the world, and this immediately struck us as one. It's the kind of thing where you just drop everything and get right to work on making sure you can measure something like this that's very cool.
The basic design of the experiment was we surveyed people in Palm Springs in the zip codes where The Desert Sun circulated. Then we also surveyed people in Ventura, which is on the other side of LA, and is also served by a Gannett newspaper, the Ventura County Star. They didn't change at all in July. It's basically what we call a difference in differences model, where one area changed something, the other area didn't, and then we can compare how the attitudes in those areas changed over the course of July.
That's really interesting. What precisely did this opinion page do?
They dropped anything national politics, which meant dropping their national syndicated columnists, which were previously a pretty good chunk of their opinion page, one or two syndicated columns a day. Anything that mentioned President Trump, so that was quite a few letters, as you might imagine. People were writing in about Trump, and then those didn't get published in July. They warned people, but those didn't get published in July. And editorial cartoons, none of those either, about national politics. It was just California and the Coachella Valley around Palm Springs for the entire month. That meant more work for the opinion editor, quite frankly, because he had to be finding content to fill the pages, which meant soliciting the community. Whenever you have people that are writing in for the first time, that means you have to edit their work because they're not used to writing for newspapers. It was a good amount more work for the opinion editor at the time, but I think they were all glad they did it.
You write about how there was a pretty considerable shift in the actual content, that something like 95 percent of it became California-focused.
Before that we didn't really know what to expect in terms of either what the experiment would change or what they did before that. It turned out that, and I don't think this is unique to them, around half of the opinion page before that was focused on California state and local topics. There was quite a bit of other stuff and national politics. So, it went from 40 percent to right up around 95 percent, as you mentioned. It was at least a doubling of the amount of local content that was there. It was a very strong treatment as we would say, methodologically. Of course, the fact that Trump mentions dropped to zero was another part of that treatment, from about one third of all pieces to about zero.
What moved into its place?
This is, I think, where it gets to the uniqueness of Palm Springs, which is not your average community. It's got a large LGBTQ+ community. It's very interested in art and in architecture. Obviously in California, as a place where many people retire, they're very concerned with traffic and transportation. So, the letters to the editor about architectural preservation in particular went way through the roof. Over a quarter of all the letters to the editor in July were about preserving various architectural sites around the city. About another quarter was about the AHL minor league hockey affiliate of the Seattle Kraken, the new team that starting next year is going to be in Palm Springs. There were quite a few letters after that was announced saying, “is this going to increase our traffic because there's going to be a hockey arena downtown?” So, these were intensely local concerns. Not every community would experience a spike in arts and culture letters and in transportation, traffic letters, but that is what happened in Palm Springs.
That's very cool. You also wrote about a little bit about how they also didn't see a drop off really in readership when it came to this shift.
No, the opposite, actually. The online readership of opinion content that they tracked actually almost doubled in July. People were reading the stuff that came with the local opinion content. When you get local op-eds, they're not really from journalists, they're mostly from people writing in, whether it's business leaders or elected officials or people that are in charge of these local groups. For example, the architectural preservation groups that are around town, and so they're hearing from their neighbors. It de-professionalizes the newspaper and makes it more accessible, and readership went up.
It's interesting as well, because it does make sense. Many, many folks are interested in national politics, but there's lots of folks in this country who are just kind of disengaged at the national level. I imagine in a state like California, which is fairly reliably one way or another during presidential elections, it's much the same way. But everybody's got an opinion about that new traffic light!
I think it accentuates the value that local news provides in the marketplace, which is, you can get national opinion content literally anywhere all the time. You can't get those local perspectives on local issues. You get a sense of how complex some of these things are and the local ins and outs of it. The hockey arena is being built next to the Native American casino of the Agua Caliente tribe there in Palm Springs. So, you have just that one example of something that's like, oh it's Californians complaining about traffic. Well, really it gets into all of these community relationships with the Native American tribe and with ‘what does the downtown mean in an area that's kind of spread out, and around the whole Coachella Valley.’ You get a real sense of the ins and outs and the complexities of a community by reading the letters to the editor and the op-eds for three months and coding them as I did.
