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VOTING ‘NO’: Is it time for newspapers to drop presidential endorsements?

Sunday, May 1, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Laura Sellers-Earl
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By Autumn Phillips

Visits to the newspaper editorial board have long been as much a part of the retail politics of presidential campaigns as state fairs, town halls and local diners.

Among editors, the value of the practice is up for debate.

Even in Iowa – the first in the nation caucus – only a couple papers offered endorsements this year. The Des Moines Register, the largest paper in the state, endorsed Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio a week before the Feb. 1, 2016, caucus. The Sunday before the caucus, the Quad-City Times endorsed Bernie Sanders and John Kasich.

The other sizable papers in the state chose not to endorse.

Nancy Newhoff, editor of The Courier in Waterloo, Iowa, said her paper has a long-standing policy of not endorsing candidates for office.

“We take a stand on issues, but not on candidates,” she said. “It has been this paper’s policy for decades not to endorse and we have continued with that trend. We have had numerous discussions about it over the years, but in the end decide to stay clear of endorsing. 

“We feel that we put the information out there for the voters to understand who they are voting for and where the candidate stands on the issue, but it is (reader’s) decision in the voting booth.”
David Mayberry, editor of the Mason City (Iowa) Globe Gazette, said his paper stopped endorsing in 2011, but “we are looking at resuming that in the future.”

“I do believe, anecdotally, that abandoning that practice in 2011 led campaigns to make shorter and less frequent trips to North Iowa. None even offered to visit the newspaper during the most recent caucus season.

“Everyone would agree that our biggest impact is going to be on local races, but the presidential campaigns are different in Iowa and were notably so this year,” Mayberry said. 

“With so many candidates, another voice – and hopefully a trusted one – to help navigate the field should help voters make an informed decision.”

Newspaper endorsements are part of a newspaper’s heritage and something of a throwback to another era, said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University and former long-time politics reporter at the Des Moines Register.

“Naturally some think they can be dropped,” he said. “Yet they still represent the soul of a newspaper and offer perspectives readers can't find anyplace else. It's also true much of journalism is going ‘back to the future’ with more highly opinionated content in demand, especially on internet venues, so the idea of getting rid of this form of opinion journalism at a time when it's the sort of unique thing many customers want seems short sighted.”

It’s not a new debate. In 2004, Jim Romenesko ran this headline in his Poynter blog, “Why do editorial board bother with endorsements?” In 2008, Al Tompkins asked on is Poynter blog, “Do newspaper endorsements matter?” 

And in 2014, the Columbia Journalism Review published its piece, “Why some newspapers are abandoning endorsements: Editors see a risk to credibility, and search for different ways to foster debate.”

In November 2014, The Times and Democrat in Orangeburg, South Carolina, published an editorial titled, “No now more than ever” about the paper’s long-standing refusal to endorse. 

They wrote, “Choosing not to endorse does not mean refusing to take stands on issues and not telling voters where we agree and disagree with candidates. But it does mean stopping short of telling readers for whom to vote. … And make no mistake, an endorsement makes the publication an issue, with those receiving it trumpeting the endorsement and those not getting the nod talking about bias and partisanship.”

Yepsen acknowledged endorsements might not have the influence they once had among voters, but they can still have an impact on a political race in just the way described by the Orangeburg editorial.

“(Endorsements) often generate news coverage and create buzz in political circles,” Yepsen said. “Inside a campaign, they can energize or demoralize supporters and donors.”

To many editors, moving away from presidential endorsements is an honest evaluation of the best way to use dwindling newsroom resources.

“We don’t do a lot of what we used to do,” said Tucson Daily Star senior editor Debbie Kornmiller. “We don’t sponsor the forums like we used to do. The League of Women Voters does that now.”

The Tucson Daily Star surveyed readers two election cycles ago and found that presidential endorsements don’t matter to them. Instead, readers said they care about endorsements in local races, Kornmiller said. 

“So that’s what we do – school board, city council, fire district. You can’t find that anywhere else. No other media is covering it the way we do. That’s where we can make the most impact.

“From a personal standpoint, the presidential race matters, but it doesn’t,” she said. “To me, what matters is who’s running my kid’s schools and whether the police will come to my house and what it will cost me to be part of the fire district.”
Autumn Phillips is executive editor of the Quad City Times of Davenport, Iowa, and an APME board member.

Editors respond to endorsement decisions

Dennis Anderson
Executive Editor, Peoria Journal-Star, Peoria, Illinois

Kasich and Clinton. This was easy because of the alternatives, especially on the GOP side. Experience and ability to cross aisles were what we based our decision on.

I don't think our endorsements matter when readers make their decisions. But I think it helps if we can present points on each candidate that can make readers consider a stance on an issue they may not have previously considered. 

We received little feedback from readers on our endorsements. However, we have received a lot of feedback from Trump supporters who believe we aren't being fair in our news coverage. About 95 percent of our coverage of the presidential race comes from The Associated Press and the Washington Post.

The role of an endorsement is to provide a reason for selecting one candidate over another, within the context of the position and how it impacts our readership, and local and state government. It's also to make people think and consider points on important issues they may not have considered before.

Ken Tingley
Editor, The Post-Star, Glens Falls, New York

Kasich in the Republican primary in New York and Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. We held a vote of our five-person editorial board after a discussion about the candidates and issues. No candidates would visit us. This isn’t Iowa. We have one citizen representative on our editorial board so our readers are represented.

No, I don’t think our endorsement makes much of a difference in a presidential race, especially this one where there has been so much news coverage for so long.

