Once-important editorial endorsements from US newspapers are fading

NEW YORK (AP) – Newspaper endorsements are fading as prizes are being plundered by political campaigns, the practice a victim of the news industry’s troubles and the bitter politics of the era.

Earlier this month newspapers controlled by Alden Global Capital said they would no longer support candidates for president, governor and US Senate. The newspapers in the hedge fund’s portfolio include dozens of daily newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, the New York Daily News, the Boston Herald, the Orlando Sentinel and the San Jose Mercury News.

You are not alone. The days when a celebrity endorsement quickly made it into a campaign ad or voters clipped an editorial to get it into the polling booth seem destined for history.

“I think it can be argued that in many cases they have outlived their usefulness due to increasing polarization and skepticism from the media in general,” said Carol Hunter, editor-in-chief of the Des Moines Register. “I don’t think that’s a healthy trend. But I think that’s the reality.”

Despite all the efforts that news organizations have taken to craft compelling endorsements, there have always been questions as to whether these arguments have much impact, especially in high-profile races.

At no time was this clearer than in 2016, when 57 of the biggest newspapers endorsed Hillary Clinton and two voted for Donald Trump, according to the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “None of the above” did better than the future president with five.

At a time when newspapers are looking for readers, executives are wondering if they should bother.

“Selecting a candidate in this environment may alienate more readers than it convinces,” wrote the New York Daily News when announcing the new policy, meaning the tabloid will sit out the gubernatorial race between Democrat Kathy Hochul and Republican Lee Zeldin.

Of the 100 highest-circulation newspapers in the country in 2008, 92 supported a presidential candidate. As of 2020, only 54 made a choice, according to UCSB. In smaller races, there is not such a reliable calculation. But given that there are 2,500 fewer newspapers in the US than in 2005, it stands to reason that there are far fewer recommendations.

That absence “is another loss for grassroots democracy,” said Penelope Muse Abernathy, a Northwestern University professor who catalogs the decline in local news.

In an age when the press is unpopular, many people don’t like being told what to do, said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute.

For the newspapers, “there’s a little bit of ‘don’t rock the boat,'” Edmonds said. “There are ways to be respectful in a formal editorial. Make a point, but not in a condescending or dismissive way.”

In an internal memo earlier this year, executives at the newspaper chain Gannett noted that editorials were often cited as a reason for canceling subscriptions. According to surveys, opinion sites are some of the least read content and are associated with credibility and trust issues.

Some readers have trouble distinguishing between news and opinion, or don’t believe a newspaper’s editorial stance doesn’t influence its reporting, said Hunter, whose Iowa newspaper is owned by Gannett.

Gannett did not ban political endorsements, but urged his more than 220 newspapers to limit national opinion and focus on local issues. The opinion pages of the Des Moines Register, for example, are now published twice a week. The registry is selective in its decisions this fall, weighing the Iowa governor’s race and a gun referendum. But the state’s top newspaper will not support federal elections, including US Senator Chuck Grassley’s bid for an eighth term.

The McClatchy newspaper chain also did not ban the president’s endorsements. But it said newspapers wouldn’t make choices in races where their editors couldn’t interview candidates — effectively keeping them out of the business of presidential endorsements.

One of her newspapers, the Charlotte Observer, said she will provide support at “competitive and notable” races where she can do extensive research and interviews, North Carolina opinion editor Peter St. Onge wrote in a column.

Many news outlets simply have fewer people to do the work. Sixty percent of journalists working for newspapers in the United States have lost their jobs since 2005, Abernathy said.

Staffing is indeed a problem in the registry, Hunter said. The newspaper is unable to report on the state’s federal delegation as it used to and wants to devote resources to local news, she said.

Many politicians view the declining status of endorsements with a collective shrug. News organizations were once viewed as objective, but Republican adviser Alex Conant said many voters trying to reach his candidates view newspapers as partisan like politicians.

“Editorial boards used to be an important validator,” Conant said. “But they’re not that important anymore.”

When he ran Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, Conant encouraged his client to meet with the editorial board of The Register, the dominant newspaper in the crucial early state of Iowa.

If Rubio were running for president now, Conant said, he wouldn’t bother.

Hunter said it has not yet been decided whether the registry would support anyone running in the 2024 presidential election. Much will depend on access to candidates, she said.

In the book News Hole, University of Virginia professor Jennifer Lawless and George Washington University’s Daniel Hayes show that congressional candidates receive much less media coverage than they used to.

So too in many elections further down the ballot, for local judges or school boards, endorsements were one of the few places to learn about candidates. In many cases, these breeds are now being nationalized: voters are left to see candidates as extensions of national parties rather than neighbors, Abernathy said.

Advertisements — often full of disinformation — are becoming the main source of information, she said. In contrast, American Presidency Project co-director John Woolley said newspaper endorsements “are a good thing in that they show you how to think and make people see what the big problems are.”

“I still think that’s the case,” he said, “and I don’t think we can get too much of it in our lives.”

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