Editorial endorsements: Don’t shy away

The Orlando Sentinel, the Dallas Morning News, the Omaha World-Herald, the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Nashville Tennessean have endorsed Romney. The Winston-Salem Journal, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Seattle Times, the Sacramento Bee, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Denver Post have endorsed Obama.

Do they make a difference?

First, I’m impressed that the endorsements are in. Many of them came early this month or late last month, long before Election Day. The papers are responding to the opening of early voting, which, in North Carolina, started yesterday. Given that a projected 50 percent of North Carolina voters are going to vote early, it makes sense. In fact, waiting  until the traditional presidential endorsement day — the Sunday before the election — ensures irrelevance to half the voters.

Second, more newspapers are choosing not to endorse in the presidential election. My former newspaper is one. (That decision was made on a corporate level.) It’s an odd decision, I think. (Here’s one editor’s explanation.) Newspaper editorial pages opine every day on issues of importance to their readers and community. So on an issue that’s clearly significant the local paper is going to be silent? It’s another step toward irrelevance, I think.

Given the survivalist instinct newspapers have now, they should be running from irrelevance to dynamism.

That said I suspect that few regular editorial page readers will be surprised by their newspaper’s endorsement. After all, editorial pages are guided by fundamental philosophies that come through daily. It is doubtful that many papers zig all year long only to zag when the election comes up.

Do they make a difference? It is true that opinion abounds on the presidential race. They’re online. They’re on TV. Newspapers publish opinion columnists and letters to the editor, all endorsing one candidate or the other.

In the explanation by the editor linked above, he says that the newspaper has no more access to information about presidential candidates that anyone else, which is true. And which applies to many other topics editorial pages write about. But newspaper editorial page writers pay close attention to the election and the candidates; it’s their job. I’m not saying they know more about the candidates and the issues than everyone, but I’m thinking that they know more than most people.

I also doubt that there are few truly undecided voters. There are plenty of apathetic people who won’t vote. There are plenty of cynical voters who think it won’t matter. But it’s hard for me to believe that there are many people who are going to vote who haven’t made up their minds. (Based on the questions by the “undecided” voters at the town hall debate Tuesday night, I concluded that many of them really had decided.

So, do editorial page endorsements make a difference? No, I don’t think they persuade many people. They affirm people’s opinions of their leanings and of the paper’s. But they are worth doing, as all of the paper’s opinions are, generally speaking, worth writing. They engage readers, elating and angering them. They reveal the thinking of the paper, which is always welcome.

And they weigh in on an issue of great importance to their readers. Why court irrelevance by shying away.

Saturday update: A Facebook friend told me that he know 10 people who canceled their subscriptions to the Winston-Salem Journal when it endorsed Obama last Sunday. He said people want information, not opinions. I think people want information and opinions that agree with theirs. But I don’t doubt that the paper had cancellations.

In fact, a major reason — usually unstated — that newspapers don’t endorse is that they know they will lose readers who have and practice a confirmation bias. Given the polarization in the presidential race, that’s no big surprise. Why write something that will upset readers? Of course, these decisions aren’t made by journalists, who often live by the Finley Peter Dunne adage to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

But when it gets to the point of not wanting to upset or anger readers with your opinions, perhaps you shouldn’t be in the editorial business at all.

A core newspaper value: The strong voice of the editorial page

Yesterday, Andria Krewson and I had a good email exchange about Amendment One, newspapers, editorial pages and the influence of written opinion. She writes about her findings this afternoon in CJR. As usual, Andria does an excellent job researching and analyzing N.C. journalism. (Full disclosure: she quotes me.)

Among the things I told her was my fear that newspapers, including editorial pages, were quickly losing their influence and impact (which I wrote about here and here). I have no research on how a town’s newspaper editorial position correlates with the area’s vote on Amendment One. It would be an interesting study for some journalism student.

Editorial pages are a destination in newspapers. Strong, fist-pounding opinions are a must. (What is there to lose?) So is using every tool at their disposal to engage the community. (Video, anyone?) I know how hard it is when you don’t have enough people or technology. Times of desperation — that’s where we are, isn’t it? — require focusing on your fundamental values. Strong community leadership provided by the voice of the editorial page should be a fundamental value of every newspaper. That means, provide appropriate resources to make it a treasured, nourishing destination.

To editorialize or not

As I thought about the News & Record’s decision not to editorialize on the same-sex amendment ban, I wondered if no editorial is better than an editorial that opposes the position that you take.

So I did what any self-respecting person did. I went to the crowd. I took it to Facebook.

I wrote: “Here’s the scenario: Let’s say there’s a hot issue on the ballot and you feel strongly about it. Would you prefer the local newspaper editorialize in favor of a position you oppose OR take no position at all? (You cannot choose “the editorial page should take the position I agree with.”)

