By Jim Pumarlo
Election season is in its final stretch, and newspapers have been there at every step. You’ve introduced candidates. You’ve quizzed them on the issues. You’ve covered the debates. Your coverage has laid the foundation for a rich exchange among readers on who they support or oppose – and why.
I encourage you to take the final step: Offer your own recommendations on which individuals are best suited to fill the offices on the November ballot.
I admit that editorial endorsements become more scarce each election cycle. It troubles me, and it confounds me. During my tenure as editor of the Red Wing (Minn.) Republican Eagle, we endorsed in every primary and general election race from the local city council, school board and county board to legislative contests to U.S. president.
We considered endorsements a natural progression of our coverage of public affairs. We considered endorsements a right and a responsibility as a community institution.
I’ve heard the arguments against endorsements. I politely – and firmly – offer my rebuttals.
What gives a newspaper the right to tell someone how to vote?
No editorial should be positioned as the right opinion – or the only opinion – on any subject. Putting yourself on a pedestal is the wrong mind-set. Rather, approach editorials as offering a distinct perspective from your role as a clearinghouse of information in your community. Editorials can offer pertinent information on candidates and ballot initiatives that may not be readily available to all readers.
We’re fooling ourselves if we believe our editorials really are changing anyone’s mind.
Many individuals indeed vote the party line in today’s heightened partisanship. Political strategists readily identify the “red” and “blue” districts and focus their money and efforts on “swing” districts and the undecided voters. That is more likely the case for contests at the state and federal levels. The dynamics can be quite different in local, nonpartisan races where candidates often are political newcomers and can be relatively unknown to the electorate.
Local endorsements are complicated due to personal relationships that candidates may have with our publisher and other key staff members.
The best advice: “Just the facts, please.” In most cases stick to issues and avoid personalities. It is naive to believe that personal relationships between newspaper management and candidates do not play a role in endorsements, but issues ought to be the foundation for each decision.
Our staff is too small to have an editorial board. Reporters who cover the respective individuals and government bodies would have an obvious conflict of interest.
Quite the contrary, Endorsements, by definition, are subjective. You objectively gather all the facts and then offer a recommendation. The process is strengthened in your ability to gather as much information as possible. Reporters are in a premier position to offer insight into the strengths and weaknesses of local government – and the values and attributes offered by individuals to elevate these bodies to the next level.
We’re already strapped for resources. We just don’t have the time.
No question, endorsements take work. They cannot be done on a whim. That said, you’ve done the lion’s share of the research if you are doing a steady job of covering public affairs. You’ve gathered similar information on other candidates – the newcomers – through your other election coverage.
Most perplexing about the hesitancy to endorse candidates is that many newspapers routinely weigh in on the actions of government bodies. It’s common for editorials to offer advice on an upcoming vote, or to offer a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” on a decision by elected officials.
It begs the question: If you believe so strongly in a position taken by an elected body, shouldn’t a newspaper have equally strong convictions about the people who ultimately will make those decisions?
As a starting point, brainstorm the priority issues in each race. These issues will be the basis for candidate interviews, and the candidates’ responses will provide a framework for endorsements.
It’s understandable that newspapers still may be skeptical about endorsing in local races. So consider this idea as a starting point. Write an editorial outlining what the newspaper identifies as the key issues in a race – and where you stand on these issues. Then encourage readers to vote for the individuals who align with those stances. You have not identified specific candidates, but your message allows readers to connect the dots.
The final step is to allow feedback. The effectiveness of any editorial is minimized if readers aren’t allowed to debate its merits.
Newspapers routinely promote the editorial page as the heart of democracy. Readers may challenge your practice of “telling us who to vote for,” but they will be doubly upset if you don’t give them an opportunity to challenge the reasons behind your endorsements.
Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.