Why some newspapers are abandoning endorsements (Updated)

Editors see a risk to credibility, and search for different ways to foster debate

DETROIT, MI — The newspaper endorsement: It’s a hardy trademark of election season, a platform for editorial boards to dispense their wisdom, even a source of information for data journalists.

But the traditional endorsement is increasingly being tinkered with—or dropped altogether. 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.

Meanwhile, publications that continue to endorse are trying out new approaches, from live-streamed candidate interviews to full-fledged public events. The changes amount to a minor experiment in how and whether an old form can be made to matter in a new media and political environment.

One of the latest papers to drop political endorsements is the Green Bay Press-Gazette, which recently announced it will stop the practice because “we want to be an independent voice amid the growing clamor of voices espousing hyper-partisan views.” The paper was following the lead of another Wisconsin publication, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which abandoned endorsements in 2012. Editorial page editor David Haynes wrote at the time that some readers “confuse our political news coverage with our editorial recommendations… This loss of credibility is a high price to pay to conjure a ghost of newspapering past that we have come to believe is of little value today.”

Elsewhere, the Portland Press-Herald in Maine and Midland Reporter-Telegram in Texas have announced this year they will back out of the endorsement business. That follows the 2012 cycle, when the Chicago Sun-Times and more than 30 papers in the Halifax Media chain, including the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Gainesville Sun, and Wilmington Star-News, gave up the practice. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution did the same in 2009. (UPDATE, 10/20: The Sun-Times is back in the endorsement game.)

As for movement in the other direction? The Los Angeles Times, which gave up endorsements in presidential campaigns after 1972, in part because of conflict over its support for Richard Nixon, returned to the practice in 2008. The Times’ reasoning tracked pretty closely with the Chicago Tribune’s 2012 statement on why it plans to keep endorsing: Editorial boards take stands on political issues every day, and it would be odd or even irresponsible to go silent at such a key moment.

And when one of the Halifax papers, The Press Democrat of Sonoma County, CA, was sold to local owners, it promptly resumed endorsements. “[D]isengaging from local elections makes a community newspaper less relevant,” wrote publisher Bruce Kyse.

Of course, most papers still do publish endorsements. When the Journal-Sentinel changed course, editorial page editors at other outlets disagreed, Haynes said. “I think a lot of [editors] really believe strongly in the traditional model.” And political players from both sides in the highly polarized state accused the paper of losing its nerve.

But the response from readers was mixed, he added. “Older readers and more traditional readers thought we were giving up something important, and with younger readers, there was sort of a big shrug.”

A concern that the form is stale may be behind a project this year in Michigan. MLive.com, the umbrella outlet for the state’s eight Advance-owned papers, will be making endorsements in statewide races. But first, in partnership with Michigan Radio and The Center for Michigan, it hosted a “2014 Ballot Bash”—a series of free live events to stage editorial interviews with candidates for governor, attorney general, and US Senate. With livestreaming, broadcast, and editorial coverage, the hope is that the model will encourage public engagement and transparency. There was a bit of a partisan divide in the staging of the live events: Republican candidates were hosted on the traditionally conservative west side of the state, while Democratic candidates were hosted in more liberal cities in the central and east sides.

Whether or not they endorse, plenty of other editorial boards are making candidate interviews more transparent too, if without the live-event showmanship. Online video of the interviews has become practically routine. At the Press-Gazette, where the editorial board promised to deliver “expanded coverage about races of local interest” even as it stopped making endorsements, candidates will be invited to record five-minute videos that will appear online and be transcribed for print.

The emphasis on discussion and engagement is partly an acknowledgment that, at least for high-profile general election races, few people believe newspaper endorsements do much to move votes (though there’s evidence that, at least under certain circumstances, they can). Endorsements might be helpful as a way to take stock and guide discussion—that’s what was behind the Newark Star-Ledger’s 2013 endorsement of Gov. Chris Christie, according to Tom Moran, the paper’s editorial page editor. But, the skeptics would say, a paper could conceivably achieve the same goals without picking a candidate, and save itself some regrets if the choice goes sour.

In Wisconsin, which has seen a steady series of hard-fought elections, Haynes said he questioned whether editorial endorsements were effective—not so much in getting a candidate elected, but in supporting informed, rational discourse. However nuanced and researched the editorial was, he said, it got boiled down into a political checkbox.

So after discussions internally and with community members, the Journal Sentinel chose to focus on “creating a forum for issues, and being seen as an honest broker of opinion.” Editorials are one tool in a box, Haynes said, that also includes op-eds, letters, cartoons, live blogs, columns, and social media. “I’m perfectly willing to concede in different markets, it may well be different,” he added.

An open question is whether the “toolbox” approach can spur discussion about down-ballot and local elections. Endorsements can hold more sway in those races, because voters tend to have less information; in lower-profile races, especially non-partisan ones, a newspaper endorsement might be the only quick, coherent guide a voter has.

Haynes said he understands that there is more of an “information vacuum” at the local level, but “unfortunately, I don’t think I can fix it with endorsement editorials. I don’t have staffing for the broad brush editorials we once did.” He said a better solution, which the Journal Sentinel has not yet successfully seen through, would be robust online voter guides to help inform voters in local elections.

Still, he said, the endorsement editorial may still be used on occasion by the Journal Sentinel, if a race is extraordinary in some way—like the recall election of Scott Walker, which the paper opposed on the grounds that policy disputes did not warrant recalling a governor.

In a case like that, “We’re not doing it just because we have to,” Haynes said, “but because we have something to say.”

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.