Why editorial endorsements matter

It’s a couple of weeks until the mid-term elections, and the beginning of newspaper endorsement season. That means it is time for the stories about newspapers deciding NOT to endorse. From CJR:

“Dozens of newspapers have stopped making endorsements over the last two election cycles, often citing doubts about their impact and fears that, in a polarized era, endorsements put the credibility of the paper’s political coverage at risk.” 

The next sentence in that paragraph should be: “In addition, newspapers fear that supporters of the candidate not endorsed will drop their subscriptions.”

Sadly, these newspapers are running in the wrong direction. They should be more aggressive, rather than timid. More on that in a moment.

Endorsements won’t affect people’s views of the political coverage. Most people already believe newspapers are biased. They don’t understand the separation between editorial and news. And if they regularly read the editorial page, they are going to have an idea which candidate the paper will support, whether the paper endorses or not.

By corporate mandate, the News & Record did not endorse in the 2012 presidential race. Still, in comments on stories and in social media, readers assumed the paper had endorsed Barack Obama. I believe the paper would have endorsed him, based on its core editorial philosophy. But it didn’t. Try to convince partisan readers of that. For the record, with new ownership, the News & Record will endorse in the mid-terms.

Many of my digital-oriented friends wonder about the relevancy of newspaper endorsements. There are so many other voices out there, they question whether the newspaper’s opinion matters much. Instead, they say, papers should funnel that energy into better reporting. (I agree.) You can make that case for major races: the presidency, the Senate. But not for races farther down the ballot: City Council, school board, judgeships, state offices. It’s difficult for many civic-minded people to keep up with everything. Local TV often pays little attention to the lower offices. Other than friends, many people need an independent voice to offer an opinion. It’s not unusual for people to call newspapers and ask when the endorsements begin. (And yes, some readers see the endorsement as a signal of who not to vote for.)

And, as many have said, editorial pages take positions on community issues every day. Come election time, they pull their punch? How is that responsible or helpful?

If newspapers want to improve readership, they should EXPAND their editorial pages. Many have cut back editorials, OpEds and reader letters to one page. They should publish editorials on important community issues on the front page. They should let reporters write with more attitude and voice. It is possible to cover an issue fairly while also providing perspective and bite.

They should reinvest in reporting, in fact-checking claims, in blanketing local political coverage, in traveling with candidates as they campaign.

The past 10 years of newspaper trends points to one thing: You don’t gain readership or build credibility by cutting back.