American Press Institute Editor’s Note: The American Press Institute is exploring how news organizations are reimagining opinion journalism to support constructive conversations in their communities.
By Julie Hart
Our small, community newspaper in rural New Hampshire has always stuck to its philosophy of printing as many letters to the editor from readers as possible. Ed Engler, one of the Laconia Daily Sun’s founders, first editor, and former mayor of the city, prided himself on publishing almost every letter he’s received over the 20-year history of the paper.
However, during the Jewish holiday of Passover last year, we received a letter to the editor that denied the Holocaust ever happened.
Worse yet, the writer of the letter wasn’t a new name to us, nor around the state. He had publicly announced his intent to run for public office, a factor that we weighed heavily in our discussion on whether to publish his letter. The decision wasn’t arrived at lightly, but our philosophy remained front and center. We printed it.
Our commitment to publishing as many letters to the editor as possible was no longer advancing a healthy dialogue among readers, if it ever had.“”
Outrage and disappointment followed, at us and at the fact that someone held these views and wanted to share them with others. It was painful evidence that Engler’s commitment to publishing as many letters as possible was no longer advancing a healthy dialogue among readers, if it ever had.
The letter hadn’t, unfortunately, come out of the blue. It was an example, albeit extreme, of the increase in animosity we were seeing in submissions to the opinion pages. In our increasingly divided community, we had to take a hard look at how we could become part of the solution.
The nonprofit Endowment for Health reached out around the same time to explore how underwritten coverage might support the Sun’s newsroom. For several months, they explored mutual goals with the paper and found common ground on the topic of civil discourse and social determinants of health. The Endowment was particularly interested in addressing issues of bias and intolerance. It had heard about the controversial letter, and approached us with a grant opportunity to explore how civil discourse impacted community health. We applied for and were awarded the grant, which would introduce solutions journalism into our reporting. The grant allowed us to hire a new reporter whose sole focus would be reporting not only on the critical issues facing our community, but how other communities or even groups within ours were addressing them and offering solutions.
The grant connected us with another partner, the Solutions Journalism Network, which trained us in the method and practices of solutions journalism. SJN has also been developing a method known as “Complicating the Narratives,” which helps people have richer, more nuanced conversations across partisan and ideological divides. The method involves a technique called looping, developed by the Center for Understanding in Conflict. Looping helps people re-state what they’re hearing from a partner in conversation to demonstrate active listening and objectively capturing information, regardless of whether or not they agree. Reporters, long used to asking questions and then sitting back to absorb responses, were learning how to be more actively engaged during interviews to get clarity and make sure their sources felt heard, and accurately portrayed.
This technique resonated with Managing Editor Roger Carroll, who had long wanted to promote more meaningful discourse in our opinion pages than the back-and-forth bickering that was usually found on a typical day, or the amplification of harmful conspiracy theories or other false narratives.
We’d heard about a productive meeting of two regular contributors to the letters to the editor pages, Bruce Jenkett and Eric Herr, who are on opposing sides of the political aisle. The pair sat down over lunch one day to hear each other out, then co-wrote a letter sharing what they found when they focused on listening, instead of trying to change the other’s mind. Encouraged by the civility we’d seen when the writers came out from behind their names on a page and had a discussion face-to-face, we modeled an event after their lunch meeting. Our editorial staff invited some of our frequent letters to the editor contributors to a virtual roundtable discussion in May. (A couple of our more strident regulars declined our invitation.)
We explored questions like “What’s the issue you’re walking in with today that means a lot to you?” and “Why do you write letters for The Laconia Daily Sun?” … The pairs were challenged to listen, withholding judgement, until they could offer their summary of what they heard, focusing on understanding the other person’s perspective.“”
The virtual event, co-hosted by the Daily Sun and SJN staff, explained and demonstrated the practice of looping to a group of five opinion contributors, including Bruce and Eric. The group explored questions like “What’s the issue you’re walking in with today that means a lot to you? How is the current pandemic impacting that issue?” and “Why do you write letters for The Laconia Daily Sun? How do you decide what you want to write about?” Each writer was paired with someone with whom they don’t usually agree, and didn’t know well. SJN led a discussion around what hinders us from listening, and the power and value of listening to truly understand another’s perspective and learn from them, even when disagreeing with their viewpoint. The pairs were then challenged to listen, withholding judgement, until they could offer their summary of what they heard, focusing on understanding the other person’s perspective. The group told us they learned a lot, and saw how these tactics could aid them in communicating more constructively in their contributed content.
