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.

Sunday sampler

Yesterday I asked who wore it best, referring to how the state’s newspapers covered and displayed the overturning of the same-sex marriage ban. Most people who commented said, Greensboro, Asheville or Raleigh. All good choices.

My favorite was Greensboro — yes, that’s my paper — for three reasons: The headline — We do — was imaginative and tells the story perfectly; the photo is joyous and, by the men showing their rings, symbolic; and the stories were perfect. I liked Raleigh’s a lot, but thought the headline was traditional and the photo of the men kissing would alienate readers unnecessarily.

(What surprised me the most was the number of papers that did not give the story any front page treatment.)

Several newspapers continued to cover the ramifications of the ruling today. All interesting, all worth reading:

The News & Observer looks at the political impact. It comes to no conclusion, and the expected people make the expected comments, yet, it’s still interesting to watch the spin being spun. The Charlotte Observer gives the reaction of churches, particularly whether they will marry gay and lesbian couples. Naturally, it’s mixed. The News & Record takes the long view, examining how far the state has come. While it seems as if the tide turned quickly, in reality it was a long, arduous fight.

That’s not all the good journalism in the state’s papers, though:

Charlotte — Paying college athletes is picking up steam, and the Observer outlines the pros and cons. (TV and the NCAA has crammed “student athletes” down our throats. Why don’t we refer to student musicians or student journalists?)

Greensboro — The News & Record continues its outstanding coverage of problems at UNCG that resulted in the arrest of several employees for theft — basically the theft of time. UNCG has bungled the case from the start, and the N&R looks at how it all evolved.

Burlington — I was a Rotarian for 15 years, even serving on the board, which goes to show that sometimes even a civic club isn’t a good judge of character. But I digress. The Times-News reports that civic clubs in Alamance County — and likely across the state — are struggling to attract younger members. (My sense is that millennials are interested in the same civic do-gooderism, but are less interested in the process the clubs use.)

Winston-Salem — Moral Monday and Tea Party protesters, watch out. You know that the police drone which is hovering above the rally — or your house, for that matter — is legally spying on you? I didn’t, until I read the Journal’s story. “Local and state law enforcement agencies don’t have drones yet. But they will soon. When that time comes, legislation passed in August by the N.C. General Assembly will allow city police, county sheriffs and state law enforcement agencies to use drones to take photographs of open-invitations gatherings without obtaining a warrant, even if the gathering is on private property.”

How N.C. newspapers played same-sex marriage: Who wore it best?

The biggest story of the year in North Carolina is the overturning of the ban on gay marriage. So, how did North Carolina newspapers do on the biggest story of the year? (Some are not included because the front-page image was not available or the paper didn’t put the story on the front page.) Vote on who wore it best. (Images courtesy of the Newseum.)















Sunday sampler

Raleigh – The News & Observer continues to follow its excellent series on contractors taking advantage of hourly workers with a story today on how they are regulated….or not as this case may be. Here is a snippet of today’s story: “Federal labor investigators concluded in 2011 and 2013 that Miller failed to pay 18 workers on housing construction projects in Wilmington and Raleigh. At least four more workers were unpaid for their labor on a Durham project….Each time, Miller has escaped with impunity.

“He has paid no fines. He has faced no criminal charges. And, although two federal labor investigators suggested his tactics should get him shut out of federally funded work, he has yet to be banned.”

Greensboro — So, should state workers be arrested for spending time on non-work related issues? The News & Record has been examining that question for nearly a week as UNCG struggles to explain what it had three employees arrested for allegedly misusing university time. It has become a PR nightmare for the UNCG administration, one that anyone who knows anything about PR can only shake their heads at. By the way, the people responsible? The university communications department.

Greensboro also explores the racial diversity of the local law enforcement agencies and finds them falling short of the diversity of the communities they are charged with covering. It is not simply a localization of the Ferguson, Mo., story. Some in the African-American community in Greensboro have complained about biased treatment for years. (It’s a tough issue. When I was at the paper, we tried for years to hire more minorities in the newsroom. We never reached the community ratio we wanted.)

Gaston — Restaurateur puts diner “in God’s hands.” I don’t usually read stories like that, much less feature them here, but something about the Gazette’s story reeled me in. Perhaps it was the simple goodness of it. Dana Parris was having trouble making ends meet at Just Cookin’ diner so she let customers decide how much their meals were worth. It’s been a week and it’s working.

Asheville — Because I realized most sane people don’t follow politics as closely as I do, I like a good primer. The Citizen-Times provides its readers that on voting in November. More specifically, what the rules are — or could be — given that the state legislature has messed with them.

Dear Gov. McCrory: being anti-liberal arts is being anti-business

I join the legions of Republicans who must be wondering why their politicians are actively branding the party as anti-education. I don’t mean anti-education bureaucracy, as in “let’s get rid of the Department of Education.”

I mean anti-schooling, anti-learning.

The GOP-controlled legislature, with Gov. Pat McCrory’s approval, has cut school funding and demonized teachers. It gave most teachers a raise, but only after months of protests outside the legislative building.

