About Whether Newspapers Should Endorse Political Candidates

From CJR’s The Media Today with Jon Allsop:

IT’S NEWSPAPER-ENDORSEMENT SEASON AGAIN, and that means it’s Should newspapers do endorsements? season again. Last week, Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund notorious for slashing costs at its local titles, came down on the No side of the question, with editorial boards at papers that it owns stating that they will no longer endorse candidates for governor, US senator, or president. “Unfortunately, as the public discourse has become increasingly acrimonious, common ground has become a no man’s land between the clashing forces of the culture wars,” a company editorial explaining the change read, adding that, especially online, readers often struggle to differentiate between news and opinion content, perceiving the latter as revealing a bias in the former even though the two are typically walled off from one another. The editorial said that while the no-endorsement policy would apply in races that bosses see as “increasingly nationalized,” it would not in “more local contests, such as city councils, school boards, local initiatives, referendums and other such matters.”

The new policy, predictably, generated commentary among media types, some of whom endorsed Alden’s decision even as they distanced themselves from the company’s broader media-ownership playbook. Others disagreed, including Casey Seiler, the editor of the (Hearst-owned) Albany Times-Union, who argued in a column that candidate interviews that the paper’s editorial board often conducts prior to issuing endorsements represent a valuable opportunity to ask tough questions, and that any move to convince readers that “opinion pages aren’t, uhh, opinionated” seems silly. Recapping the debate, Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein asked whether the newspaper endorsement is dying, and called various major titles, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, in search of an answer, finding that, there at least, any endorsement-death suggestions would seem to be greatly exaggerated.

As I intimated at the top of this newsletter, the debate as to whether newspaper editorial boards ought to endorse candidates for public office is far from new; as Katie Robertson of the Times (who was first to report on Alden’s new policy) noted, the Richmond Times-Dispatch did away with endorsements in 2018—citing similar reservations about these “bitterly divisive times” and the risk of creating “a perception that complicates the job of our objective journalists”—while in 2020, the newspaper chain McClatchy ruled that its papers wouldn’t endorse Joe Biden or Donald Trump for president unless they had first interviewed both men. Conversely, the same year, other titles that hadn’t typically endorsed candidates—from Scientific American to the Puerto Rican paper El Nuevo Díacame out for Biden, often citing the exceptional danger of a second Trump term. Since then, the debate has bubbled on. Writing for Nieman Lab before Alden’s new policy dropped last week, Gregory P. Perreault and Volha Kananovich, journalism professors at Appalachian State University, shared findings from research that they have conducted since 2020, when they asked dozens of journalists across a range of publications how they felt about endorsements. Many saw them as anachronistic, ineffectual, and counterproductive. Perceived bias and blurred lines between news and opinion were, again, top concerns.

Ahead of the 2020 election, I, too, weighed in on this debate, broadly coming down in defense of newspaper endorsements as a concept. I argued that they can be consequential, especially in lower-profile, down-ballot races, and that, whatever their effect, they sit within a valuable newspaper tradition of civic engagement; I also argued that, even if you contested this positive case for endorsements, it was far fetched to believe that scrapping them would, on its own, make much of a dent in the far bigger problems of media literacy and reader trust. I’d broadly stand by this position today, or at least my latter argument: it’s certainly legitimate to interrogate what value endorsements add, but I remain unconvinced by the claim of their centrality to questions of bias and trust. (There are, ultimately, ample non-sacrificial ways to visually differentiate news and opinion on a website.)

I’d offer both similar and more specific criticisms of Alden’s stated reasons for doing away with gubernatorial, senatorial, and presidential endorsements. The disappearance of “common ground” as “public discourse” becomes “increasingly acrimonious” could just as reasonably be held up as a reason for newspaper endorsements—as a signpost in turbulent times, with voters confronting ever-higher stakes—as against them. The difference between “nationalized” races and local ones feels arbitrary, too: plenty of hyperlocal elections have recently been supercharged by national narratives (see: school-board races) and local and national politics—and politicians—ultimately coexist on one porous continuum, and can never be hermetically sealed from one another. Sure, as various journalists pointed out to Perreault and Kananovich, hyperlocal elections are often nonpartisan. But to see nonpartisan endorsements as less reputationally risky than partisan ones is to indulge an idea—that political controversy is primarily rooted in party identification—that newspapers should be challenging, not channeling.

I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers here; ultimately, the perennial endorsement debate will rumble on. Alden’s intervention, however, is interesting in a second sense that has to do with the broader fate of opinion journalism at local titles, particularly those owned by major corporate chains. If local papers can legitimately reach different conclusions about the suitability of endorsements in their communities, Alden’s decision looks like a centralized directive across its titles—one which some well-placed observers have interpreted through the prism of Alden’s prior directives to cut costs at its papers. Quentin Young, who used to oversee endorsements at the Alden-owned Boulder Daily Cameraand now edits the nonprofit Colorado Newsline, described the decision not only as a “blow to democracy” but also “a cynical move to prop up revenue sources at the expense of free speech.” Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, tweeted that he had not previously considered that “an argument FOR newspapers continuing to endorse candidates” could be to demonstrate that they “still have a pulse as the jaws of the private equity crocodile come crunching down.”

