The Election Endorsement: Why Do News Agencies Still Bother?

media companies newspapers political election endorsements

The news industry takes pride in its objectivity.

But picking a horse in a political race is a tradition that many of the country’s newsrooms still maintain.

Whether news agencies should continue endorsing candidates is becoming as heated as this year’s presidential election.

“American newspapers have a long tradition of political commentary,” said Nancy Ancrum, editorial page editor with Miami Herald. “Election-year endorsements and recommendations have been part of that commentary for a long time.”

Some newsrooms have quit the practice because readers don’t like “being told what to do.”

Other media organizations are changing their strategy – publishing endorsements faster and regularly promoting their chosen candidates.

Finally, some just won’t play. And they’re OK with that.

These include The Wall Street Journal, and a growing list of local and regional news organizations, including Chicago Sun-Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Virginian-Pilot, and Austin American-Statesman.

USA Today historically has stayed away from endorsements. For the first time in its 34-year history, it made an exception, urging readers to vote against Donald Trump.

It’s a Lot of Work

Poynter recently hosted a webinar entitled Endorsements: Why Do News Organizations Even Bother? (Attendees included opinion and editorial page editors from across the country.)

And while consumers might think the selection of a candidate is as easy as drawing the most qualified name, it’s not that simple.

There’s fact-checking and meetings behind each endorsement, whether it’s a school bond, ballot measure, town race, or legislative race.

“I suspect a lot of you [who are doing political endorsements] are ready to kill right now,” Ancrum said, during the webinar. “It’s a lot of heavy lifting. All that smiling, all that concealed hostility toward candidates who you know are bad actors. Then the background checks on the candidates you have to perform – it’s draining and time consuming. And it’s the most vital thing we do for our readers.”

But dwindling newsrooms are proving to be a strong deterrent.

“Some are saying enough is enough – there’s too much strain on current resources to continue,” said Jennifer Hemmingsen, opinion editor with The Gazette, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The Duluth News Tribune has decided to change the timing of its endorsements – the sooner, the better.

“We’re helping to lead the conversation about our candidates and the issues and hoping to encourage the conversation rather than being the big dog at the end getting in the last bark,” said columnist Chuck Frederick.

Making Your Own Headline

You might have read The Arizona Republic just endorsed Hillary Clinton.

It’s a fairly big deal, considering the paper has never endorsed a Democrat for president. Ever. Since 1890.

And it’s not the first paper to break from its own tradition. The Dallas Morning News also recently endorsed Clinton. Clinton is the first Democratic presidential candidate the newspaper has recommended in more than 75 years.

It’s important citizens “take their right to vote seriously,” said Marisa Porto, vice president of content with the Daily Press Media Group in Newport News, Va., during the Poynter webinar.

“We believe that to protect our freedoms and to ensure good government, accountability is vital,” she said. “This is why we believe in transparency in government, particularly in the freest possible access to public meetings and records.”

Ricardo Pimentel, associate editorial page editor with the San Antonio Express-News, said candidate endorsements help readers start thinking about the folks running for office.

“Endorsements are guidance and leadership that should be built on comparison of issues and how the candidates compare,” he said. “Endorsements are no more lectures than any other editorial is a lecture.”

Engaging Audience

When it comes to endorsements, there are three guiding principles at the San Francisco Chronicle: Start early and publish quickly, prioritize, and promote endorsements daily.

The Chronicle brings in local candidates to allow them to speak with the board. Then, the board has each candidate ask another candidate a question. The candidate has 90 seconds to respond.

“This allowed us to see who they viewed as their key competition and revealed subtle differences we may not have picked up on,” said Lois Kazakoff, deputy editorial page editor.

In addition to panel interviews with local candidates, many news organizations are trying different things to cover elections.

Short-staffed newsrooms are limiting coverage to only local and state races. News agencies also are trying livestreaming candidate interviews, posting meetings to social media, and using different platforms to poll readers.

So far, the reviews are mixed with using Facebook Live.

Jim Sutton, opinion page editor with the St. Augustine Record, said the paper has livestreamed candidate interviews to its site, but the hits were marginal.

Posting short passages of key parts of the meetings to Facebook yielded far better results, he said.

“They were hit hard,” Sutton said, of the Facebook excerpts.

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Christine Cube is a senior audience relations manager with PR Newswire and freelance writer. Follow her at @cpcube or check out her latest on Beyond Bylines on PR Newswire for Journalists.

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