Tuesday, October 13, 2009

AJC wimps out on endorsements

The first job of a newspaper is to set the agenda for the community.

That most inspiring thought, from Howard M. Ziff, one of my most inspiring journalism professors at the University of Illinois, came to mind when I read that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has decided to stop endorsing candidates for public office.

I can’t think of a more vital part of the agenda-setting role for a newspaper than vigorously vetting candidates and forthrightly informing readers of the findings. So, why is the AJC walking away from it?

In a sterile and bland editorial, the newspaper gave no compelling reason for electing to neuter itself when it comes to elections.

“We have heard from readers — and we agree — that you don’t need us to tell you how to vote,” the paper said in an editorial published Friday. “What readers tell us they need is information on who the candidates are, what they have done and what they want to do in the new job.”

While illuminating the records and aspirations of a candidates in a presumably fair and down-the-middle format is a valuable public service, the newspaper will deprive its readers of the unique and equally valuable insights gained by the reporters and editorial writers who cover the candidates on a day-to-day basis.

In an era when any number of user-generated media are producing any number of user-generated opinions, opinions indeed are plentiful. But those opinions frequently are of questionable quality and pedigree.

Those of us who still have confidence in and respect for newspapers want to know what professional journalists really think about the people running for public office. The editorial page should be a major venue for getting that information.

From a practical point of view, many of us depend on a newspaper’s assessment of the laundry list of judges standing for re-election and the hopefuls running for such often obscure boards as those governing community colleges, transit agencies, mosquito-abatement districts and the like.

After years of relentless staff cuts, routine and sustained coverage of those government activities is the most likely to have been truncated or eliminated at most newspapers. Absent input from the newspaper’s editorial page, most voters would have no idea whom to support.

Here in California, the land of limitless, usually ill-conceived and often misleading ballot propositions, I depend on newspapers to cut through the fiscal and rhetorical voodoo associated with most of them. While papers still provide he-said, she-said coverage of the highest-profile ballot measures, the propositions often are so intentionally befuddling that even the most diligent voter needs a straight steer from the newspaper’s editorial page.

The AJC is correct in saying that it can’t tell its readers how to vote. Even if every voter doesn’t follow a paper’s lead, however, a newspaper has the right and responsibility to share what it knows and lead its community.

Thorough and balanced reporting, combined with well-considered opinion, are two of the major things that differentiate newspapers from their incessantly proliferating online competitors.

There’s no excuse for abandoning those powerful attributes — or for wimping out. Why is the AJC doing so?

30 Comments:

Anonymous majigail said...

I have to say that I applaud this decision. In the days before 24 hour news networks and their pundits and terms like the "liberal media," a journalist's endorsement was seen as an unbiased, fully informed opinion.
However, considering how divided the country has become between the right and the left and how clearly certain media outlets have taken sides it is difficult to trust whether an endorsement is coming from a well informed journalist or from the company and shareholders who own the paper.
I'm glad to see one paper take the politics out of political reporting.

8:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This really hits the nail on the head. I have routinely used editorials to guide me in voting in local and even state elections. With hard local news so hard to come by today, often the pre-election-day editorial is the only thing I can find in the local paper about a given candidate or ballot issue. And even if I generally disagree with the paper's editorial stance, its editorial track record can provide enough context for me to evaluate the arguments for and against a candidate or proposal and make a somewhat informed decision.

10:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those of us who still have confidence in and respect for newspapers want to know what professional journalists really think about the people running for public office.

With all due respect, journalists are now commanding a level of respect that is neck-and-neck with Congress. In other words, horrid. Eighteen(!) percent of people surveyed by Pew said the press "dealt fairly with all sides."

Frankly, I don't need to read an AJC editorial to know what their editors think. I can simply read their ridiculously biased news pages and discern it for myself. Really, Alan. You have put up dozens of interesting posts here detailing the demise of newspapers, yet you seem incapable of processing the extreme cognitive dissonance between the beliefs of the average newspaperman and the average reader.

Newspapers have certainly been hurt by technology and numerous self-inflicted injuries. But worse than any of these is their willingness to sacrifice trust, their most valuable asset, for the sake of political advantage. I was a five newspaper-a-day reader in J-School. I read two a day as an adult up until the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, but when the media, led by the New York Times and its absurd 42 front-page stories, led the attack on our military as a means of un-electing George Bush I decided I had had enough.

I have not purchased a newspaper since, and I never will again. Once lost, trust is impossible to regain.

