By Debora Almeida, Bulletin Staff
‘It is important for newspapers to continue to have opinions and not shy away from saying something that someone might take offense at. I want to read a paper that is self-confident even if I don’t agree with their editorial board.’
— Curtiss Clark, Editor,
Newtown (Conn.) Bee
As election seasons begin to heat up, candidates do whatever they can to round up votes and endorsements from public figures and their local newspapers. But does the opinion of your local newspaper still have an impact?
The Bulletin interviewed seven editors and a reader from throughout New England on the changing roles of a newspaper and the fate of endorsements. Although a majority agreed that endorsements of candidates are an essential role of newspaper, at least a couple of newspapers in New England have experimented with or currently do not endorse candidates. The editors interviewed also discussed the process of selecting a candidate to endorse and how to do so without an appearance of bias.
What is the role of newspaper editorials during election season?
“I think newspapers, its reporters and its editors have a unique perch on which to evaluate candidates in a thorough way that the average voter doesn’t have,” said Michael Cuzzi, senior vice president of VOX Global, a strategic communications company in Portland, Maine.
In 2014, when the Portland Press Herald made the decision no longer to endorse candidates for office, Cuzzi wrote an editorial piece calling the decision a “disservice to readers and voters,” including himself.
According to Greg Kesich, editorial page editor of the Portland Press Herald, the decision was made to avoid the appearance of any bias because the Press Herald was owned at the time by the largest donor to the Democratic Party in Maine and the husband of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a North Haven, Maine, Democrat.
In a 2015 announcement that the Press Herald would return to publishing political endorsements, Kesich wrote: “When the excitement at election time surges, opinion writers want to be in the middle of it, not watching from the sidelines. And that’s where the readers want us.”
Kesich noted in the announcement that the Press Herald returned to running endorsements because its ownership had changed.
The Press Herald isn’t the only New England newspaper to have questioned the practice of endorsing candidates, however.
The Narragansett (R.I.) Times has not endorsed a candidate for office since 2006.
“We have so many hyperlocal elections and we are so close with candidates that endorsements don’t service our public, our readers or us,” said Matt Wunsch, managing editor of the Times.
Wunsch said the Times instead encourages readers to engage with the newspaper and fill editorial pages with letters to the editors, which drives readership and circulation.
Some journalists think that refraining from endorsements actually weakens the position of a newspaper in a community.
“It is important for newspapers to continue to have opinions and not shy away from saying something that someone might take offense at,” said Curtiss Clark, editor of The Newtown (Conn.) Bee. “I want to read a paper that is self-confident even if I don’t agree with their editorial board.”
What kind of impact can an endorsement have?
“Local endorsements could have an impact if it gets a voter to go to the polls,” said Walter Bird Jr., editor of Worcester (Mass.) Magazine. “Maybe they will vote for the person you endorse, or maybe they’ll just get out and vote.
Others interviewed echoed the sentiment that the impact of an endorsement isn’t to sway an election, but simply to provide useful information for the newspaper’s readers.
Bird sees that as particularly important in Worcester, where voter turnout is low. He said that if a newspaper is capable of generating interest in an election and engaging its readers, then it should not be afraid to step in and state its opinions.
Clark agrees that endorsements are a service to the community.
“It’s not that we think people are hanging on every word we say and waiting to hear what we think,” Clark said.
Data from the News Interest Index, a survey conducted in 2008 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, confirmed Clark’s thoughts on the matter.
The survey found that newspaper endorsements of political candidates drew mixed reviews from voters. It found that 69 percent of survey participants saw no effect from a newspaper endorsement. Fourteen percent said, however, that an endorsement would make them more likely to vote for a candidate and another 14 percent said it would make them less likely to vote for a candidate.
Clark said he also thinks that the less ideological a newspaper is — meaning that it doesn’t always align with the same political party — the bigger an impact it could have.
Again, his thoughts aligned with research on the topic. The National Bureau of Economic Research conducted a study on whether readers filter out media bias. The researchers, Brian G. Knight and Chun-Fang Chiang of Brown University, found that the more unexpected or surprising an endorsement was, the bigger impact it had on its readers. A newspaper with a perceived liberal bias endorsing a Republican candidate is more influential than if that same newspaper had endorsed a Democratic candidate.
Jim Campanini, editor of The Sun of Lowell, Mass., also saw value in an unexpected endorsement.