It didn’t just squeeze the K-12 system. Led by Gov. McCrory, it cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s acclaimed university system.

He started the campaign soon after he took office.  “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine. Go to a private school, and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

He went further last week: “Gov. Pat McCrory on Thursday said that North Carolina needs fewer journalists and lawyers and more truck drivers and technical workers as he unveiled his ’1,000 in 100′ work force development initiative in Greensboro as part of a three-city tour.”

According to the Triad Business Journal, McCrory said: “We’ve frankly got enough psychologists and sociologists and political science majors and journalists. With all due respect to journalism, we’ve got enough. We have way too many.” 

This post is not against truck drivers and other blue-collar trades. They perform an important role in the economy. But why not just promote the need for people in those jobs? Why denigrate those may want to do something else? Why not promote all of the educational opportunities the state has to offer?

Here is another informed voice. Google’s former CEO, Eric Schmidt, makes the case that the key to success in modern business is hiring “smart creatives.”

From the New York Times: “Smart creatives, the authors write, are impatient, outspoken risk-takers who are easily bored and change jobs frequently. They are intellectually versatile, typically ‘combining technical depth with business savvy and creative flair,’ the authors note.”

I suspect the governor, if asked, would agree with Schmidt. I suspect he would say we need both truck drivers and “smart creatives.” (Perhaps some truck drivers are smart creatives.) Maybe.

Of course, McCrory’s public words don’t encourage smart creatives. He’s basically saying, “If you want to pursue that kind of thing, great. We don’t need that and won’t support you.”

In that atmosphere, is North Carolina the sort of place you want to locate your business? That should give the state’s leaders — people who say that jobs and economic development are their top priorities — something to think about.

It makes people — even average thinkers like me — wonder why the state’s leadership is embracing the idea that higher education in the liberal arts is bad. It’s divisive and offensive to those who see the value in a college education.

And it’s bad for business.

Sunday sampler

Charlotte and Raleigh — The Observer and the News & Observer teamed up, as they do, to do an in-depth look at Thom Tillis and his leadership of the state House. It’s insightful, particularly when it compares his campaign message of working across the aisle with earlier comments about gut-punching Democrats and to “divide and conquer the people who are on assistance.”

Gaston – You know about all the military equipment the federal government has given police and Sheriff’s departments throughout the country? The Gazette reports that the program was suspended because the state failed to account for all of its equipment by the deadline. And the criminal justice agencies want it back. Great. 


Write with ‘going viral’ in mind

Updated twice

Which story would you read? One with the headline, “McCrory: Match training to employers’ needs,” and which starts: “More than 18,000 people in Guilford County are looking for a job. But employers can’t fill 1,500 openings for skilled workers.”


One with the headline, “Gov. McCrory: We need fewer lawyers, fewer journalists and more truck drivers,” and which starts: “Gov. Pat McCrory on Thursday said that North Carolina needs fewer journalists and lawyers and more truck drivers and technical workers as he unveiled his “1,000 in 100” work force development initiative in Greensboro as part of a three-city tour.”

The first came from the News & Record, the second from the Triad Business Journal. Both cover the event in Greensboro in fine journalistic fashion. Both make the same point, presumably covering the governor’s comments accurately. And, presumably, some readers prefer the News & Record’s approach and others like the Business Journal’s.

But which story do you think went viral, engaging people on the social networks and adding traffic that doesn’t usually accompany a story about the governor announcing a jobs initiative?

Friday morning I shared the Business Journal’s story on Facebook – originally posted by Journal Editor Mark Sutter. Right now, it has been shared 17 times by other Facebook friends. My post alone got 59 comments. And that’s just mine. It doesn’t count all the other people who have posted that story. (It has been posted several times on my Twitter and Facebook feeds.)

While I am sure the News & Record’s story was posted on both social networks, I doubt it went viral. (I never saw it on either Facebook or Twitter.) The Business Journal’s story went beyond the social networks. It circulated on the UNC-Chapel Hill journalism school’s faculty listserv. It evoked a published response from Susan King, dean of the J-School. The governor’s comments in the story were fact-checked by Mark Binker at WRAL. Even the News & Record’s assistant editorial page editor, Doug Clark, wrote a blog post about it. (To his credit, properly crediting and linking to the Business Journal.)

The difference in the two stories, of course, is that Katie Arcieri of the Journal used the Gov. McCrory’s smack at journalists and lawyers in her lead versus the generic lead of the N&R. One way to go viral is to insult or mock specific groups of people, and the governor provided the news media the ammunition.

The challenge, of course, is for traditional print journalists to write with virality in mind rather than using the institutional voice, which tends to be straight, conservative and, often, vanilla. Of course, their publication needs to want them to, to train them and to encourage them.

