What if the mainstream media was part of the solution?
That was a soul-searching question asked by Adam Hirshan and Julie Hirshan Hart, the publisher and digital editor, respectively, of The Laconia Daily Sun. Nestled in New Hampshire’s Lake Region, the free daily newspaper has a print circulation of 18,000. Its e-Edition boasts more than 1.5 million page views.
“We believe everyone should have access to the news and all of the information they need,” Julie said. “We are the only print, daily newspaper in our area. We are relied upon by people to get their news.”
A hallmark of The Laconia Daily Sun is its practice, dating back to its founding 20 years ago, of publishing almost every letter to the editor it received.
“We have increasingly been attempting to foster an environment where people feel comfortable sharing their ideas and perspectives about local issues and problems,” Julie said. “The newspaper, especially during COVID, is attempting to provide a place where people who may know each other in the community can still come together and exchange ideas.”
But the sharp political and social differences that revealed the growing fissures in America’s democracy were also corroding the newspaper’s opinion pages.
“We felt the tone and the substance of our letters were going away from building a consensus, finding common ground, for issues of the community,” Adam said. “It was disheartening. It was also not serving our purpose as a community newspaper anymore.”
How We Got Here
How we got to the current level of uncivil discourse is a complex stew of technology, capitalism, media, and society.
“To me, it’s reflecting the unhealthy civil discourse that has resulted from the reliance on social media instead of traditional news sources,” Adam said. “People aren’t getting the objective facts. They are being fed information that reinforces their own beliefs by a business that wants them to click as many times (as possible) to see the information they want to believe.”
Adam contends that tech companies like Facebook sow the seeds of discord to benefit their shareholders by using their algorithms to control the flow of real news sources the public sees on their feeds. Cable news channels broadcast stories according to the partisan beliefs of their viewers rather than being a place of consensus and discussion. Adam likens the destructive effects of these practices to the harm tobacco and opioid companies caused by not warning the public about using their products.
The war of the words found a new battleground on The Laconia Daily Sun’s letters-to-the-editor page. Letter writers were addressing each other on national, partisan topics rather than providing perspectives on local issues that needed the community’s time and attention. Some letter writers resorted to personal and ad hominem attacks on each other.
“The letters section became a talk radio station as opposed to an open forum,” Adam said. “We felt an urgency to do something about it.”
Returning to Civility
Newsroom leaders partnered with the Endowment for Health to explore the impact of civil discourse on community health.
They applied for and received a grant from the nonprofit to hire a new reporter whose sole focus was to explore how diverse groups and organizations within their community approached critical, local issues and offered solutions.
Through the Endowment for Health, Hart and Hirshan teamed up with the Solutions Journalism Network, which trained the staff in the method and practices of solutions journalism. The training shifted interviewing techniques from capturing information to active listening, called “looping.”
Meanwhile, two of its most vigorous, frequent, and opposing letter writers decided to meet for lunch.
“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 each other’s mind,” Hart wrote in an article for the American Press Institute. “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.”
The editorial staff conducted two “tolerance forums” on Zoom where community leaders and people throughout the community who care about promoting and maintaining civil discourse could gather and exchange ideas.
“We’re in the midst of launching a digital town square where we hope to continue some of the discussions that were started on the panels between ordinary citizens,” Julie said. “We’re starting with the people who attended the forums and some of our letter writers, to give them a controlled environment where they are encouraged to be respectful. They can go back-and-forth freely to try to get to the root of someone else’s idea and maybe understand it better.”
Finally, newsroom leaders changed their editorial policy. Instead of erring on the side of printing every letter submitted, preference is given to letters addressing local topics. The word limit has contracted from 1,000 to 500 words. A letter writer can submit one letter per week and must be addressed to the editor rather than to another letter writer.
“We will never be ‘done’ learning what it means to learn from one another, to be more tolerant of one another,” Julie said. “We need everyone’s buy-in to get it done. In order for it to be a truly respectful conversation, everyone has to be willing to participate respectfully.”
As a veteran journalist of 40 years, Adam says the continuing existence of daily newspapers, which are shrinking in America, is vital to a healthy democracy.
“I still see the value of being the community’s daily newspaper,” he said. “We can disagree. We can close our ears and not listen to each other. But the views being addressed in a central square, a daily newspaper – that gives me hope.”