When I was in charge of the Boston Globe’s editorial page, I used to joke that the newspaper had “a long, proud tradition of backing losers.” Of course we were happy when candidates who shared our values and issue positions won their campaigns for public office. I was tickled, for example, that the Globe was the first newspaper in the country to endorse Barack Obama for president before the New Hampshire primary in 2008. But winning wasn’t everything.
A candidate seeking the Globe’s endorsement whose pitch led with their superior fundraising or other signs of supposed “viability” got a jaundiced eye from the editorial board, at least over the 16 years I served in that department. Unlike political parties, unions or activist organizations, our interest was not primarily in picking the winner. We cared about the candidate’s character, experience and stands on the issues, and if that didn’t happen to fit the mood of the electorate that year, so be it. Because unlike political parties, unions and the rest, a newspaper’s only constituency is its community.
The newspaper endorsement has been losing favor for years, and these days, it might be considered an endangered species. Earlier this month, Alden Capital, the hedge fund that owns some 200 newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune and the Denver Post (and, locally, the Boston Herald) announced that its properties will no longer make endorsements for major political offices. Back in June, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, Gannett, issued recommendations to its 250 papers to scale back their opinion pages generally.
“Readers don’t want us to tell them what to think,” according to an internal presentation from a Gannett executive committee.
The newspaper endorsement has been losing favor for years, and these days, it might be considered an endangered species.
This is a familiar complaint: that newspapers (especially those with an editorial slant that readers don’t agree with) are run by an elitist bunch of self-appointed experts who claim to know best. Well, maybe not best, I’d argue, but often better. Editorial writers spend many hours interviewing candidates, poring over their position papers, digging up documents and fact-checking claims — hours the typical voter simply can’t devote to the task. This is especially true of down-ballot local races that otherwise get little media attention. (And indeed, many papers intend to continue endorsing in local races — for now.)
As candidates from both parties increasingly turn away from debates — focusing instead on activating their supporters through ads and social media — newspaper endorsement meetings are sometimes the only place where candidates are forced to answer tough questions without hiding behind press aides or zingers aimed at their opponents. (At the Globe, candidates often got a kind of informal extra credit if they showed up at the endorsement interview alone.)
If an endorsement editorial is well written, it will detail a candidate’s weaknesses as well as strengths, and explain why the opposing candidate failed to get the nod. It will analyze the issues at stake — not in a 30-second attack ad, a hot take on social media or even the drip-drip of daily news stories, but in a comprehensive, verifiable and fairly succinct package. James Dao, the Globe’s relatively new (since July) editorial page editor, says endorsements should be descriptive as well as prescriptive. “I feel they play a role in helping readers crystalize their own thoughts about an issue or a candidate,” he said, “whether they agree with the endorsement's conclusions or not.”
[P]andering to everything every reader wants is no way to honor the First Amendment — even if it were possible.
Yes, readers are often confused about the traditional separation between a paper’s news and opinion pages — especially online, where signals in the architecture of the physical paper are missing. Even back in 1993, when I was the political editor in charge of a lively mayoral race in the Globe's newsroom, I couldn’t convince many of my politically-minded friends that our campaign news coverage wasn’t influenced by the paper’s endorsement of Tom Menino that year. Honestly, in the newsroom, we didn’t know what the editorial department was writing — and didn’t want to know.
There have been improvements in the last several years, but for too long, newspapers hid their internal discussions and professional practices from their readers, which only further eroded trust. Still, this problem can be remedied by doing more to demystify the process, with a more sustained effort at explaining the sausage-making, and some more aggressive labeling. It’s no reason to abandon endorsements altogether.
More worrisome is the attitude among media owners that endorsements drive away subscribers. “They perceive us as having a biased agenda,” the Gannett presentation fretted. As if the opinion pages are not expected to have an opinion! Of course, newspapers need to stay in business, and subscriptions are more important than ever as advertising revenue has plummeted. But pandering to everything every reader wants is no way to honor the First Amendment — even if it were possible.
To be sure, the newspaper industry is facing dire, even existential, threats. Some studies have found increasing numbers of journalists themselves now find endorsements mostly a liability. But shying away from taking a stand on crucial issues of the day is an abdication of a paper’s civic duty. As the Washington Post’s media critic Margaret Sullivan writes in a new book about the industry, too many journalists are “under pressure from corporate bosses” not to offend.
A newspaper provides the civic glue that holds a community together, a democratic institution rooted in its responsibility to inform the electorate. Its role shouldn’t just be that of a traffic cop, waving opinions this way and that, regardless of their relevance or truth. Sure, it’s risky and difficult to take a stand. Sometimes there’s a fine line between candidates, or two unsavory choices. But newspapers are forever haranguing their readers to exercise their rights as citizens and vote. The least they can do is make the hard choices themselves.