RIP newspaper endorsements | Editorial

A lot of things have been said about this recent election. Much of it is true. A lot of it presents a simplistic, facile perspective of the situation in lieu of statistics too often overlooked.

But this election did confirm one thing. If a newspaper endorsement’s purpose is to influence the outcome of an election, they need a makeover.

On both a national and statewide level, there were a host of candidates who got the majority of newspaper endorsements, but not of the voter majority. Nationally, Mitt Romney picked up the majority of newspaper endorsements in several swing states, but didn’t take the states themselves.

Here, King County Council member Reagan Dunn, who lost the race for attorney general to fellow Council member Bob Ferguson, was endorsed by all the major newspapers in this state — the Seattle Times, the Tacoma News Tribune, the Spokesman Review, The Tri-City Herald, the Columbian and the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, just to name a few.

Eleven of the state’s 12 biggest newspapers endorsed Rob McKenna in his failed bid for the governorship.

Considering Dunn and McKenna are Republicans in a navy blue state, this is impressive.

The problem, however, is that part about Washington state being navy blue. It hasn’t elected a Republican governor or bestowed its electoral college votes to a Republican presidential candidate in decades. And newspaper endorsements didn’t change that.

In many ways, newspaper endorsements are a vestige of a former time when print journalism was the dominant media in society. Now, an editorial board’s endorsement, in my opinion, doesn’t sway people as much as it either reaffirms or enrages them, depending on their view.

The lack of influence an endorsement has now isn’t a shocking revelation by any means. Even 40 years ago, newspapers had lost much of their power to broadcast journalism.

I think another part of it is that the public’s relationship with their news sources has changed. Before, people turned to the media for their news and listened to someone tell them what to think of it. Now, especially with the emergence of independent media outlets, the public forms an opinion and goes to whatever news source supports it.

For example, Walter Cronkite’s editorial on Vietnam after the Tet Offensive had a significant impact on America’s perception of the war, even if his editorial did more damage to the U.S. war effort than the North Vietnamese Army ever did at Hue or Khe Sanh. Today, however, no editorial could have that sort of impact.

This newspaper doesn’t do endorsements for a variety of reasons. One of them is staff. You need an editorial board for endorsements. Each of us is already a news/sports/community/features/entertainment/education/crime/political writer, as well as a photographer. Nobody is keen on adding “editorial board member” to their list of responsibilities.

The other is perception. As USA Today’s founder Allen H. Neuharth put it, endorsements make it easy for a newspaper’s critics to dismiss its coverage of an issue or political race as biased. It’s hard enough as it is for a reporter to deal with these accusations. Having their own newspaper’s endorsement waved in their face doesn’t make it easier.

So the question has to be asked: What is the purpose of a newspaper endorsement if it has little effect on the outcome?

A lot of journalism organizations have tried to answer this question. Some consider endorsements as an extension of a community dialogue or conversation.

I’m not so sure about that. The problem is endorsements are a definitive statement, rather than a proposition. I don’t feel like endorsements invite conversation as much as they tell.

Instead of endorsements, editorial boards should initiate a conversation with readers by giving their opinion and asking for responses, which could involve more than just a “like” or “dislike.” This is something papers like the Seattle Times has done on a variety of issues, but not specifically concerning political races.

Which brings me to the other problem with endorsements. Endorsements are an either-or. A lot of discussions involve more than two positions or sides. Dialogue allows for views often ignored in the two-side war to be expressed. Newspapers shouldn’t pigeonhole themselves like that. Rather than “endorsing” they should provide what they like or dislike about both candidates.

Like a former heavyweight boxing champion of the world, it’s hard for newspapers to accept their diminished position in society. But by reinventing themselves they can stay relevant.  That’s an idea I fully endorse…I mean, er, what do you think?


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