In two hours, I have 46 comments and they’re still coming in. Without question, they are overwhelmingly in favor of taking a position, regardless of what it is. A selection of comments:

John Cochran: “Staying silent on the issue is a failure of duty. A “majority” position alongside a “dissenting” position is fine … or even one piece presented as a dialogue between the majority and dissenting positions, which would be helpful potentially as a model for how to have a civil discussion of such matters. If the editorial board and the publisher are disagreeing among themselves on the issue, why not have the debate in print?”

Kitty Lowrence: “I’d rather read an editorial I disagree with than be left to assume that the paper doesn’t want to get its hands dirty by taking a position.”

Barclay Williams:  “I would love to read a well reasoned position that opposes my own. ”

Charlie Brummitt: “Whether I support the position or not, I want my local paper to analyze it fairly then publish their opinion.”

Jim Kennedy:  “I expect our local newspaper to TAKE A POSITION on issues as important as this.  We are not talking about a minor matter here.”

Anu Mannar: “It is embarrassing to not take a stand.  There might as well not be an editorial page if it avoids actual issues.”

Fiona Morgan: “Take a position. In doing so, be as transparent as possible about the process of coming to that conclusion. Present facts and evidence, including as fair-minded a presentation of the opposing viewpoint as possible. Give people enough leads to do their own research, but know that people don’t have time to do their own research: they read the editorial page because they value the informed opinions of people who do have the time.”

Chris McCoy: “I say stay neutral. As it is nothing more than an opinion at that point and you know what opinions are like….. Everybody has one.”

Update: I should have included this. I was discussing this issue last night with someone whose opinion I respect. My thought was that opponents of the amendment would prefer no editorial rather than an editorial that supported the amendment. That was my position, too. That’s why I posed it here. The answers surprised me and schooled me. You’re right; I was wrong.

The Charlotte Observer changes its mind

At a time when my newspaper is getting justifiable criticism for not taking a stand on the hottest issue before voters in the May 8 N.C. primary, the Charlotte Observer editorial board shows another way things can be done.

It changed its mind and its endorsement this morning about a congressional candidate.

What a run for Republican Jim Pendergraph. After winning the Observer’s endorsement in his bid for Congress, he has done nothing but embarrass us and himself.

By buddying up to one of America’s more hateful egomaniacs and then joining with fringe “birthers” to question President Obama’s citizenship, Pendergraph has contradicted much of what he told the Observer’s editorial board in his endorsement interview last month. As a result, we have lost faith in him, and urge voters to consider Edwin Peacock or Ric Killian in the 9th Congressional District race.

Editorial boards don’t change their minds often. It suggests inconsistency — even though it’s not — and that they may have been wrong in the first place. Not surprisingly, the paper is taking it on the chin in the comments. But the critics are wrong. The Observer did the right thing. What it did was what any thinking person would do when he realizes he no longer likes or trusts a candidate — it explained itself and endorsed someone else in time to let voters know.

Refreshing.

Quick congrats

Congratulations to the Charlotte Observer for winning a McClatchy President’s Award for journalism excellence in 2011. It won for its series on car inspections. The Observer’s four-part series “Failing the Test” found a sprawling government program full of problems with little evidence of improving highway safety. “This is the kind of watchdog work that affects just about everybody,” the judges said. The series made the case so convincingly that it led to immediate response from lawmakers.

Congratulations to the News & Record for an editorial calling out the City Council for denying the public a chance to evaluate candidates for the city manager’s job. This would take place under a cover of cloak-and-dagger secrecy, slipping candidates in and out of interviews without letting them see each other, the public or, especially, nosy journalists. But if the council trusts (recruiter) Burg to produce six or seven “highly qualified” candidates, and trusts its own judgment to narrow that number to two, why not trust the public to form impressions of those final two?

Congratulations to the N&O for an editorial demanding the Wake County Sheriff reveal details of a death in the county jail.  Sheriff Donnie Harrison, who is responsible for operation of the jail, has demonstrated that he unfortunately isn’t inclined to share what ought to be public information with the citizens he serves, unless he has no other choice. The sheriff’s resistance to openness isn’t appropriate for a publicly elected official and in cases such as incidents in the jail, his penchant for secrecy damages his credibility.

Congratulations, too, to the News & Record for hiring Jeffrey Gauger to become its next editor, succeeding me! I don’t know him, but have talked with him on the phone. I think he’ll be good.