This was a promising start. These five were invested, but the outreach to the rest of our passionate contributors was slow going. Convening that group was our first try at hosting an event, and we knew we had some work to do internally before we could hold another at a larger scale. We continued to re-evaluate our opinion pages, establishing guidelines around length, topic and frequency of contributions that are meant to focus the content on issues of public interest instead of personal attacks on other writers. We published a policy that encouraged contributors to write in the third person, rather than take personal potshots in the second person, as too often happened.
It’s easy for writers to hide behind their words on the page, and write things they likely wouldn’t say in person. It’s just as easy to hide behind the screen on social media, as we often see with comments on our own pages, and as demonstrated by two political candidates facing off in a local election last year.
New Hampshire House candidates Mike Bordes and Carlos Cardona went head to head on Twitter, after Cardona tweeted his frustration with campaigning as a Latino man, and Bordes questioned his mental health.
Bordes, who quickly realized he had typed too hastily, reached out to Cardona to bury the hatchet over a cup of coffee. We reported on and celebrated the unfolding of this tale in our pages as another example of the importance of hearing out the other side and finding mutual respect.
Tensions continued to rise throughout the summer due to the coronavirus pandemic and the upcoming presidential election. The Lakes Region community, whose industry relies heavily on tourism, was struggling despite good weather.
While Engler was serving in the mayor’s office, the Daily Sun did not publish editorials, giving a wide berth to anything that could be construed as politically motivated. Once Engler’s term was over, however, Managing Editor Roger Carroll started writing. His commentary focused on community topics meant to unite people around shared problems: the financial woes of the local hospital, the lack of city council campaign finance transparency, and internal investigations of the county sheriff’s office.
The remaining component of the editorial pages was a syndicated political cartoon. Engler, who continued to edit the opinion pages until he stepped back to take care of his health just recently, was always sure to alternate between the two sides of the political spectrum. This was set up to make sure if one group was disgruntled with cartoon content on Tuesday, they would be smiling by Friday.
In August, however, one cartoon in particular hit a nerve. It came from Mike Luckovich, based at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The cartoon showed three children on the floor in a school classroom. On the blackboard were the words “Active Shooter Drill,” and a child of color hiding under a table is saying, “This feels like preparing for a cop to show up.”
Our area was experiencing our own Black Lives Matter movement, as the small population of color spoke of their experiences navigating life in a largely homogenous community. After angry phone calls, advertisers canceling their marketing campaigns, a slew of Facebook comments and calls to boycott, Carroll penned an editorial owning up to our mistake.
We’ve now cancelled all political cartoons, from either side, and are reserving that space for a bigger and better idea. Thought-provoking Facebook comments? Guest columns from local elected officials, civic and business leaders, aiming to bring people together? A point-counterpoint space where two writers model a mutual-respect approach where they agree to disagree?
We are also working to improve the quality of civil discourse with a series of panel discussions addressing divisive local issues. Our goal is to model the importance of listening and understanding others’ perspectives and finding ways to rebuild a healthy dialogue with those whom we disagree.
Consider ways to model constructive dialogue between groups in your community. Maybe that means changing your editorial submission guidelines, offering training in looping, or dedicating your opinion section to local issues and reducing national political content.“”
For other small papers considering changing the format of their opinion pages, consider ways to model constructive dialogue between groups in your community. Maybe that means changing your editorial submission guidelines, offering training in looping, or dedicating your opinion section to local issues and reducing national political content.
We do still see value in printing letters to the editor. The changes we’ve made have created space for new voices to share their thoughts, and we value the space we’re fostering to let different viewpoints be heard. We prefer this to members of our community opting instead to interact only with people who are happy to agree with them. The open forum allows people to come together across divisions, and while we know they won’t agree, at least they’re exposed to different perspectives.
We see how far we’ve come, and yet acknowledge that we still have more work to do. But the past year has brought an underlying goal into clearer focus: to be a place where our communities might turn in their search for solutions to issues that polarize our region.
Julie Hart is the digital editor for The Laconia Daily Sun, strengthening the company’s web presence and creating opportunities for engagement with readers and the community. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was published on February 1 at AmericanPressInstitute. Check out the article there for other helpful information about this and related issues.