To endorse or not? That is the editorial board’s agonizing question

October 26, 2018
Category: Business & Work

During this much-hyped midterm election, the curious voter might (or might not) want to check out which candidates his or her local newspaper recommends. Whether a search of that sort will yield anything is uncertain, though: Old-fashioned editorial endorsements are still in style some places, long gone at others.

What jumped out after I sampled 20 or so sites and emailed some op-ed page editors was heightened uncertainty about the relevance and value of endorsements. More specifically, publishers and editors are questioning whether taking sides in a polarizing race may heighten confusion about their news department — are those reporters and editors advocates, too?

Some editors have chosen to air out these concerns in editorials about the endorsing process. For instance, Sarah Gassen, editorial page editor at the Arizona Star of Tucson, which is sticking with endorsements, wrote this in a piece explaining the process:

Sometimes voters want our endorsements so they can follow our advice — sometimes they want to know who not to vote for. Either way, we are glad to help.

I don’t mean to shout, but I think this bears capital letters: OUR ENDORSEMENTS ARE NOT PART OF THE STAR’S NEWS ELECTION COVERAGE. The Editorial Board and news department are independent of each other.

Tom Silvestri, longtime president and publisher of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, had a lengthy piece expressing the same concerns, but reaching a different conclusion:  The Times Dispatch is doing endorsements in this year's races, but that's it. 

"After the November election, this newspaper will end the practice of political endorsements," Silvestri wrote, instead opting for commentary that highlights potential solutions to community issues.

An interesting third variation on the theme, playing out at the Tallahassee Democrat, was explained to me by platform editor Randi Atwood, whose duties include being opinions editor. Like most papers, the Democrat now posts videos of candidate interviews. It also sometimes writes editorial commentary on those, but stops short of an actual endorsement.

Atwood said that she and publisher Skip Foster hit on that solution during the 2016 election. To my mind, it puts the Democrat in a curious position this cycle.  With ethics questions swirling around Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum in his governor's race against Trump acolyte Ron DeSantis, the Democrat won't render an editorial recommendation, though its own reporting broke some details of the controversy.

For other editors, the endorsement issue has been settled for a while. David Haynes, opinion editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, shifted to a mainly digital-solutions approach 18 months ago. But the paper had already abandoned endorsements after the 2012 races. Haynes emailed:

I think endorsements are a relic of an earlier era. I have served on opinion boards since 2006 and never bought the idea that newspapers had any great wisdom to impart in elections. And certainly didn't buy the idea that anyone listened. The 2016 presidential election is proof enough of that.

Haynes said he thinks he may be in the minority among metro opinion editors. That's my sense, too. Count the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Dallas Morning News, Arizona Republic, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and my hometown Tampa Bay Times among the many who still find the exercise worth doing.

Colleen Nelson, a Pulitzer winner for editorial writing who heads the Kansas City Star's substantial opinions effort, said that her paper will be endorsing in the Kansas governor race, the Missouri U.S.Senate race and "all the way down the ballot to a local question about libraries."

Nelson added, "Instead of just telling readers what to do and expecting them to heed our advice, we're going to make our endorsement process as transparent as possible." That effort will include video clips, interview excerpts, podcasts and an explanation of the process. She concluded, "Endorsements in local races still have value, but editorial boards need to update their approach and pull back the curtain."

In this wave of introspection, I have seen only passing mention of budget cuts, reduced staffing and shrinking print edition space available for editorials and op-eds. (Space is not a problem, obviously, in digital format).

But this year and next cycle, that's one more pressure on newspapers. My longtime professional friend Rosemary O'Hara, editor of editorials at the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was catching her breath after producing 108 recommendations for state and local races and ballot questions.

It can be done, she wrote to a discussion group of editors, but in the Sun-Sentinel's case (and some others I have heard), only by enlisting trusted freelance contributors or retirees to join in the interviews and write some of the pieces.

Speaking of ambivalence, I am of two minds whether traditional endorsements have a future. I do find the institutional voice of many editorials on a range of subjects dated and often pompous. I skip them with a clear conscience.

But the endorsement exercise has some hidden virtues for the news organizations and the candidates. The latter will spend an hour fielding questions that are pointed and informed but not obnoxious. And the questioners will get a sense of who is running and the personal stakes for candidates, which attack ads and debates may obscure.

As New Jersey editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer in the early 1980s, I sat in on interviews with gubernatorial candidates Tom Kean and Jim Florio. I came away thinking both were impressive and either could do the job. And that's how it came out: Kean won and served two terms; Florio succeeded him for one.

Ten years later, as the Tampa editor of the (then) St. Petersburg Times, I was in a small group that screened a full slate of candidates. First up was a young man back in the city after working in Egypt who said that he was running for the school board because he needed a job. Honest but not a persuasive qualification. On a later visit the eccentric and embattled district attorney spoke for 35 minutes from handwritten notes, pleading for his job, before answering our questions. (He lost.)

Bottom line: Kudos to all those trying to reinvent the process, mitigating its hand-me down faults. But I hope the notion that endorsements are a test of whether local newspapers stand for something in their communities has some life left.

(And if you have made it this far, supporting or dissenting opinions would be welcome at redmonds@poynter.org.)