We got the usual feedback on Facebook and with comments about how lame our endorsements were. Some of them were pretty absurd. We endorsed Clinton on Saturday and Kasich on Sunday. After the Sunday endorsements, someone wrote, “Hey, didn’t they just endorse Clinton yesterday.” 

Then someone else wrote, “I wonder who they will endorse tomorrow.” I think they were serious and no one mentioned that there were two separate primaries. I don’t think most people knew that here.

We’ve always been very committed to endorsing in elections, especially the smaller local elections. If we don’t provide a face-to-face meeting with candidates to discuss the issues and begin the discussion for readers, then who. 

Personally, I think those that don’t endorse are wimps. They just don’t want to hear the negative feedback. You are always going to get that.

Mark Mahoney
Editorial Page Editor, The Daily Gazette, Schenectady, New York

Kasich and Clinton. We comprised a special election editorial board consisting of our publisher, editor, managing editor, editorial page editor, digital director and a representative from our non-news staff. 

I provided some guidelines for the discussion that included reminding the board that we were addressing different constituencies and inviting each person to conduct their own research regarding candidates' positions and the reasons they would support/ oppose each candidate. 

We then held a meeting, going around the table to each person to hear and discuss their views. We had a healthy debate, particularly on points such as Clinton's role in Benghazi what it might say about her competency on foreign policy as president, and on Kasich's stance on sending American ground troops to combat ISIS. We then took a voice vote on whom to endorse. 

After the meeting, I gathered my notes, went through details of all the candidates' positions, aligned them to what was said in our meetings, and wrote both editorials. 

We published them on the Sunday before the election (April 17) side by side on our Opinion Page front with photos of the endorsed candidates.

I think with this election, many people had made up their minds beforehand and that our endorsement served more as an opportunity for readers to use the paper to talk about the election and debate the pros and cons of each candidate further. 

We got a fair amount of feedback on social media, with the expected praise for our editorials from those who agreed with our endorsements and general derision from those who didn't. Our area generally went for Trump and Sanders.

We believe the newspaper can play a strong role in providing readers with information and perspective on candidates that they otherwise might not be able to get from other media. We closely follow candidates and issues as part of our daily journalistic activities, and in the case of local and state elections in particular, interact with the candidates directly and more closely on a regular basis than perhaps the average reader does. 

We feel that if we're going to offer editorial opinions on government decisions, our editorial mission would be incomplete if we did not also offer our perspective on the qualifications and competencies of the people who will be making those decisions. 

While we might not always sway someone's opinion with our endorsements, we hope that the editorials at least provide information and raise points that will engage our readers in discussion and debate on the candidates and the issues.

Gary Sawyer
Editor & General Manager, Herald & Review, Decatur, Illinois

We generally don’t endorse in primary elections. This year, we did encourage voters in the GOP primary to vote against Trump. We basically said vote for anyone on the Republican side, but stop the Trump march to the nomination.

A handful of readers were critical and another handful praised us for the editorial.

I never know what impact an endorsement has. In this case, Trump won the Illinois primary.

Our philosophy is that these are party decisions and we want to keep our endorsements until the general election. Over the years, we have made a few exceptions when the primary was the election.
Scott Milfred
Editorial Page Editor, Wisconsin State Journal

We endorse in general elections but not in primary elections – unless the primary election is essentially the general election because only one party fields a candidate (which happens in state and local elections sometimes). So we didn’t endorse in the Wisconsin presidential primaries recently. But we have endorsed in general presidential elections going back to at least Abraham Lincoln. 

We endorsed Mitt Romney for president last time around, in 2012, which got some national attention because we had previously endorsed Barack Obama in 2008. That was something of a trend nationally. 

We reached our decision through conversation and debate at editorial board meetings. I attended some of the presidential rallies. And we researched the positions of each candidate and their likely impacts on our community. 

Our editorial board members don’t always agree on every endorsement. But we try hard to reach consensus. We also go out of our way to publish opposing views.  

Our presidential endorsements always trigger lots of feedback. And in the case of the Romney endorsement in 2012, it drew tremendous traffic online, as well as a slew of reader comments. Our endorsements aren’t the typical partisan arguments for or against candidates, which makes them different from a lot of what people otherwise hear or read. 

Our editorials are more nuanced, thoughtful and real than the partisan talking points that dominate the airwaves and a lot of the news coverage. I think our presidential endorsements undoubtedly make people think and encourage further conversation about the election. So they do make a difference.

We endorse to be compelling, to give readers more information about the choice they face, and to be part of the community dialog. Our readers expect us to endorse in general elections. So it’s also tradition. Endorsements are something we offer readers that other media generally do not.

For statewide and local elections, we meet with the candidates before endorsing. This gives us access and depth and insight to help inform our opinions. And that helps readers learn more – even if they don’t agree with our ballot decisions.

Sean Scully
Editor, Napa Valley Register, Napa, California

• ENDORSED: The Register decided not to do presidential endorsements. I am somewhat dubious of the effectiveness of such endorsements anyway, but we definitely have enough to do locally without worrying about the presidential race.

It seems to me that the real value of newspaper endorsements, to the extent there is any, lies in our unusual access to and knowledge of the candidates. 

We see the politicians in action, encounter them in meetings and even meet them socially at the local level in ways that most voters do not. We do not and cannot, however, have that kind of special insight into the presidential candidate - essentially what we know about the candidates comes from the same sources as our readers, so we don't necessarily have any special insight or wisdom to share.

Associated Press Media Editors

APME is a professional network, a resource for helping editors and broadcasters improve their news coverage and newsroom operations.

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