--Fresh Air

10:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps since most online news sites, like blogs, tend to take a partisan approach, the AJC looks at this decision as separating itself from them and appearing to be a more unbiased source of political content.

10:50 AM  
Anonymous Dave Mastio said...

I think your link to the editorial isn't working.

Anyway, on national and statewide candidates, I agree with the AJC. In those cases, a newspaper editorial board really doesn't have much of an advantage over regular people in terms of information. It is simply an exercise in newspaper people applying their values and telling voters what to do.

Down the ballot is where local papers can do a real service. The vast majority of readers don't have the time to dig out information about the parks bond issue and the local city council race and the newspaper's own coverage is often sparse.

There the context, analysis and judgment of an editorial writer with the time to dig a bit can be a service and can actually have an impact. We're kidding ourselves on bigger races.

(My views don't necessarily reflect the views of my past and current employers. Mostly my views contradict theirs.)

11:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, today there's no need to go to the newspaper for weather, stock quotes, movie times, movie reviews, recipes, classifieds (jobs, used cars, housing, garage sales), sports scores, comic strips, local restaurant and business reviews, gossip columns, advice, event listings, business news, breaking news, and now endorsements, or rather, point-of-view.

When the local newspaper goes bust, pray tell exactly what will I be losing ? Even the advertising is delivered better on the internet.

Reporters, now they're useful. They can be saved.
The paper? Without point of view, the paper is merely a carrier with nothing left to carry. Point-of-view is not in short supply on the internet either.

11:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The staff is half what it was 10 years ago.

When you say "the newspaper will deprive its readers of the unique and equally valuable insights gained by the reporters and editorial writers who cover the candidates on a day-to-day basis," it assumes there are reporters and editorial writers who cover the candidates on a day-to-day basis.

There are not.

11:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with one of the commenters here that the AJC's decision is caused by the AJC's drastically diminished staff and the lack of editorial writers than to anything else. Opinion has taken a real hit in this recession, from laid-off or bought out editorial cartoonists to diminished editorial pages.
I happen to disagree with my local paper more than I agree. But I buy it to hear the other side, and I do read editorial endorsements before voting. We don't have referendums in our state, but we do have an array of local elected offices from sheriffs to judges. Any guide to these choices is helpful.

12:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, this is a "we hacked our opinion staff" decision.

Interviewing all major-party candidates in a region the size of Atlanta, when you throw in county and legislative races, is too time-consuming, for the few writers who are left.

Most voters will walk in blind for most races, or pull a lever based on what ads they saw, which is worse.

1:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was a business decision. First, they shipped Cynthia Tucker off to DC and out of the top line editorial post very recently. Then they hired an apparant "conservative" with WSJ bona fides to steer their editorials. The AJC has been quite vexed how to reach those readers in the wealthy northern suburbs of Atlanta, not realizing that decades of hard-left, racial polemicizing for polemicization's sake might have turned off a reader or two. You know, the folks who were the ones responsible for putting Newt Gingrich and Bob Barr in power in one of the reddest states in the Union. File this under: too little, too late. It's a shame because it would have been nice to see them go down swinging for the leftists they championed so long, and now they're finally in charge of the country! Maybe the AJC doesn't want the blame. Angry leftism was a pilar of their culture going back decades. Maybe just another slap in the face to the employees.

1:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those of us who still have confidence in and respect for newspapers want to know what professional journalists really think about the people running for public office.
Actually, I think you'd find at most newspapers with a wall of separation between the editorial writers and the reporters that the day-to-day reporters have no say in the endorsements. In other words, the ones who cover these politicians day-to-day (the ones with the best insight) should be left out of the endorsement discussion.
djp

2:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I would prefer to see editorial pages do (instead of endorse) is to aggressively cover the issues throughout a campaign, and criticize or praise individual candidates as the campaign goes on. And they can criticize the actual campaigns of each candidate as well (the commercials they run, the truthiness of their campaign claims, etc). It could be that in the course of such coverage, it would become clear that the editorial writers think that one candidate would be better for the office than any of the others.
djp

2:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with "djp" here. As a reporter covering two races this upcoming election season (in a much, much smaller arena than Atlanta) I have had no participation in our editorial board meetings.

In fact, I wasn't even told when the candidates were coming in to talk with the board. My opinion on all involved has not been sought, and that, is the way it should be.