“Sometimes we make endorsements just to wake up the incumbent, even when they (endorsed opponents) have no chance of winning but show a lot of potential. They (incumbents) get the message,” Campanini said. “God forbid newspapers want to give that voice up. Why would you want to lose your voice in the community to get people out there and encourage them to vote?”
How does a newspaper select a candidate to endorse?
The process by which a newspaper’s editorial staff selects a candidate to endorse varies from paper to paper, but it is not a decision made lightly.
Most newspapers have an editorial board, which often includes editors, editorial page staff, and the publisher of the paper. In local elections and sometimes even national elections, the board invites candidates for office in for meetings where they can further explore a candidate’s policies and abilities.
Some editorial boards find it productive to sound out the candidates in the same forum, as opposed to meeting with the candidates individually.
Morgan McGinley, who retired in 2007 as editorial page editor of The Day of New London, Conn., found that group meetings with the candidates made for richer discussions.
The Sun of Lowell sponsors local debates in the 14 communities it covers and has the candidates submit two-minute videos with a pitch for their endorsement, a process Campanini considers rigorous but necessary.
“It gives you a connection to the community,” Campanini said about why the Sun sponsors debates. “We don’t pick winners. We select people for our endorsements who show certainty, ingenuity, honesty and that they value their community.”
In 2015, Worcester Magazine took an unusual tack. It ran a three-week series in which it dedicated each of three weekly editions to different local elected offices. In those editions, the magazine outlined everything it thought readers needed to know about the race. The magazine then ran its endorsements for each election online, instead of in the print edition. According to editor Bird, that decision was made to avoid distracting from the purely informational nature of each issue.
Since switching back to the practice of endorsing political candidates, the Portland Press Herald does not allow any overlap of its news and editorial staffs. The only members voting on endorsements are those on the editorial board who agree with the decision to endorse candidates. Three members who did not agree with endorsing candidates abstained from voting.
Ken Johnson, managing editor of The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, Mass., said the Patriot Ledger functions differently. He said the editorial board is happy to hear the opinion of any editor or reporter who cares to share his or her opinion. Johnson also said the Patriot Ledger considers any candidate that the publisher has in mind for an endorsement, but would be surprised if the publisher were to veto the consensus decision of the newspaper staff.
At smaller newspapers, the process can differ. Clark of the Newton Bee does not have an editorial board and makes endorsement decisions on his own. Clark said that because of limited access to political candidates in his small community, he often relies on his research and observations of the campaigns as opposed to personal meetings with the candidates.
Can readers separate news from editorials?
Whether readers can separate the voices of the news sections and editorial sections of newspapers is a key issue in the debate on newspaper endorsements.
Kesich of the Portland Press Herald shared his thoughts on the subject.
“It’s the nature of opinion versus news, which is a constant push and pull in a newspaper environment, and it’s always going to be,” Kesich said.
The editorial board that Kesich works on always sticks to the opinion pages and never reports to the news sections of the Press Herald. That is not always the case in smaller newspapers with shrinking staff, however.
Bird, of Worcester Magazine, acknowledged that there is often a misinterpretation of the role of a newspaper’s editorial pages.
“As social media and the public’s involvement in media has grown and evolved, I think people are confused. But I put some weight on consumers’ shoulders to try and understand the difference,” Bird said.
Bird said people have criticized columnists for being opinionated, even when that is what they are supposed to be. He called for more education for readers on the separate components of a newspaper.
Clark said that a more common issue is readers finding bias in political reporting, where an author seems to take sides or “go easy” on some candidates. He thinks that readers are sophisticated and understand the difference between an editorial and a news story.
“We all have our own political deck,” Clark said. “If you can’t take your feelings out of it, then you shouldn’t do it (endorse candidates). The (endorsed) candidate has to be who is best for your city or town.”
‘We have so many hyperlocal elections and we are so close with candidates that endorsements don’t service our public, our readers or us.’
–Matt Wunsch, Managing Editor
Narragansett (R.I.) Times
‘Local endorsements could have an impact if it gets a voter to go to the polls. Maybe they will vote for the person you endorse, or maybe they’ll just get out and vote.’
–Walter Bird Jr., Editor
Worcester (Mass.) Magazine
‘God forbid newsapers want to give that voice up. Why would you want to lose your voice in the community to get people out there and encourage them to vote?’
–Jim Campanini, Editor
The Sun, Lowell, Mass.
‘I think newspapers, its reporters and its editors have a unique perch on which to evaluate candidates in a thorough way that the average voter doesn’t have.’
–Michael Cuzzi, Senior Vice President
VOX Global, Portland Maine