The View from Nowhere and editorial pages

I have always been puzzled by some people who have strong, consistent opinions about issues of the day but don’t believe that editorial pages should have the same. Despite explanations to the contrary, some true believers insist that editorial pages should be unbiased. At first, I thought they were being disingenuous or close minded. Now I think it is just that they don’t buy what editorial pages do. In a interesting way, it supports Jay Rosen’s case of the damaging effects of the View from Nowhere. And it gives editorial pages an opportunity for more transparency.

This attitude became a little clearer to me after an exchange on Facebook yesterday with Marcus Kindley, former Guilford County Republican Party chairman. The issue came up at Mark Binker’s FB page and concerned House Speaker Thom Tillis canceling his subscription to the Charlotte Observer because it was too liberal. (I have edited our exchange slightly to eliminate asides. I have not changed any spelling, sentence structure or punctuation.)

Marcus: “what I’ve always found disturbing is that, yes a newspaper in NC might say yes for 140 years the Democrats played dirty tricks time and again, with the lottery, the budget, appointments, campaign contributions etc. but come election time they endorese the Democrats Time and again. so the reporting means squat if they haven’t the integrity to endorse someone else. Just watch this coming year and they’ll all fall in line at the editorial board to endorse the Dems, unless the Republican has no chance of losing or does not have an opponent.”

Me: “Just for the sake of discussion, Marcus, have you ever supported a Democrat? Editorial pages are like individuals. They have fundamental principles on which they base their support of candidates. It isn’t surprisingly that they tend to support one side more consistently than another, just like individuals.”

Marcus: “With the premise you put forward the paper should not present itself as a NEWS organization, but a mouthpiece for their own Political agenda. And they should change their name to: We are the propaganda wing of the NC Democrat Party, just for truth’s sake, but alas that would take courage and honor. As far as supporting a Democrat I haven’t found one worthy of my support in recent history…. Just to be clear John, as I understand you to say, the editorial Board is not unbiased and therefore we all should look at it’s comments with suspicion of the truth being ….. left out if it doesn’t fit their narrative.”

Me: Let me be clear, too. The editorial board is responsible for the editorial pages. That’s it. So, your assumption that it governs the entire paper is not correct. Editorial pages, by definition, are opinion. Let me turn the rest of your comments around. Are you saying that we all should consider your opinion with suspicion of truth being…left out if it doesn’t fit your narrative? I would assume the answer is no. At least I hope so. The same is true of editorial pages.”

Marcus: “John, I don’t hold myself out as the  Holy Grail of Truth, but in answer to your question, I don’t hide behind ” Jouralism” in my opinions. I state my beliefs and all know where I stand, in my opinion the editorial board endeavors to give the impression that they are the aribrators of truth an all should bow down to their declarations from on high…Why not try this on the editorial page, with each printing… We represent the Progressive Liberial Opinion of the Democrat Party on this page. At least then the casual observer will know where you are coming from, from the get go.”

Me: “I believe that editorial pages do just what you say at the beginning of your comment. I think they state their beliefs and people know where they stand on whatever issue they are opining on. Unlike you, they don’t represent one political belief system, which is where we differ, I suppose. I have seen editorial boards oppose tax increases and support Republicans. As a reader of the N&R, you have, too.”

When they are at their best, I think editorial boards do what Rosen describes later:

For example, if objectivity means trying to ground truth claims in verifiable facts, I am definitely for that. If it means there’s a “hard” reality out there that exists beyond any of our descriptions of it, sign me up. If objectivity is the requirement to acknowledge what is, regardless of whether we want it to be that way, then I want journalists who can be objective in that sense. Don’t you?

And Kindley has a point, I think. Editorial boards need to fly their political colors higher so that readers know what they value, how their opinions are formed and from where their authority comes. The alternative is that readers will assume Kindley’s position or worse. 

The importance/irrelevance of news ombudsmen

If you aren’t a publisher or the editor, is there a better position than ombudsman to improve the reader experience?

As Dan Kennedy points out, an ombudsman has the time, the access and the platform, to say nothing of the independence to work for the reader, explaining the paper, holding it accountable, and pushing the rock up the hill.

So, why isn’t the public editor of the New York Times more active and engaged? He writes a weekly newspaper column, but that includes a reader response column. His last original column was Dec. 18 about the Penn State scandal. He has a blog, but has only posted three entries since September, and he doesn’t engage readers in the comments that I can tell.

I think this is a job I want.

What is there to write about? A quick visit to Romenesko provides one answer. The exegesis of the best NYT correction ever? Status of the sale of the N.Y. Times Regional Group. And that was just Friday afternoon.