To me, it looks like the AJC is trying to do what Alan you often say newspapers fail to do -- they're listening to their readers. They're trying out a new way to cover the election. If it doesn't work, they can go back to endorsements.

Frankly younger generations don't put as much stock in a newspaper's endorsement like the older generations do. In fact I wonder if they even think to go to a newspaper to see what the opinion page has to say about the issue.

I applaud them for trying something new -- everyone needs to be doing that these days.

6:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

good for AJC!

6:29 PM  
Anonymous James Lynch said...

No disrespect but it's because nobody gives a rat's ass about newspaper endorsements....unless that paper is in a very small market which, obviously, the AJC isn't in. These endorsements don't have the weight they used to. Ever read comments on stories. There's a huge perception in the US that all media, print, broadcast etc. is rightly/wrongly deemed liberal, leftist and distrusted. This extends to conservative papers as well, something I witnessed first hand. So, perception does become reality.

Only exception would be FNC because they brand themselves the other way....for money. Cynical, yes. A smart biz tactic, yes, to fill the gaping void.. And they take no criticism lying down. And, personally, I can't stand watching those guys, but have to admit they're good at what they do.

Same holds true of movie reviews? Here's a question: Did you ever NOT go to a movie you wanted to see because it got a bad movie review in a newspaper?

Not me. Another big waste of time, resources and space. Plus, the movie companies these days barely bother with newspapers anymore....even in their own precarious position.

6:43 PM  
Blogger Todd said...

I find it always interesting to see the "Conservatives" weigh in about how supposedly biased the news pages are, so "who cares" if they don't have an Op/Ed page. By that logic I guess I should now stop reading the Wall Street Journal because their Op/Ed page is decidedly "Conservative" so it must be true of the rest of the paper. What nonsense! It's a shame to see AJC have made this decision, I am certain this will not be the last.

6:58 PM  
Blogger Tim Skillern said...

The first job of a newspaper is not to set an agenda for a community. The primary and vital role of a paper should be to unearth pertinent information and assiduously report on government and big business so that they don't abuse their role in the public life. To say that a newspaper should set an "agenda" is to further reflect an elitist and ivory-towered attitude that is increasingly removed in this fractured media environment.

8:56 PM  
Blogger G said...

I found out in my state (CT), the major daily here has a tendency to speak out of both sides of its mouth when it comes to endorsing candidates.

While on one hand, it argues for change, and the like; on the other, it always (98% of the time) endorses the entrenched incumbent, giving token lip service to the opposition and virtually none to any 3rd party candidates who happen to be running for a particular office (like the indie candidate from Joe Lieberman's former party running for Chris Dodd's seat)

To me, it's just more of the same old stuff being masqueraded as impartial.

4:04 AM  
Blogger Sheldon Toplitt said...

I agree wholeheartedly with Newsosaur.It looks like timidity, a newspaper afraid that it might alienate a shrinking readership base by supporting a candidate and being branded "liberal" or "ultra-conversative." Newspapers attend political gatherings and interview candidates 1 on 1 with the proxy of readers. These readers have an obligation as citizens to inform themselves about the officials they elect, and should be able to look to their newspaper's editorial board's choice for guidance, not fiat.

The Journal-Constitution apparently is willing to shrug its shoulders--along with its responsibility--and leave it to bloggers, partisan and non-partisan, to carry on its duty. It is the job of reporters and editorial writers to command issues and parse the differences among candidates for the benefit of readers. Staying above the fray because readers presumably complained that they didn't need to be told for whom to vote, as the AJC claims, is a cop-out

6:56 AM  
Anonymous Walter Hussman said...

The first job of a newspaper is to set the agenda for the community? I would respectfully disagree with this journalism professor.

The first job of a newspaper is to report the news, as Adolph Ochs said it, without fear or favor. Furhermore, I would disagree that it is the job of a newspaper to set the agenda.

To do so leads most readers to assume the newspaper has an agenda, which undermines the newspaper's credibility and reputation for fairness and objectivity.

We tell readers that not only do we have no hidden agenda, we do not have a stated agenda, other than reporting the news and providing a diversity of opinions, including our own.

However, I do agree with most of the rest of this column, and I agree a newspaper should make endorsements, especially local ones.

Walt Hussman
Publisher
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

7:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good on them.

I've always said that if I ran the newspaper, the first thing I'd do would be to eliminate staff-written editorials.

I'm all for having a vigorous and multi-faceted discussion within the pages of the newspaper, but the content and tone of that discussion should come from the community, not from the editorial board room.

