Two recent conversations — one angry, the other not — have been banging off each other inside my head.
An angry reader wanted to know why in Hades (he didn't speak Greek, by the way) we keep running stories stating it was supporters of former President Donald Trump who were involved in the Capitol attack. He insisted it was antifa. He accused the media of lying to him.
The whole time I'm listening to him, I'm thinking: He's not angry at us for lying to him; he's angry at us for not lying to him.
Nothing I said made a difference. He then moved on to blaming the media for the deep divisions that exist in our country.
That led me to a second conversation, with Joshua Darr, who teaches politics and communication at Louisiana State University. He's an expert on partisan polarization and local news and lead author of a study titled "Newspaper Closures Polarize Voting Behavior," which appeared in 2018 in the Journal of Communication.
The study concluded that it's actually the decline and closing of newspapers that contribute to increased polarization and partisan identity. I wanted to know a little more.
Darr said it has to do with the evolution and proliferation of national cable news channels, the internet and social media, which readers turn to more often and rely on more heavily when a community loses its newspaper.
"Many of these new entrants to the market tend to be more extreme, partisan and polarizing than news of the past, with important consequences for voters," Darr and his co-authors wrote in the study.
I was reminded of the rebuke Ted Koppel gave to Bill O'Reilly when Koppel said national news has gone from being "objective and dull" to "subjective and entertaining." Cable news and social media regularly frame news as sport, adversarial, even combat between the two parties, otherwise it's not entertaining and, ultimately, not as profitable. As part of that, events get interpreted and reported through an ideological lens, with the worst of these media putting ideology before facts.
The result was my angry antifa caller.
Into this widening spectrum of national cable and internet news, from far right to far left, viewers naturally settle into that place on the spectrum that supports the narrative they want to hear.
"It sort of reinforces your partisan identity," Darr told me.
Evidence for increasing partisanship after a community loses its newspaper is found in voting patterns. According to the study: "We identify a significant effect in voting patterns in matched communities that have and have not experienced the closure of a local newspaper: Communities with newspaper closures have lower rates of split-ticket voting in presidential and senatorial elections."
That's due in part to the fact that without local newspapers, voters grow more partisan because of that increased reliance on national and increasingly partisan news sources. But they are also less informed about local and state candidates and issues, so they default to the candidate's political label either as a Republican or Democrat to make decisions down ballot. (Another study found that as people are less informed about local issues and local candidates, they simply stop down-ballot voting.)
But with a community newspaper, even though you won't find alternative facts, there is the option of an alternative identity.
Darr pointed out that community newspapers reinforce community identity, which transcends partisanship.
You read a local newspaper story and discover that the guy flying the Trump flag from his pickup is also the volunteer cleaning up baseball fields where your son, who dreams of being the next Hank Aaron, would spend every waking hour if you let him.
You read a local newspaper story and learn that the person with the Bernie Sanders bumper sticker is also the same person who leads local cancer fundraisers, which have benefited her mom — and yours. You read the local obituaries and realize that the person who sits in the pew next to you in church, whom you knew little about beyond his Trump face mask, just lost a loved one to a horrible disease, something you know a bit about.
You realize by reading the paper that the guy at the rally for President Joe Biden also runs a small business, just as you do, and supports, just as you do, a new community investment program that will help both your businesses.
Community newspapers help readers understand that their communities are complex, multidimensional and, above all, connected. Suddenly it's less about being a conservative or a liberal and more about being a resident of Joplin.
"Local news helps reinforce a local identity that cuts across partisanship," Darr told me.
As I write this (on Thursday morning), I counted 112 local stories in the paper over the past week that were about your community, your schools, your businesses, your teams, your churches, your elected leaders. That's 112 times in one week that we offered an antidote to polarization by reinforcing connections that build that alternative identify among us — that of community.
We may be conservatives, liberals and moderates, but we are first and foremost neighbors.
To be a community, we need community newspapers.
Andy Ostmeyer is the editor of The Joplin Globe. His email is email@example.com.