Endorsing presidential candidates appears to be a dwindling practice

The ballots are in and the race is over, but for Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel editorial editor David Haney, it’s now time to step back and assess the paper’s political coverage.

Although he believes the paper needs to do a better job covering campaigns on the opinion side for the next election, there is one thing the paper won’t be doing when these four years are up and it’s time to vote again: endorse a presidential candidate.

The Journal-Sentinel is not an anomaly; there were a number of newspapers this year that decided against endorsing for a variety of reasons. The Alabama Media Group (AMG), which owns the Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times, and Mobile Press-Register, said they declined to endorse in favor of turning that focus to local politics. The Chicago Sun-Times noted they would still supply in-depth reporting on candidates, but would not endorse due to a perceived bias. Other papers that also didn’t endorse this year include the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Dayton Daily News, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Syracuse Post-Standard. Editor & Publisher provides a more comprehensive list.

Haney shares a similar sentiment with AMG, noting he’s more concerned with “down-ticket races.” But as far as presidential endorsements go, he doesn’t believe there continues to be value in the practice. “That’s one of the reasons we’re not doing it. As I reread our own endorsement editorials – and those of other newspapers – I was struck by how little information was being conveyed to voters. I’d rather focus on issues. We can return to issues, voter ID for example, time and time again and each time get a little more authoritative in our arguments as we do more reporting and understand the issues better. Not so with endorsements,” he said. “I think we need to get way more aggressive in the use of social media and our website to host ongoing conversations. The mission of our editorial board is provoking and helping to host that forum. It’s not simply editorials. Editorials are a part of it, but only a part. The conversation is our real mission. Informed, knowledgeable readers make better voters. Reading a variety of views can help them.”

Since the Journal-Sentinel made the decision not to endorse, Haney said they have received mixed responses from readers. The older, more traditional segment of their audience was less likely to like the decision, while Internet-savvy readers that contacted him through email or social media seemed to agree with the decision more. “We’ve been through two years of bitter partisan warfare. Readers are sick of it,” he said. “That’s not a primary reason for us deciding not to endorse, but it plays into the views that readers have of the newspaper.”

While more newspapers made endorsements than didn’t, the subject of whether they really add much value to the election was a hot topic. EditorsWebsBlog cited a Pew study that found 14 percent of respondents said they would be influenced positively by a newspaper’s endorsement, while 14 percent said they would be influenced negatively.

Alan Mutter, former newspaper editor, current media consultant and author of the blog, Reflections of a Newsosaur, personally feels endorsements are still valuable to communities. However, he understands why newspapers may not be so inclined to endorse. For one, if a newspaper endorses a candidate that is in opposition to what the majority of readers want, newspapers run the risk of looking increasingly irrelevant and out of touch with their community. Many seem to agree local endorsements are really what matter. People need newspapers to figure out what propositions mean, and relay what kind of morals politicians are spouting, noted Mutter. “So I still trust my newspaper in most cases to help me make those decisions,” he said. “I think there’s a high road and a low road; it can be valuable for obscure positions and obscure issues, but not relevant to high profile campaigns such as the presidency.”

The Dallas Morning News is a paper that still believes it’s important to endorse a candidate. But they prefer to call it a “recommendation” based on diligent and in-depth reporting, noted vice president and editorial page editor Keven Willey. “The newspaper industry is under a lot of pressure these days, and we believe that done properly there is no better way to engage readers than to share our recommendations,” she said. She noted that regardless of party, the paper attempts to recommend whoever would make the best person for office by providing perspective.

While the Dallas Morning News goes about recommending candidates in a way that could dispel any suspicions of partiality, many newspaper heads cited bias as their reason to discontinue the practice. But bias used to be the standard when it was the norm for newspapers to be affiliated with a political party, Mutter noted. It’s only been since the 1950’s that newspapers became centrists, he said, because they wanted a large number of readers and advertisers. “I think for a lot of people, bias is in the eye of the beholder,” he said. “I think more journalists try to be fair than not, and I think more readers are more skeptical than we need to be, but I think that’s the world we live in.”

A lot can happen in four years, and whether this will continue to be a trend remains unseen. But several factors could play into a newspaper’s decision to endorse. For one, if the newspaper limits its publication schedule or goes online altogether, Mutter believes papers might not bother with endorsements at that point. Meanwhile, resources are always a factor and newsrooms have been diminishing for several years now. Although an increasing number of readers and newspapers may think endorsing presidential candidates is no longer necessary, others like Willey and the Dallas Morning News still believe in the power and community service aspect of endorsements. But it will take another election to tell us whether this long-held practice is coming to a close.

–Katrina M. Mendolera