Art by Nate Kitch

A Respectful Mirror

Editors in purple states must weigh truth-telling against pleasing their audience.

June 10, 2024

In 2016, for the first time in its history, the Arizona Republic endorsed a Democrat for president. Hillary Clinton had “the temperament and experience,” the editorial board wrote. Trump “responds to criticism with the petulance of verbal spit wads.” The editors said later that they expected a backlash—Arizona is a purple state, where Republicans edge out Democrats—but nothing like what they received. “You should be put in front of a firing squad as a traitor,” a reader blasted. “You’re dead. Watch your back,” another said. The Republic lost subscribers. In 2020, the editorial board announced that it would no longer endorse candidates at all. “Modern readers are changing how they get their news and what they expect from it,” the editors wrote. “What they don’t want is another media kingmaker.”

Around the same time, other newspaper conglomerates did away with endorsements, too. Gannett, which owns the Republic, advised against political endorsements outside of local races. McClatchy—which operates the Kansas City Star and the Miami Herald, among others—effectively banned presidential endorsements; McClatchy aimed to please its owner (a hedge fund called Chatham Asset Management, which also controls the National Enquirer) by keeping its focus “local, local, local.” Alden Global Capital—which owns some two hundred papers, including the Chicago Tribune and the Denver Post—followed suit. “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,” an editorial in Alden papers declared. In divided states, the logic went, papers simply couldn’t offend half their readers.

The predicament of regional papers extends beyond the opinion page, as reported facts about presidential elections—including who won in 2020—are up for interpretation. “I’ve been doing this for a long time,” Greg Burton, the executive editor of the Republic, told me. He’s had plenty of positive interactions with readers over the years. “But we are in different times, and there is a segment that has been animated over a couple of election cycles,” he said. “There are occasions, rare but not infrequent, where somebody is angry in a threatening manner.” Editors of purple-state outlets must weigh being direct against serving readers what they wish to read. Lately, they’ve gotten better at it: Burton told me that since 2018 the Republic has refined its political coverage and that digital subscriptions are up.

Kristen Hackbarth—the editor of This Is Reno, a locally owned, independent online publication—has worried about the proliferation of misinformation and election denialism in town, where the community is deeply polarized. But in 2022, when she and her team attempted to fact-check as much misinformation as they could, they found it impossible to keep up. “It’s like you’re chasing your tail,” she said. Bob Conrad, the publisher of This Is Reno, has never endorsed political candidates; he sees national politics as mostly outside the paper’s scope. “I am more passionate about living and cultural issues,” he told me. Reno faces a slew of challenges that keep the reporters at This Is Reno busy: an escalating homelessness crisis, local corruption, and a housing market that is priced well out of reach for most residents. The paper does not have full-time employees—both Conrad and Hackbarth have other jobs—so they limit their politics coverage to what’s happening in the county, like the time a Republican county commissioner proposed placing the Nevada National Guard at polling locations in response to constituents’ fears of voter fraud. 

In Texas, Nic Garcia—the regions editor for the Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet—aims to report the facts without alienating his readers. “We have a duty here to thoughtfully and respectfully mirror the reality in these communities,” as he put it. Garcia oversees reporters covering rural and small metro areas, some of which are home to the oil and gas industry, and where political views are especially conservative. “We have an obligation to absolutely cover the heck out of climate change,” he said; still, the coverage acknowledges that “the oil and gas industry keeps our hospitals running, our military strong” and (as another by-product) ensures that “your Coke Zeros come in plastic.” It’s a local framing. “We do our readers a disservice if we try to force any sort of particular worldview on them,” he said. “That’s just going to shut down any conversation.”

“Journalists almost have to be amateur philosophers, because we have to understand epistemology,” Trip Jennings—the executive director of New Mexico In Depth, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative newsroom—told me. “How do we know how these people who are pushing back against, or who subscribe to the integrity of, the election system form their understanding?” About 48 percent of people in New Mexico lean Democratic, and more than 30 percent skew Republican; Jennings said that his readers come for his outlet’s accountability journalism. This year, he started writing a bimonthly column for a pair of conservative papers—the Rio Grande Sun and Artesia Daily Press—in the interest of reaching an audience he otherwise wouldn’t. “This idea that everybody has the same reality? That’s crazy right now. That’s been totally obliterated.” 

Not all regional editors make the same calculations. Chris Quinn, the editor of the Plain Dealer, in Cleveland, regularly weighs in on national politics on his op-ed page. “The north star here is truth,” he wrote in March. “We tell the truth, even when it offends some of the people who pay us for information. The truth is that Donald Trump undermined faith in our elections in his false bid to retain the presidency.” For a while, Quinn struggled to respond to readers who wrote in with either vitriol or earnest questions: “They ask me over and over, How can you just so summarily dismiss a sizable portion of your readership that believes, as I do—and it strikes you, right? Because they’re not doing this to attack me. They’re asking me legitimately, Please help me understand this conflict.” That column was his answer. The Plain Dealer has a politically diverse readership—Cleveland is a Democratic stronghold; Ohio at large is red—and hasn’t decided whether it will endorse a presidential candidate this year; most people come for the sports content. “It’s a great melting pot because of that—we’re not just news, we’re not just politics,” Quinn said. “We’re one of the last places where people get together from all stripes.” He feels a responsibility to provide a forum. “We are part of the democracy of America,” he said. “And if you don’t have it, I think the government fails.”

Kevin Lind is a CJR fellow.