Why the Desert Sun is taking a time-out from polarizing opinion pieces

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A newspaper stand. Photo credit: b+c+c+f/CC 2.0, via Flickr

From immigration raids and the census to the Mueller report to concerns about the looming federal debt limit. The national news just doesn’t seem to stop these days. And Op-Ed pages around the country are where many people go to sound off—and to try to make sense of it all.

But the Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs is calling a time out.  

During the month of July, the paper’s opinion pages are not covering national politics in their columns, letters, and even cartoons. Instead, the paper is zooming in on local issues.  

“There's a million places you can talk about what's happening in Washington. And so I want to try bringing us back to what a local newspaper traditionally did,” said executive editor of the Desert Sun, Julie Makinen.

KCRW talked to Makinen about the experiment. 

KCRW: You wrote a column about this decision to press the pause button on national politics on the Op-Ed page and in that column one of the things you really expressed concern about was the polarization that we're seeing in debate across the country. Do you think that focusing on local news local stories would somehow help diffuse that a little bit. 

Julie Makinen: Well I think when you get down to local issues they can become less right / left. We're having a lot of interesting issues in Palm Springs right now. Our local Indian tribe wants to build a new 10,000 seat arena in the middle of downtown and the city council is engaged in some settlement talks with a developer accused of corruption. You know those are issues that like OK, well I’ll maybe identify as a Republican, but how do I feel about that. Or maybe I identify as a Democrat. But what does that mean for my thoughts about the arena. It's not an easy kind of one column or the other. So I feel like that's where people can sort of set aside whatever blue, red, purple identity they have and they can talk about something that doesn't fall neatly into one bucket or another. People can find common ground on local issues that cross very traditional sort of national political identity lines. And that's that's wonderful. I think you know people need to find those spaces where they can connect with their neighbors even if on say health care or taxes or immigration they might have very different views.  

KCRW: What has been the response from readers so far.  

JM: Well I'd say the fan mail to hate mail is running about 3 to 1 in favor of the idea. And [some] people are not happy about it, but we have a lot of people who are and I've been overwhelmed by the number of people who have stepped forward. We've had over 40 guest columns submitted and our letters to the editor are way up both over last month and over a year ago at interest time. The funny thing is like our pages are always open to local issues they always have been and always will be. I think we just had to go out there and remind people like hey we really want to hear from you only want to hear about local things. 

KCRW: What kind of stuff do people want to talk about?

JM: Oh my gosh. We've had people talking about raising money for homeless shelters. We've had people talking about what they see as the identity crisis of the Coachella Valley - should just be a tourism destination or should have a more diversified economy. We're going to have one of our council members writing about unfunded pensions so it's a real mix.  

KCRW: I would think one of the hardest parts of trying to pull this off is avoiding cartoons about national politics. What are you doing about cartoons.  

JM: That has been the biggest struggle. Time was when every local newspaper had an editorial cartoonist. And those days are long gone and so finding cartoonists who do cartoons that are not national is really, really hard. So we've had to really go the extra mile to identify a couple of cartoonists in California who could either produce things for us or we could go into their archives and repurpose things that maybe had been created a couple of months ago or even a year ago, but we'd never run in our pages and they're still relevant. But we're committed to finding 31 days of non Washington focused political cartoons.  

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