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Why we want to hear from conservatives

Over the past couple of weeks, many readers have reached out to me to comment on or ask questions about The News’ efforts to survey conservatives on their views of newspapers and journalism.

Let me explain what we’re doing.

Especially since the 2016 election and doubly especially since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, establishment journalists have faced unrelenting criticism from people who no longer trust us as an industry.

Some of that has come from the left, people who think journalists never gave Bernie Sanders a fair shake or who think we’ve been too soft on Donald Trump and too hard on Joe Biden, and some who think journalists haven’t done enough to hold anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers accountable.

But most of the criticism I’ve fielded has come from the right, and national data backs that up.

A Gallup poll last year found 73% of Democrats and 36% of independents have at least a fair amount of trust in mass media, but only 10% of Republicans do.

That’s incredibly disheartening, because research has also demonstrated the importance of independent news sources to a functioning democracy. Towns that lose their newspapers face lower voter turnout, lose more small businesses, and struggle with rising spending and debt by local government.

And most people — including conservatives — agree we’re important. In a Gallup/Knight Foundation survey, 81% of Americans said the media is “very important” or “critical” to democracy.

We can’t have such a lack of trust from half our population in such an important institution. It’s like a school on a river you can only reach over a bridge, but half the population thinks that bridge will collapse the minute they step on it, so they never cross. The school would struggle to survive, and half the population would lose out on all the school has to offer.

So, The News and dozens of other media outlets around the country have joined a collaborative called Trusting News, which includes researchers from the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Media Engagement.

Collectively, we’ve surveyed scores of conservative readers and, over the next several weeks, will have more in-depth conversations with a subset of those. You can still take the survey for a while longer at tinyurl.com/AlpenaNewsSurvey.

We aim to understand more specifically what drives down conservatives’ trust in us and what, specifically, might help restore that trust.

In response to some of your concerns, the survey results will not lead us to:

∫ Report anything we know to be untrue, or anything we can’t prove, simply because it plays well with a specific audience.

∫ Drop the Associated Press as our wire service.

∫ Tilt our Commentary pages more conservatively, or add or drop any specific columnist.

And, to our liberal readers: We want to hear from you, too. We have and will again sometime conduct broader surveys reaching all readers, and I always welcome a phone call or email from any reader. I try to respond to all of them as quickly as I can.

But we have a specific trust issue with conservatives right now, and we want to know how to fix it.

The survey results will ultimately guide next steps, but I expect they might lead us to:

∫ Tell stories of which we’re currently unaware that our conservative readers want to read.

∫ Tell the stories we tell in a different way to better engage conservative readers.

∫ Help us understand better ways to explain how we do our jobs, and why we do them the way we do, including why we choose the stories we choose to include in the paper every day.

In informal conversations, many readers — conservatives and liberals alike — have told me they enjoy our local news coverage written by our reporters but dislike some of our national stories from the Associated Press or the national syndicated columnists or cartoons on our Commentary pages.

We already have pushed to make every day’s front page filled with nothing but local news, and our dream would be to fill every page of the paper with local news only. But that takes money to invest in hiring and training local reporters, and that’s a dream we’ll never achieve if conservatives cancel subscriptions or pull advertising because they think The News has nothing to offer them.

So we want to listen. And we want to learn.

And we want to see if we can do something to let our conservative readers know we fight every day for their place in our democracy, the same as everyone else’s.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-354-3112 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.

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