You weren't kidding, you were really into the Palm Springs community.
Yeah, in a way I was. I've actually not been there.
Yeah! We were supposed to go in March 2020, which as you may have heard didn't work out for anybody to do anything. We had it all worked out. We were going to present our findings at a conference in San Diego and drive up to Palm Springs. So, now not only did I not get to take that trip, but I've written a book about a place I've never been. But I have read so much of their newspaper that I do feel like I've been there.
You have a favorite columnist and everything?
Yeah, I can talk about the newspaper like a local, no question.
What was going on over in the control group?
Over in Ventura? Well, that's the thing. They didn't change. So, whatever was going on there kept going on, which meant these national opinion columnists. It meant E.J. Dionne and Marc Thiessen and just people that are sort of either pro- or con- the administration. And you're just getting a lot of that national argumentation. And this was July 2019, so there was a lot of commentary about the very first Democratic presidential debates. There was a lot of talk about what are the Democrats doing, and can they beat Trump, and what's going on with immigration? And so it was very noticeable when that went away in Palm Springs. But in Ventura, it didn't. So, they just kept getting that same dosage of national conflict.
You ran a second survey then, is that right?
Yeah, we ran the first survey at the end of June, to try to end it before the treatment started in July. Then at the end of July into early August, we did the second wave and it was about 500 people in each city in each wave. So, I'll also thank LSU for helping to pay for that.
That's a very large city-level survey. That's cool.
It is, yeah. We worked with Qualtrics on that and they were very helpful in getting us the samples we needed. But, yeah, LSU, Texas A&M, University of Texas — we had a lot of help and we were very grateful for that. But you needed that size sample to detect these changes, and, like I said, when you see a natural experiment you drop everything and go for it.
What were some of the changes that you noticed?
We wanted to check into the effect of polarization here. We weren't really able to measure something that specific in the previous article, which was just split-ticket voting, but the effect of polarization is this idea that members of the two parties just don't like each other, and they rate the other side as more negative.
In the content in previous months, it had been about 25 percent of pieces on the opinion page mentioned either the Democratic or the Republican party, in July that dropped to only one in 10. So, they just weren't talking about the parties as much, not even national politics, but just the parties at all. Maybe that's because California is kind of a one-party state, but either way there was just less of it. So did that affect the way people saw the other side? We were really interested in that. We were able to measure that before and after. And those are obviously pretty deeply held beliefs, how you feel about the other side. We measured it on what they call a feeling thermometer where you just say rate the other side from zero to 100. We found that there were differences between the communities after July.
Among the kind of people that we might expect to be most attuned to this — the people who prefer to read the local newspaper, people who know more about politics, people who are more engaged in politics in Palm Springs — polarization slowed down for them. So, it didn't decrease, which we sort of expected. These are very, like I said, deeply held opinions and beliefs, but they did slow down relative to Ventura. Trump was holding rallies that were controversial, there was a Democratic primary going on, there was a lot happening in national politics. When Ventura kept getting that, polarization went up. It went up a little bit among those groups in Palm Springs, but not nearly as much, and so there was a statistically significant difference there. It slowed it down, and over the course of a month, when you only change two pages in a newspaper on a given day, we thought that was still a pretty powerful effect.
It is interesting because you mentioned a lot of the issues moved to development. It is interesting to remind folks that there are polarizations in the world that are not simply left and right. Like NIMBY versus YIMBY and that kind of thing. And reminding that Democratic NIMBYs and Republican NIMBYs have things in common at times. It does seem interesting to kind of illustrate that you wouldn't necessarily change your entire worldview about that, but that might change exactly how strongly that is.
