June 26, 2018

Since its founding in 1982, USA Today has prided itself on a feel for all 50 states that eludes East Coast media.  Now its network is launching a new conservative opinion initiative aimed at Trump voters and others who may feel their views are ignored by left-leaning media.

A job posting for a "writer/producer" describes this mission:

There are angry shouts on the far end of both sides, but those in the center of the country — literally and figuratively — have no one to speak to their everyday concerns on jobs and taxes, safety and security, and their children’s futures.

The project has true heartland bona fides. It comes out of The Indianapolis Star, rather than the USA Today Network's headquarters in suburban Washington. Executive editor Ronnie Ramos and his predecessor, Jeff Taylor, thought it up and launched a beta version, Views from the Right, in conservative-leaning Indiana.

Ramos, the son of Cuban refugees, told me that the newsletter does not stem from his own political leanings. Those  are beside the point. Instead, he calculated that there is a likely "target audience" that will welcome "a range of thoughtful conservative opinion" in a regular newsletter.

A further description of the job and the newsletter's objectives includes these points:

  • Build a loyal and passionate, national audience, of center-right conservatives
  • Identify and compile the smartest conservative commentary from across the country
  • Deliver those intelligent takes via an email newsletter with a conversational tone
  • Recognize when a trending topic needs a conservative voice.
  • Advocate for, curate and then deliver smart commentary in the moment

At some papers — like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — editorial and opinion staffers report to the publisher.  However, the Star has no publisher, so Ramos oversees opinion as well as news

Ramos sees newsletters like The Skimm and Hustle as models. They both serve up a combination of aggregation and original work to certain demographics and have built loyal followings. 

In his own opinion stable, Ramos said, the Star has a conservative-leaning columnist, Tim Swarens, and a conservative-leaning cartoonist, Gary Varvel (though neither was especially supportive last week of the Trump administration' zero-tolerance immigration policy that separated children from their parents).

Ramos hopes to have the editor onboard and ready for a national launch sometime in the third quarter, in time for the midterm elections. Initially, the newsletter will be weekly but also quicker to comment when big news breaks.

The plan is to add other conservative voices from the USA Today Network's 109 regional papers and eventually regular contributors from elsewhere.

Indiana may not be ground zero for conservative opinion but offers strong credentials. Trump carried the state by nearly 20 points. One senator, Joe Donnelly, is a Democrat. But the other, Todd Young, and the governor, Eric Holcomb, are Republicans. Plus one former governor is vice president and another with a national reputation, Mitch Daniels, is president of Purdue University.

A sampling of recent opinion pieces from the Star showed the range Ramos is talking about. Columnist Swarens covered a speech in the state by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Another of his columns walked Sen. Young through immigration and related issues, and a third went for the views of religious leaders.

Like many metros, the Star now has a range of newsletters, which serve as a strong vehicle for wooing occasional readers and even non-readers to become paid digital subscribers. The Star has a breaking news site, and Ramos joked that "when Andrew Luck [the injured Colts quarterback] threw a football, that was big around here,"

The USA Network's pattern of developing national news that bubbles up from the local papers has been well-covered by me and others. Examples include the Star's reporting on the molestation of young gymnasts that led to the Larry Nassar exposés and The Wall project about the border with Mexico, initiated by The Arizona Republic, that won USA Today its first Pulitzer Prize in April.

I had been under the impression, however, that newsletters and opinion were either strictly local or handled from the national operation. Not so, USA Today Network spokesperson Chrissy Terrell told me. An example would be the All the Moms blog, which originated at the Republic but has since gone national.

Will "Views from the Right" be a hit? As a D-leaning guy, I may not be the best judge. But I do find that many network and national newspaper efforts to "get" the heartland voter zeitgeist come off as anthropological and unintentionally condescending.

Whether the group is keen to read opinion pieces as opposed to just voting seems to me less certain. But the beauty of the newsletter format is that the response will resolve that promptly.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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