Between accusations of biased coverage, waning power to influence readers, and the very real potential to drive away advertisers, newspapers are better off keeping their political endorsements to themselves.

Over this past election cycle, E&P tallied every presidential endorsement we could get our hands on (the still-incomplete list is online at editorandpublisher.com/election) and noticed a few interesting trends. One was how far many endorsing newspapers were from actual voter preference; the other was the number of papers that chose to forgo issuing any endorsement at all. You could say that one begets the other, but that conclusion paints only a partial picture.

In the critical swing state of Ohio, Republican Mitt Romney was endorsed by a number of dailies, including heavy hitters the Columbus Dispatch and Cincinnati Enquirer. Columbus is the seat of Franklin County, which supported President Obama by more than 60 percent at the voting booths. Hamilton County, serviced by the Enquirer, favored Obama by nearly 52 percent, a margin that helped push Ohio into the blue and seal the president’s re-election.

Arguments that newspapers are “out of touch” with their readership miss the point. The Dispatch and the Enquirer didn’t intend their endorsements to be a bellwether of existing political sentiment; they were trying to persuade readers to vote in line with their own views. They failed. Meanwhile, those newspapers that sat out the endorsement game were trying to present the unbiased product promised to readers and advertisers. They succeeded.

E&P’s Newsosaur columnist Alan Mutter wrote on his blog that “a newspaper lacking the gumption to endorse a presidential candidate looks pretty lame in a day when opinions are a dime a dozen on the Internet.” I say this is precisely why newspapers should abstain from endorsing political candidates.

The last thing readers need is one more unsolicited political opinion. Opinions — both logical and ludicrous — are impossible to escape in our hyper-connected society, and while I don’t know one person who made it through election night without defriending a longtime associate on Facebook, I do know many who would benefit from a healthy dose of hard facts.

Readers need facts to make informed decisions for themselves, and newspapers are perhaps the most historically well-regarded and trusted source of said facts. Any use of the opinion page to sway voters is a violation of that trust, and notable newspapers across the country opted out of endorsing a presidential candidate for this very reason.

There’s also an element of respect shown in presenting news and giving your audience space to come to its own conclusion. When a paper respects its readers, readers in turn respect the paper and will be more inclined to renew their subscription once the election is over. Just ask the San Diego Union-Tribune, whose circulation has slipped more than 4 percent year-over-year since hotel magnate Doug Manchester bought the paper and began using it to trumpet his personal business and political agenda.

Political opinions are indeed a dime a dozen, which is why newspapers should stick to what they’re good at: hard-hitting, watchdogging, muckraking journalism that gets to the meat of each candidate’s campaign. Leave endorsements to the bloggers.


Comments

And It's Bad for Your Business

Clete Brock | Thursday, December 27, 2012

Two quick points:
1) Since most newspapers (as long as we're being honest) skew left-wing, their endorsements are often a public poke in the eye to the people those papers need the most: business owners/capitalists/advertisers. When those advertisers choose to put their money into politically agnostic advertising opportunities, the "opinion leading" papers will continue their slide into irrelevancy.
2) Interesting how the only examples Miss Ackerman cites are among the very few papers who lean right-wing. Speaking of leaning, and irrelevancy...

Take Newspapers Seriously

Romas Sakadolskis | Tuesday, December 25, 2012

This editorial raises a troubling question: does the author understand what newspapers are all about? For example, she notes: "One (trend) was how far many endorsing newspapers were from actual voter preference..." What would be the point of an endorsement, if a newspaper first checked which direction the wind is blowing? Another statement is no less strange: "The last thing readers need is one more unsolicited political opinion". Is that what newspapers are -- generators of unsolicited opinion? That's just plain silly. Newspapers are not someone on a street corner talking loudly -- that metaphor befits social networks. Newspapers offer informed opinion. Remember Hal Jurgensmeyer, a business VP with Knight Ridder who said that newspapers are "in the influence business". Reporting "just the facts" was always an illusion. Newspapers are not mere purveyors of information. They help readers make sense of the news and the world where they occur. Any critical reader of news knows that agenda-setting and framing are what newspapers do every day. Endorsements are an important part of this process. Take away informed opinion and you take away an important reason to buy a newspaper.

Maybe E&P should stop expressing opinions

Dennis Mangan | Friday, December 21, 2012

I see at least four statements of fact in the fourth graf beginning,"Arguments that newspapers ..." none of which is supported by evidence. I would agree that any newspaper that is running editorials (endorsement or otherwise) as half baked as Ackermann's piece should stop sharing their opinions.

Quality vs. Quantity

Cindy Butner | Friday, December 21, 2012

While opinions are a dime a dozen, informed opinions are not. Endorsements of local candidates in my newspaper are greatly missed by readers, and I'm one of them. They were really one of literally two places that any local citizen can read a substantive review written by someone who had actually spent time with the candidate, pushed them for more than a sound bite, and researched the issues. Hmmm. It's not pop culture (e.g. 5 reasons why I think you should vote for...), but it sounds like premium content for core readers to me. If we intend to charge for content, it should be worth paying for.

The Role of News Media

Scott Stines | Friday, December 21, 2012

I guess I'll be the lone dissenter. The editorial page of the newspaper not only provides community members a forum to share their opinions, but also provides the newspaper the opportunity to express their (editorial board, owner's, etc.) opinion. Oftentimes those opinions are not popular - more often than not the newspaper's editorial sheds light on a topic many would prefer not be addressed or known to exist. In the case of political endorsements,independent newspapers have the right/power to do what they wish - like you and me via social and mobile media. Despite the existence of large newspaper chains that may march in step to a central editorial board's dictates, many newspapers and newspaper editorial boards operate independently. It is this independence - willingness to run a story or an editorial regardless of how it will affect advertising or the subscriptions - or endorsing a candidate - even though local opinion polls suggest another candidate is ahead in the polls - is why newspapers are relevant and play an important role in the communities they serve.

Editor & Publisher The Times Newsweekly/Ridgewood Times

Maureen Walthers | Friday, December 21, 2012

The Ridgewood Times/Times Newsweekly is a weekly newspaper in Queens County, New York City. We were established in 1908 and are proud of our 104 years of continuous printing every Thursday. We strongly feel that newspapers, or for that matter, any media should be in the business of endorsing any candidate for any political office. That is not the job of a newspaper. Our job is to present the news and let the reader make his/her own decision. We cover every local civic, fraternal, religious organization on a regular basis and when politicians show up at these meetings, we cover their statements without any spin whatsoever. Shame on anyone in the media who thinks they can dictate who someone should vote for. What the hell are they teaching in journalism schools today that makes journalists think their opinion matters. The media is a messenger and their first and only job is to get it right, get it straight and spell it correctly.

Agree!

Tracy Baim | Friday, December 21, 2012

I could not agree more with this editorial. As a publisher of Outlines and now Windy City Times newspaper, I stopped having endorsements in our paper more than 20 years ago. As a gay newspaper serving Chicago, I realized our community needed information, not someone telling them what to do. So we survey the candidates on a wide range of issues, and list their responses, in addition to listing the endorsements and ratings of a wide range of organizations.

Endorsements

Jeff Ackerman | Friday, December 21, 2012

I agree completely. Tough to dispel the bias accusations when you make endorsements. Besides, they are generally the kiss of death to any candidate.

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