Thursday, November 08, 2012

Newspaper endorsements: Out of step?

Supporters of President Obama gasped prior to the election when four of the major newspapers in Iowa backed Mitt Romney for president in that crucial state. As it turns out, they needn’t have worried, with the President breezing to victory with 52% of the Hawkeye vote.
But the endorsements penned by the Des Moines Register, Cedar Rapids Gazette, Quad-City Times and Sioux City Journal were far from the only ones in the country this election cycle that were out of step with voters in their states. 
The disconnect was similar in a number of pivotal states, suggesting the waning power of newspaper endorsements – at least in this particular election – to sway the electorate in an age when readers have access to multiple digital and cable-news sources to shape their political views. 
In a rundown of swing-state endorsements, Poynter.Org found publisher-reader disconnects all over the place.  

Though final returns from Florida were pending at this writing, Romney evidently was narrowly defeated in spite of being endorsed by seven of the state’s dailies.  He failed in Nevada, even though he was backed by two of the three biggest newspapers in the state.  And he lost Ohio in spite of being pushed by the Cincinnati Enquirer and Columbus Dispatch, which serve two of the biggest blue counties in the must-win state.
The disconnect was bipartisan.  Romney captured North Carolina, even though Obama was favored by five dailies in the state, including such biggies as the Charlotte Observer, the Raleigh News & Observer and the Winston-Salem Journal. 
At the same time the recommendations of many newspapers diverged from the sentiments of the majority of voters in their states, a number of publishers skipped endorsing a presidential candidate altogether.  Among the major publications declining to back a candidate this year were the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the Virginia Pilot and the Palm Beach Post. 
Given the number of publishers whose endorsements failed to help their chosen candidate carry their states, is the decision not to endorse a presidential candidate the better part of valor?    
Maybe.  But maybe not.  
A non-endorsement policy might be good for a newspaper’s credibility, because it eliminates one of the potential arguments that its coverage is biased. And a gelded editorial page might be good for business, because an endorsement-free publication minimizes the chances of offending readers and advertisers.
But 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 and the airwaves.  
The only thing worse than a newspaper recusing itself in an election is a publication that finds itself zigging when its readers are zagging. 
The fact that so many newspapers were not on the same page as the majority of voters in several swing states in this election suggests they may be dangerously out of tune with the communities they serve.    

And the reason for this may be that newspapers tend to be published by and for older white people, an increasingly shrinking portion of the population and the electorate.  Without new products and services to appeal to next-generation voters, the relevance and influence of newspapers will continue to diminish, too.   

And that cannot possibly be good for business.

14 Comments:

Blogger Patrick Hogan said...

To be fair, the Gazette endorsing Romney wasn't exactly a surprise. They've always had a more conservative editorial page.

7:37 AM  
Blogger Patrick Hogan said...

To be fair, The Gazette endorsing Mitt Romney isn't exactly a surprise. Its editorial page always skews conservative.

7:38 AM  
OpenID brilliantdisguise said...

I wonder if it isn't also a disconnect between newspapers owned by corporations based far from the city where they are published, and the readers in that city. When publishers are shuttled in and out of cities in just a few years as they climb the corporate ladder, I think they are less sensitive to the culture, character and general attitude of a community. There is no institutional memory any more at many newspapers.

7:56 AM  
Blogger Jason Kristufek said...

I am pretty sure The Gazette endorsed McCain in 2008.

But I agree with your comment, and it will be an interesting conversation on op-ed opinions not reflecting the communities the media companies serve. I suppose you could gauge that better by the content of the endorsements.

8:21 AM  
Blogger Jason Kristufek said...

I am pretty sure The Gazette endorsed McCain in 2008.

But I agree with your comment, and it will be an interesting conversation on op-ed opinions not reflecting the communities the media companies serve. I suppose you could gauge that better by the content of the endorsements.

8:22 AM  
Blogger Mike Donatello said...

Aside from the waning influence of newspapers overall, one can;t really expect an endorsement to carry much weight when an overwhelming majority of the electorate has made its decision long before the endorsement is released. I'm not sure why a paper would wait until the week before the election to make an endorsement. At that point, it's just background noise.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

I agree with Mike Donatello re the timing of the endorsements.

Much of this discussion begs the question: if papers are to be criticized for endorsements that differ from their readers' predilections, and applauded only when they reflect them, what's the point of the endorsement? Just take a poll of your readership and say, "we agree".