There’s a broader context here. Earlier this year, newspapers owned by Gannett, now the only US newspaper chain bigger than Alden, moved to print less opinion content—including syndicated columns, editorial cartoons, letters to the editor, and, yes, endorsements (which Gannett had already advised its papers to scale back, citing similar reasons to Alden’s)—after a committee of editors inside Gannett concluded that “readers don’t want us to tell them what to think,” and that opinion articles are both poorly read but overrepresented among reasons for canceled subscriptions. Gannett insisted that it had not mandated that its papers scale back opinion content, but an unnamed editor at one paper told Poynter’s Rick Edmonds that this was “bullshit,” and Edmonds also reported that the cutback was motivated in part by a desire on Gannett’s part to cut spiraling printing costs. Gannett, Edmonds feared, could inspire other titles to decide that, “as financial pressure pinches, a full-out editorial/opinion effort may be the next thing to go.”

The Gannett editors’ committee recommended some reforms to the chain’s opinion content—signing previously unsigned editorials, for instance—that need not lead to cutbacks, and the company has also spoken of its longer-term efforts to foster community dialogue in less musty fora than newspaper opinion pages, including, in one case, a Facebook group. Innovation in how newspapers approach their obligation to serve as a public square for the exchange of arguments and ideas is welcome. But the obligation itself should not be weakened; to my mind, at least, this remains a core function of newspapers at both the national and local levels. The solution to bad local opinion content should be good local opinion content, not less local opinion content; indeed, the best opinion journalism doesn’t “tell people what to think,” but rather presents a nuanced consideration of a public issue based on factual reporting. Ultimately, the best approach to reader confusion or anger at opinion content is not retrenchment, but reengagement.

Which brings us back to endorsements. Again, it’s totally fair to question whether an editorial board backing a candidate in any given race really furthers a newspaper’s obligation to foster a vibrant public square in 2022—but any decision to scale back endorsements should result from rigorous philosophical grappling with this question, and not from more reactive reasoning around reader perception, the “culture wars,” or cost. It’s unclear if Alden’s recent decision was financially motivated (if endorsements don’t take up much print space, they could conceivably drive away readers or advertisers), though given Alden’s broader track record, it’s legitimate to pose the question. Ultimately, we shouldn’t conceive of cuts to local news in purely financial terms, but in civicterms, too. Getting rid of endorsements needn’t be a civic cut. But—when it smacks of throwing one’s hands up in the face of a political climate that just got too divisive—that’s how it comes across.

Over the weekend, at least one Alden title, the Baltimore Sun, did issue an endorsement in a gubernatorial race. According to Robertson, of the Times, the Sun was one of three Alden titles permitted to go ahead with endorsements in banned races in this election cycle “because of how far along in the process they are and because they are viewed as state newspapers of record,” with the other two papers being the Chicago Tribune and the Denver Post. After Alden’s new policy dropped, Megan Schrader, the opinion editor at the latter paper, confirmed to the Colorado media reporter Corey Hutchins that the paper would be barred from endorsing in future gubernatorial and US Senate races. Schrader said that she disagreed with that decision, in part because of the value of the interviews that her paper has traditionally conducted with candidates prior to issuing endorsements. The interviews, she said, “probably serve a higher democratic purpose than the endorsement that comes from them—just because we are able to really drill down on issues and get specifics in a way that you don’t even in debates these days.”

Below, more on opinion journalism and local news:

  • Going local: Last year, CJR’s Lauren Harris spoke with Julie Makinen, the executive editor of the Desert Sun, in California, about her efforts to organize the paper’s opinion section around local issues, rather than columns from a national wire service, and the challenges she faced in doing so. “Editing local columns, soliciting local columns, processing letters to the editor, going back and forth with people to refine what they’re trying to express, Zooming the local editorial board, writing editorials, and getting consensus is time consuming,” Makinen said. “One of the values of an opinion page is that it’s a moderated space. People get to take turns, and it’s not just people in your own bubble. It’s people who live in close proximity to you, but you probably don’t know them.”
  • E-pluribus: Robertson, of the Times, profiled Pluribus News, a new site that aims to expand coverage of statehouses not by covering them individually, as other news organizations have done, but by “covering broader policy currents coursing from one state to another.” Reid Wilson, the site’s founder, told Robertson that it will be funded by digital subscriptions and ad revenue, including from lobbyists. “Business interests that advertise around D.C.-based publications are increasingly turning to the states because they see the opportunity to influence policy there before it comes here to D.C.,” he said.
  • At home on the Range: Christa Lawler, of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, wrote about the impending launch of Iron Range Today, an online-only reporting project that will cover parts of northern Minnesota. The site will aim to “eschew the fast-paced churn of daily journalism in favor of in-depth reporting,” Lawler writes, with the site’s two founders set to cover politics, mining, and culture, among other stories. One of the founders—Jerry Burnes, who left journalism for a communications job after burning out, before deciding to return to the industry—said that Iron Range Today will be run for free to begin with, but might switch to a nonprofit model at some future stage.

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