An endorsement for newspaper endorsements

The 2012 elections are in the rearview mirror, and newly elected lawmakers have settled into their routines. For most editors and reporters, the next cycle of elections is likely out of mind.

Don’t move on so quickly. It’s routine for political commentators to rate the president after the first 100 days in office. Why not check in with local elected officials on a regular basis and, in concert, with the respective governing bodies? The strongest election coverage is not simply turned off and on. Continuing coverage, if thoughtfully planned and carried out, can enrich your coverage of local public affairs.

Checking in regularly also goes a long way toward holding elected officials accountable. Your reports will provide a solid foundation when it comes time to endorse candidates in the next election.

My passion for weighing in on candidates is at cross-purposes with a prediction from Mark Katches, editorial director of the Center for Investigative Reporting.  His crystal ball: “Newspapers will start to taper off writing editorials. They’ll find that they can be a leader in their communities by engaging audiences, moderating forums, holding events and curating roundtable discussion while avoiding the pitfall of alienating a significant percentage of their audience by telling people what to think.”

I hope his prediction fizzles, and I echo comments by Stuart Leavenworth, editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee, who wrote: “There are so many things wrong with Katches’ conclusion I barely know where to start.” Katches, in an e-mail to Leavenworth, said he wasn’t advocating the demise of editorials, but he did suggest that eliminating partisan editorials would be a smart move for newspapers if they want to avoid losing readers.

Wow. Imagine if the litmus test for newsroom decisions is whether an aspect of coverage offends a reader.

Katches warns about the potential fallout from writing editorials. But what about complaints fielded by editors with regard to everyday content? A parent who charges favoritism in sports coverage. A president of a civic club who says its activities don’t receive as much attention as other organizations. A political candidate who claims that he or she did not receive a fair shake in coverage of a forum. A couple upset by an abbreviated write-up for a wedding report submitted six months after the fact. Community members upset by recognition of a same-sex marriage.

Editors and publishers should welcome reader feedback, and use the comments to review and strengthen their decision-making and coverage. At the same time, newspapers that avoid any level of controversy will soon become irrelevant to their communities.

During my tenure as editor of the Republican Eagle at Red Wing, Minn., we routinely launched aggressive editorials, especially on local issues. In an extreme case, the consequences were significant – the loss of a major advertiser who disagreed with our stance on a proposed downtown development.

I also remember when the teachers’ union urged a boycott when we weighed in on contract negotiations. About a dozen teachers did cancel their subscriptions. But at least one teacher didn’t miss a beat on the news by buying the newspaper at the corner drug store – at a higher price than her subscription offered.

At its core, however, our editorials prompted and promoted a lively exchange of opinions on issues that mattered to our residents.

It’s likely no coincidence that Katches’ observation came on the heels of the 2012 elections, a time when those newspapers who take their editorial responsibility seriously – read: endorse candidates for elective office – come under attack for “telling people how to vote.”

The charge has always amused me.

Readers and special-interest groups routinely seek attention for their endorsements. Organizations from the chamber of commerce and labor unions to environmental and educational interests submit press releases on who they support and why. Hundreds of readers forward letters to the editors endorsing candidates. What’s wrong with a newspaper sharing its opinion on which candidates are best suited to serve community interests?

Even those newspapers that avoid endorsing candidates routinely deliver editorials targeted at decision-makers. The editorial might address a school board’s deliberations over whether to implement all-day kindergarten, or a county board’s discussion about setbacks for feedlot operations, or any number of public policy debates at the State Capitol. The obvious question: If newspapers believe so strongly in calling government bodies to action, or criticizing them for lack of action, shouldn’t they have equally strong convictions about the individuals who will ultimately make those decisions?

Katches is correct that newspapers are in perfect position to engage audiences through a variety of avenues. Many are already doing so.

Editors should constantly seek ways to increase the number and diversity of voices on their editorial pages. And, most important, ensure the newspaper’s opinion remains at the forefront.