7:30 PM  
Blogger Erstwhile Editor said...

Is the purpose of an endorsement to parrot what readers think? Surely not. Newspaper editorial pages have been leading, or contradicting, their readers' sentiments for decades.

4:54 AM  
Blogger John Robinson said...

I disagree that being out of step with your readers is worse than recusing yourself. My attitude is no guts, no glory. Here's what I wrote a few weeks ago.

http://johnlrobinson.com/2012/10/editorial-endorsements-dont-shy-away/

5:02 AM  
Blogger Kelly Abbott said...

While I agree with your conclusion (that local newspapers are showing evidence of being out of touch with their local market) I don't agree with the statement that endorsements are evidence of that. Our daily, online-only VoiceOfSandiego.org is a fantastic example of an impartial, data-driven, fact-checked, investigative resource for the city. It is delightfully free of opinion with a notable exception: the opinion of the reader. While the publisher, editors and writers excel at cultivating an audience that appreciates the fact that they are willing to leave the endorsements up to the readers themselves. As a younger reader, from my perspective endorsements themselves are signs that newspapers are out of touch. We don't want to be told what to think. We don't care what the publishers think; we care what they know. I think you'll find that most of those under-served by the local, daily rag feel the same.

9:27 AM  
Blogger Walter Sanchez said...

Walter Sanchez - editor Queens Ledger - Brooklyn Star Newspaper Group.
Alan, I love your writings and I think you push publishers & editors like me to become more digital - which can't hurt. You challenge us us to think outside the box, and you have us look at our newspapers in a different way than we did 20-years ago. We, as publishers, need to do. Thanks.
We endorse for elections because we want our readers get past the noise from mailers, print ads, commercials and such which we, as a news organization, can ignore. We give them a true picture on the issues that affect them. The results of this election might appear that we are out of touch, but in States like New York (which we all knew would be a blue State) does that mean we 'downStaters' should have endorsed Obama to be in touch with our readers?
We are not here to handicap.
We think that since many people decide their vote based on one or two key issues (gay marriage, etc.), our aim is to tell our readers why we lean one way or another. I don't believe that our editors hope to make people change their mind, nor do I think an endorsement is about 'supporting' a candidate. We might be able to frame the decision a bit better and since we are a trusted news source it might hit home with some who are not convinced yet. Further, if we make a good case for an endorsement while maintaining respect for the candidate we did not endorse then we can't lose by endorsing.

3:10 PM  
Blogger Walter Sanchez said...

Walter Sanchez - editor Queens Ledger - Brooklyn Star Newspaper Group.
Alan, I love your writings and I think you push publishers & editors like me to become more digital - which can't hurt. You challenge us us to think outside the box, and you have us look at our newspapers in a different way than we did 20-years ago. We, as publishers, need to do. Thanks.
We endorse for elections because we want our readers get past the noise from mailers, print ads, commercials and such which we, as a news organization, can ignore. We give them a true picture on the issues that affect them. The results of this election might appear that we are out of touch, but in States like New York (which we all knew would be a blue State) does that mean we 'downStaters' should have endorsed Obama to be in touch with our readers?
We are not here to handicap.
We think that since many people decide their vote based on one or two key issues (gay marriage, etc.), our aim is to tell our readers why we lean one way or another. I don't believe that our editors hope to make people change their mind, nor do I think an endorsement is about 'supporting' a candidate. We might be able to frame the decision a bit better and since we are a trusted news source it might hit home with some who are not convinced yet. Further, if we make a good case for an endorsement while maintaining respect for the candidate we did not endorse then we can't lose by endorsing.

3:10 PM  
Blogger Bruce Wood said...

We publish two community newspapers so we don't endorse for president. We do, however, endorse for local elections.

The editorial board chooses the candidate it feels is the best. We don't always agree so we vote on it.

We're not trying to choose the candidate we think will win the election. We're trying to choose the one that will do the best job for our community.

Sometimes our choices hurt our business and sometimes it helps. Hopefully it evens out over time.

5:14 PM  
Blogger Bruce Wood said...

We publish two community newspapers so we don't endorse for president. We do, however, endorse for local elections.

The editorial board chooses the candidate it feels is the best. We don't always agree so we vote on it.

We're not trying to choose the candidate we think will win the election. We're trying to choose the one that will do the best job for our community.

Sometimes our choices hurt our business and sometimes it helps. Hopefully it evens out over time.

5:19 PM  

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