No, I think so. And when you're talking about local news, you're emphasizing a different identity than if you're talking about party politics. If you lead with party politics, you're going to get people thinking like Democrats and Republicans. But if you lead with local news and local opinion and local concerns, like we found they did in July of 2019, you emphasize that local identity. We're both residents of the same area, we are both going to be affected by the traffic from this new arena, we both want to see this architectural landmark preserved. And it's a cross cutting identity in that parties, like you say Democrats and Republicans both, can both have that same identity. So, we draw on Lilliana Mason's work, she's a political scientist at the University of Maryland, for that concept. But when you emphasize local, you cut across party.
Have they repeated the experiment since, or have you seen any interest in this kind of thing moving beyond this one wonderful summer in beautiful Palm Springs?
The Trump-free July that Palm Springs had, no, they have not repeated it actually. Their experience is kind of a microcosm of what's happening in opinion journalism right now, which is that actually in late 2020 the opinion editor that ran this month-long experiment, took the buyout that was offered by Gannett, and so he's gone. Which was too bad because the fact that he'd been working for the newspaper for over 20 years, the fact that they had him was a major reason that they were able to do this thing. When you take a buyout, that position is gone. So, actually what the community did was start a nonprofit organization that allowed them to raise money to rehire a new opinion editor.
The community decided, ‘we think this is a valuable thing that we need to have.’ And the executive editor, Julie Makinen, led that charge and the community responded. They were able to just, I think in the last couple of weeks, hire a new opinion editor. You do need somebody on staff that can edit and solicit from the community and be in charge of something like this if you're going to do that. That's just sort of a luxury in most of these places now for local newspapers. If you can still have an opinion editor, you're doing all right, and so the strong get stronger here. If local newspapers invest in opinion journalism, they might be able to reap some of the rewards of doing something like this, but if they can't afford an opinion editor, which again, given the steep declines during the COVID era for local newspapers, they're just going to end up taking the cheaper content, which is national for the most part.
Where do you see taking this kind of research moving forward? Clearly you have a really interesting result here, but what else interests you in the local news space or just the news space in general?
Well, there's just so much happening. There's these bills in front of Congress right now about collective bargaining between local newspapers with Facebook and Google. There's just a lot of philanthropy in this space and these new nonprofit, local news organizations that are starting up, or state level news organizations. We actually found one of the important things in this study is California has a nonprofit service called CalMatters that produces state level columns and solicits op-eds about state politics and The Desert Sun really leaned on that organization’s work in July. They took far more columns from CalMatters. In states that don't have that, it would be a lot harder to do something like this.
So, we're interested in that nonprofit news space. We'd love to measure an area where philanthropists were investing in supporting nonprofit news, like starting a new newspaper or a newsletter in an area. Not just what happens if we change an existing source, but what happens if we start something new, do people latch onto that, is that something that could have similar effects? Because fundamentally local news is in a difficult spot right now, and if we're going to advocate for it, if we're going to think that it can have these kinds of good civic effects, we need some hard evidence to back that up. So, I think measuring experiments like this is part of that solution, and we'd like to be a part of that.
Excellent. That's very, very cool. Where can folks find you and where can folks find your work?
I'm on Twitter @JoshuaDarr, and joshuadarr.com is my website. And I'm here at LSU.
Sweet. You got a local newspaper that you like?
Oh yeah, The Advocate. It's actually sort of weird, they're now the dominant newspaper in the state. New Orleans is the bigger city, but The Advocate now is headquartered in Baton Rouge, but there's a New Orleans Advocate, they sort of took over that area. So, we actually have pretty good state politics coverage. And I will put in a plug for LSU, we send students to the capitol building to do real state capitol news reporting, and they often will get their stories placed in newspapers across the state. I think they placed something like 400 stories last year. So, we're doing our part here at LSU.
That's great. That's good stuff. I like the Queens Daily Eagle. There's a lot of really great stuff out there.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.