As I thought about this, I wandered over to the Washington Post to see what its ombudsman was writing about. Patrick B. Pexton seems to be more active, but, geez, in his most recent writing, he concludes that the Washington Post is innovating too quickly. The Post may be the only newspaper in the past 15 years that has been accused of that. (Given the demographic of newspaper readers, many of them complain about change. When I was editor of the News & Record, we routinely got complaints from readers annoyed that we would send readers online for more information. “I don’t have a computer, and don’t plan on getting one!” they would say.)

When I mentioned on Twitter that I thought the Times’ public editor had made himself  irrelevant, Craig Silverman pointed me to an outstanding column he wrote for CJR on how ombudsmen can make themselves essential. I would add two points — active engagement on Facebook and Twitter, and an expanded section on involving a news organization’s entire staff in talking with readers.

(Update: Dan Kennedy later tweeted: “Rule No. 6: Don’t write stuff like this,” referring to the Pexton column about innovation.)

I know why more papers don’t have ombudsmen; they would rather have a reporter than yet another commentator. Years ago, the idea was that editors should serve the role of public editor, but you don’t find many editors acting that way. It’s a shame. Serving as ombudsmen at two of the most important agenda-setting news organizations in the country could be a vital role helping both journalists and readers.

 

 

Web traffic: the power of personality

There is a lesson for news sites in the knowledge that two of the 10 most read local stories on myfox8.com for the year involve station employees. The 10th most read is the announcement that meteorologist Emily Byrd had a baby. The second– second! — is a report that photographer Chris Weaver was attacked by a stick-wielding man, which Chris got on tape. (The others are the more typical online fare of death, sex and news of the weird.)

The interest in these two stories isn’t insignificant. I don’t know Fox8.com’s total traffic numbers, but I suspect they are high. The station has nearly 100,000 Facebook fans, easily outpacing every other media website in this market.

What should news websites should learn from this? Sorry to disappoint, but it’s not to get someone on staff pregnant. It is that personal connection sells, particularly on the web. The web is all about connection, and personality helps people connect. Journalists intuitively know this to be true, although many of the “capital J” journalists resist it. People feel they know Emily Byrd through her weather reports, they have watched her through her pregnancy, and they are interested to see the “end of the story,” if you will. They have emotionally connected. People don’t know Chris Weaver — I met him when he interviewed me from behind the camera a couple years ago; he’s a great guy — but the video certainly struck a chord with thousands of visitors.

Let me be the first to point out that I’m late to this realization. Too late, actually, or I would have come up with more effective ways to make the News & Record’s site more personable while I was there. Don’t get me wrong. The site is good; it won first place in General Excellence in last year’s N.C. Press Association contest. But as fans of “Friday Night Lights” know, good reviews don’t necessarily bring in the ratings.

Every newsroom I’ve ever seen is filled with inventive, resourceful and irreverent people. While they may not all be showmen, many can be, if given the chance. Some things I should have done:

* Introduced video editorials with one person serving as anchor.

* Introduced a two-minute “Daily Show” segment having fun with the news of the day, including making fun of N&R gaffs. (I doubt we could have pulled it off every day but maybe two days a week?)

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(This is photo director Rob Brown in tne News & Record newsroom play acting with an app that adds special effects to video.)

* Assigned someone to do interesting, non-journalistic videos around town. We send photographers to find “good art.” Why not good video? I’d start with kiddie kicker soccer “games.” If you don’t think those are funny, one of us needs funny lessons and it ain’t me.

Built some video presence around a pretty female. (Yes, I know that it’s politically incorrect, but it would get traffic. Why do you think so many beauty pageant contestants end up on television?)

* Assigned one of our more charming writers to create an online only column of short, interesting observations. Like a fun Facebook feed. And maybe start a fictional serial.

* Tim Rickard is a multi-talented artist. He does a syndicated comic strip, editorial cartoon, The Jokes on You and a variety of illustrations and graphics. I’m not aware of him ever turning down the opportunity to do something fun and different. I should have turned him loose on the web with Flash and freedom to create. The thought is scary.

* After all this, marketed the heck out of the personalities, just as television does.

There are many more possibilities; I hadn’t even started with engaging people in the community.

I know the reasons all the reasons news sites don’t do things like this. I should; I said them myself many times. Who has the time? Who has the money? What are we going to give up? I wish I had tried harder and made some of the tougher decisions because the myFox8.com website traffic shows it would have made a difference.

Where are the letters to the editor?

Yesterday I tweeted, “Love the letters to the editor this time of year. Half tell us to remember the reason for the season; other half have forgotten it.”

Today, neither The Charlotte Observer nor the News & Record published letters to the editor.

Was it something I said?

Of course not. The holidays are always dry times for letters to the editor. People are paying attention to other things than the incompetence of Obama/the GOP/the Democrats/the Congress/the City Council/the you-name-it. Thank goodness. Everything and everyone needs a vacation.

Merry Christmas.