Local news can help communities curb polarization; a researcher and nonprofit news founder share how.

On Wednesday, October 12, we kicked off our event series on the impact of local news with a virtual panel moderated by Marsha Cooke, vice president of ESPN Films and executive producer of 30 for 30. Cooke sat down with Joshua Darr, associate dean for research and strategic initiatives at Louisiana State University, and Ramona Giwargis, co-founder and CEO of the San José Spotlight, an American Journalism Project grantee, to talk about how local news can help curb polarization.

Darr shared findings from his research on the impact in communities where local news outlets have shut down, revealing that these communities exhibited increased polarization in a number of ways — both in single-party voting patterns and social attitudes toward those with different political views.

Local news can mitigate these divides, and Darr shared an example demonstrating just that. In their book, Home Style OpinionDarr, Johanna Dunaway, and Matthew P. Hitt looked at what happened when the Desert Sun, an outlet covering Southern California’s Palm Springs and Coachella Valley, dropped national political commentary from its opinion page. During the three-month period they studied, the commentary page became a place for locally relevant topics, like art, architecture, local sports and historical preservation. Darr and his team compared the Desert Sun’s readership with a similar group of readers at another local outlet in the state, and found that the removal of national politics for Sun readers contributed to less polarized attitudes.


Darr and his team found that the removal of national politics for Sun readers contributed to less polarized attitudes.

Giwargis’s team at the San José Spotlight is well-aware that a local focus brings more fruitful civic discourse. The nonprofit newsroom launched with a vision to fill the gap in local politics coverage, knowing that their audience would need this information more than they’d need national politics reporting. Their coverage prioritizes local issues like traffic, neighborhoods and schools — and when they tackle national issues, it’s with a local lens; Giwargis shared that researchers engaged more with hyperlocal stories, and readers were able to focus more on the issues themselves than the party affiliations of the candidates.

These on-the-ground snapshots offered helpful grounding for this timely conversation. Here are some of the other key takeaways we heard.

  • Readers engage with content that’s close-to-home
    Readers found common ground in conversations rooted in their communities, and gravitated toward content that connected to their families, neighborhoods and social and economic wellbeing. At the Desert Sun, the opinion page became a place for rich discussion on important local issues. In a local political context, San José Spotlight readers were more interested in how political candidates would address the issues that matter most to them at home than their political parties.
  • Local news makes the case for civic participation
    San José Spotlight serves a diverse community that includes groups who have been traditionally overlooked in civic engagement efforts. Giwargis shared how her reporters are tireless in their efforts to ensure candidates’ positions and records are well-documented and highly accessible to readers (including non-English speakers), and how ensuring election coverage captures the issues readers care about the most demonstrates to readers what’s at stake each election season, and why voting matters.
  • Local news peels back the curtain
    San José Spotlight is tackling both polarization and voter disengagement in its thorough local politics coverage. Through its reporting and candidate forums, readers have straightforward access to candidates’ positions on major issues, along with their voting and spending records. The newsroom also ensures readers know how to participate in the political process, not just by voting, but through actions like submitting public comments and attending local council meetings.
  • Darr’s findings offer a roadmap: more local news can strengthen civic participation
    Darr shared hopes that these stories inspire continued investment in advancing local news; his team’s findings offer a powerful opportunity to strengthen our democracy by offering communities across the country a more productive way to engage with the political process. Giwargis echoed the need for sustained investment, and shared San José Spotlight’s vision for continuing to use local news to advance civic engagement, noting that the rise of nonprofit news is a promising sign of more innovation and investment in the sector.

We hope you’ll join us as we continue holding conversations with leading researchers and local news practitioners to discuss the importance and value of local news. Our next sessions will cover topics of civic engagement, representation and government accountability. Learn more and register to join us here.

Photo (top) by Christina on Unsplash