Columnists are fine. I think most readers understand that columns posted under an individual writer's name and likeness reflect that person's perspectives, not necessarily the institution's as a whole. But an insitutional voice causes more problems than it solves.

In my more than 20-year career in journalism (which has blessedly ended), I never understood why it made sense for my bosses to tell me not to share my opinions on news and events with sources and readers when the institution itself was doing exactly that. Ivory-tower journalists get the distinction ... readers do not.

Like it or not, liberal editorializing is one of many reasons why readers have abandoned newspapers, one that newspapers have some control over.

What readers need is thorough and insightful coverage of issues and candidates presented in a variety of formats ... long-form investigations, bullet-point summaries, position charts, even graphical storytelling. They don't need people who may well not reflect their views or life experiences telling them for whom they should vote.

7:48 AM  
Blogger Carrespondent said...

While newspapers are certainly not required to make endorsements, the case against the practice is based on fear, not journalistic reason.

An endorsement is just like any other strong editorial -- a mix of opinion and facts that (a) are hopefully consistent, and (b) make a case for one side of an issue. Should newspapers not editorialize on issues, either? Endorsements don't "tell" people how to vote; they offer a (preferably) well-reasoned and fact-supported opinion. What's wrong with that?

We're in an age when readers/viewers frequently cannot abide being presented with an opinion they do not currently hold, but should that aversion to debate be pandered to?

10:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have found that readers take editorials and then mistrust all future news stories about that issue as biased.

It doesn't have to be political elections, although it holds true for those.

We had a local major development issue that we took a stand on (too early). As we continued to cover it over the years, that early stance really hurt us.

2:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The first job of a newspaper is to set the agenda for the community."

I can set my own agenda, so I guess I don't need a newspaper.

I can't find all the facts I need on my own, though. If only there were some organisation or service that would just report facts without bias. I'd pay for that!

2:31 PM  
Blogger Bradley J. Fikes said...

Mutter needs to update his mid-20th century mental map of readers. They're tired of being told how to think by those who shade the truth to advance their own (usually left-wing) pet causes -- and who often botch the facts in the process.

Good on Walter Hussman, a publisher who opposes agenda-driven journalism. Maybe that is a reason his paper is doing well, not just the paywall.

4:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a tragedy of historic proportions. Our democracy depends on fresh ideas, most of which percolate up to Washington from the states. Newspapers and their editorials have historically played a major role in this, from advocating consumer protection to environmental regulations. This is how our society progresses. For newspapers not to take a political stand and support those politicians who back the changes the newspaper itself has advocated is silly.

6:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My fear is that the AJC's decision is part of a new "don't piss off the readers" approach to post-recession newspapering. This means pap, puff and meaningless features, and USA Today-style factoids. I think it will backfire. Readers don't read gutless newspapers and in spite of what consultants say, I do not believe people buy newspapers just to clip the weekly supermarket coupons. This is a recipe for a slow, unheralded and meaningless death. If we are going down, we need to go down fighting.

5:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For many years, I found the AJC's endorsements useful only in the following way: A man could not go far wrong in his civic duty by noting who the AJC's editorial board recommended -- and voting the other way.

Powder Springs

6:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Before they started large layoffs, the quality of reporting was pitifully funny, and yes, biased. Now, the AJC is getting close to the bottom of that ole slippery slope. I've said it here before - when the AJC folds I will hardly notice. I'll enjoy superior local coverage of my 'wealthy northern suburb' in a pair of free weeklies. SHOOT FIRE, I'll even buy me sum stuff from them advurtizers!

For the curious or inobservant, the history of Journal-Constitution coverage and support of our 'great' mayor Bill Campbell is a microcosm of major media's relations with Barack Obama. B.O. reminded me of B.C. instantly when I saw his speech at the 2004 DNC. Read the tea leaves.

Agitated former AJC subscriber.

2:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Endorsements are "editorial ego", i.e. "we know what's best for you". Unfortunately, this is also a common attitude of liberal politics, so it tends to reinforce the idea that newspapers are biased to the left. Nobody buys a newspaper because they agree with its endorsements. Many people DON'T buy a newspaper because they disagree with its endorsements. Perhaps AJC can now refocus their editorial energy on providing balanced views of candidates and issues through the use of competing op-eds. USA Today has the right idea, although they'd be better off if neither editorial was "Our View".

8:36 AM  

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