Complicating the Narratives Toolkit
The Laconia Daily Sum had a long-standing policy of publishing nearly all letters to the editor, but as at many other news outlets, the letters were descending into name-calling and vitriol. "The personal attacks were very concerning to us," said Julie Hirshan Hart, the paper's digital editor. "People were going at each other instead of the issues."
In April 2019, a frequent letter-writter (who had declared his intention to run for public office) wrote one denying that the Holocaust existed. The paper debated whether to publish it, finally deciding that people had a right to know the beliefs of their neighbors, especially a candidate for office. It published the letter, receiving much criticism from the community.
A bit later, two regular letter writers — Eric Herr, a liberal, and Bruce Jenket, a conservative — decided to meet for coffee to hash out their public debate about tax policy, "which would have risked boring readers to tears," they said. They wrote a joint letter to the paper about their meeting in January 2020. They had a civil conversation and from there developed a cordial relationship, which they both said they valued.
Herr and Jenket's new relationship inspired the Daily Sun to introduce other pairs of letter-writers. Hart invited eight frequent letter-writers to a virtual meeting in May 2020. Six of them showed up for the two-hour session. Hélène Biandudi Hofer, SJN's program manager for Complicating the Narratives, and Leah Todd Lin, SJN's Northeast region manager, participated as well. Biandudi Hofer and Todd Lin demonstrated looping. Then Hart put the participants in breakout rooms, in pairs, to discuss issues they had earlier said were hot-button, both local (affordable housing) and national (media treatment of President Trump and the election).
At the same time, the paper changed its letters policy, requiring tighter, more focused letters, and limiting the number published by each writer. It turned the focus to local topics, and solicited new local voices.
Next, the Daily Sun took its efforts public. Its first Tolerance Forum took place on December 23, 2020 — shortly after Dawn Johnson, a state representative and local school board member, posted an anti-Semitic meme from a neo-Nazi website. The Democratic mayor and a Republican state senator both participated, and the city government hosted the forum. (The paper invited Johnson but she did not attend.) Some 80 people attended on Zoom (epic turnout for Laconia), watching and asking questions as Roger Carroll, the paper's managing editor, moderated a panel of eight discussing how tolerant the region was to people of varying views and what the community could do to allow people to increase their tolerance.
The next forum, in January, was more contentious and debate-ish, and fewer people attended — about 50 or 60, Hart said. A third event, planned for the spring, would take a different format, Hart said. Before that event, the paper planned to identify pairs of people who hold opposing views on subjects such as school funding, and train them in looping. (The first two panels did not have training.) During the event, each pair would talk, modeling civil dialogue about difficult issues. "It's important for the community to see people just like them having a conversation," Hart said.
The paper has started yet another new activity. In February 2021, it set up a pilot online forum, which it calls a Digital Public Square, and invited everyone who wrote letters or attended earlier events to participate. About 50 people comment, blog, and discuss a topic of the week in real time. It is a closed group, but if it is successful, the Daily Sun plans to make it public. The paper will also teach participants looping.
Hart believes Laconia residents are striving to understand each other. "I've been constantly surprised at the continuous momentum we've had since we started," she said. "It's carried us all the way through to the place where we have an online dialogue of people who really want to know what people on the other side think, and understand them. We've certainly seen people ask better questions. Some speakers I'm not sure we could have gotten into a room together otherwise."
She said that the number of letters with personal attacks the paper receives has dropped by half. She said that the community reads and engages with letters to the editor more now.
And the project has helped the paper as well, Hart said. Overall, the Sun's audience has expanded. (There might be other factors contributing to that.) "I did see comments during the forum that were very positive about the paper stepping up to be a facilitator of this work. Others said, 'why are they getting involved in this?' Someone else said, 'someone's got to and you're not doing it.' Being a community newspaper, sometimes we have to remember the word community before we remember the word newspaper," she said.
Hart said that she should have given a brief looping training and demonstration at the first two Tolerance Forums. "That would have helped them understand what we were looking for," she said.
On the topic of making community dialogue an outgrowth of a new opinion section, Hart wrote an essay for the American Press Institute that said: "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."
"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."