Update: Mark Sutter explains in the comments: While the post did get lot of page views for us, I suspect it was only a very small fraction of the hits the item got on the Web as a whole. Our story – and thus McCrory’s comments – was picked up by Romenesko, Dylan Byers on Politico, WRAL, etc. and while they appropriately linked to us, I suspect few people clicked on those links. They had already “read the story”, albeit as summarized by Romenesko, etc.  I also suspect Romenesko or Byers may have gotten more total hits than we did, which is pretty interesting when you think about it.

Also, as the story quickly spread from the Triad Business Journal, the fact that we were the source became increasingly obscure. The Charlotte Observer, for instance, reported on it and the average person might have thought an Observer reporter was at the event themselves. They did have a link, but it was to Politico. So we not only didn’t get any page views from it, we didn’t really even get credit as the source, except very indirectly.

Not saying there was anything wrong done there, only that our connection as the source became obscure pretty fast as the item was aggregated.

Update: David Beard, director of digital content for the Washington Post, suggested the Beatles have a song about aggregation and its point.

Sunday sampler

Another good week for North Carolina Sunday front pages.

Asheville – So, the Asheville Police Department videotapes a Moral Mountain rally, and when the city manager asks about it, the police say it was no big deal, it was for training purposes. Great, the Citizen Times says, it’s a public record so let us see it. Hold up, the city attorney’s office says, the recording is exempt from public records because it could be used for criminal intelligence and criminal investigations. This is the kind of story that only makes sense to lawyers and people with something to hide. The APD has been recording rallies for years, according to the Citizen-Times. Great work, newspaper.

Fayetteville – Politicians like to generalize about poverty, homelessness and minimum wage. It’s always good to bring it down to the personal level, which is what the Observer did. “About one in seven households in Cumberland County have incomes less than $15,000 a year, according to 2013 census estimates released last week. Jason’s new job will earn about $10,000 a year, based on his hours. ‘We’ve exhausted all the resources we possibly could trying to live in the in-between,’ Julie says. ‘And now we’re going to be homeless because you can’t – you can’t make it.’”

Greensboro — Public records not only help hold government accountable — hello, Asheville! — but they help shed light on business people who may be prey on people. That brings us to the News & Record, which reports on the problems of Sonny Vestal, and the problems Vestal caused so many others. He didn’t pay bills of a low-income condo that his company managed, causes 150 households to be evicted. His company  owes the city $100,000+ in unpaid bills, and the city may spend thousands to take over the condo. SMDH.

Wilmington — I like stories that look to the future. The Star-News asks what Wilmington, which turns 275 this year, will look like when it turns 300. For someone who loves Wilmington and Wrightsville, the piece is fascinating.

Sunday sampler

After a slow day last Sunday, today’s front pages have several outstanding stories.

Charlotte — The Observer has two worth noting. First, sudden infant death syndrome has disappeared in N.C. because state officials have stopped attributing deaths to that cause. Why? “Experts say the decision to call so many cases SIDS masked the dangers of a widespread practice: Parents risk suffocating their babies when they sleep with them or put them to sleep on their stomachs. In some cases, it also allowed irresponsible parents to go unpunished for preventable deaths.”

The Observer’s second story effectively reminds us of the Latino child immigration crisis. The story is heart-wrenching and informative and, without the politicians attempting to manipulate public opinion, gives us a clear picture of the need.

Durham —  The Herald describes how Duke attracted such a strong class of basketball recruits. And as a Carolina fan, this pains me. But the story is good and, perhaps, a reason that Coach K continues to coach USA Basketball.

Fayetteville — The Observer does a deep dive into home-schooling, which has grown so rapidly that more students are being home-schooled than are in private schools. That’s right, more home-schooled than private schooled. Many reasons for the growth, and many reasons to be concerned about it. Read them.

Greensboro — Being a firefighter is the most respected occupation in America. So, the News & Record wonders why cancer — which is a killer of firefighters — isn’t included in the state’s presumptive disability coverage. “We assume we’ll be taken care of, that our employers will do the right thing. But both sides of the aisle in the General Assembly have failed first responders in this state.” I know that will shock many of you.

Raleigh — Following last week’s excellent series on companies that defied labor laws to avoid their tax obligations, the N&O reports that “key lawmakers” have promised to investigate.

Winston-Salem — I can’t recall the last time that Aldona Wos, state secretary of Health and Human Services, willingly sat down with a newspaper reporter. She talked with the Journal for 38 minutes. And while the story doesn’t explore the sorts of topics I would have liked — explanations for the many department missteps, for instance — it starts a conversation that I hope other reporters will attempt to follow.

Sunday sampler

I apologize for the slim pickings from the front pages of North Carolina papers. Perhaps they were tired from the strong showing the past couple of Sundays. If I missed one I should have included, let me know.

Raleigh & Charlotte — The two largest papers in the state team up to work on a newspaper chain report on corrupt construction companies who cheat their employees and the government. Complicating matters are state regulators who largely ignored the cheating. You don’t work construction so why should you care? “The costs are staggering, a yearlong investigation by The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer reveals: nearly a half-billion dollars each year in uncollected federal and state tax revenue.” It’s a complicated story told well.