Don’t wait! Start planning for your paper’s election endorsements

by | Dec 1, 2009 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

The Inlander/December 2009

Quiz a roomful of editors and reporters about their most memorable editorials. Ask them which have generated the greatest reaction.

The noteworthy commentaries invariably delivered messages targeted at specific decision-makers who were in position to advance specific policies.

For one community, it might be a local city council’s deliberations about whether to enact an ordinance for barking dogs. For another, it’s a county board contemplating a zoning ordinance that will have a long-term impact on tax base.

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 ultimately will make those decisions? If newspapers tout their roles as government watchdogs, endorsing candidates for elected bodies should be at the top of editors’ responsibilities.

It’s disheartening, but many newspapers are back-pedaling from political endorsements, and in particular candidates for local office. The hesitancy is understandable. Editors are unsure if they are “in a position” to recommend who should set policy for the schools, city, county or other governing board.

The discomfort of making such decisions should not be dismissed. At the same time, newspapers should not forget their responsibility, even obligation, to weigh in on those individuals who they believe will best represent the interests of their communities.

Endorsing candidates can be an exhausting and delicate process. It requires studying the candidates and identifying those the editors believe are in the best position to advance policies important to the community. The task becomes much easier, however, if newspapers focus on issues – and not personalities – and if they start planning now for the endorsement process.

One of the early exercises should be a brainstorming session on what the priority issues are in races the newspaper plans to cover. Framing these questions serves a dual purpose.

First, these are the same questions that reporters should be asking all the candidates when profiling the specific races. Then, once the candidates go on record on the issues, and the newspaper stakes its positions, it becomes much easier to endorse specific individuals.

Can endorsements in local races still pose challenges? Indeed.

Two instances during my tenure as editor of the Red Wing (Minn.) Republican Eagle stood out as examples of personal relationships intertwining in the endorsements. In one instance, a former newsroom employee – a writer whom I directly supervised – challenged a U.S. congressman of national renown. In another instance, a former advertising representative ran against an incumbent county commissioner. The relationships prompted many readers to expect the newspaper to endorse these two individuals.

We did not. In both cases, we examined the candidates, their backgrounds and the issues, and in final analysis endorsed the incumbents. In truth, we held the challengers to higher standards because we wanted to be certain that the relationships did not interfere with our decisions. Because of that, we took an extra step.

Both of the former employees received phone calls informing them of our decisions. Were the calls necessary? Absolutely not. But the connection strengthened their respect for our process.

The phone calls were not intended to seek their opinions or give them an opportunity to alter the decision or edit the content. Rather, it was to explain the process behind a decision. The newspaper also gained the respect of those readers who anticipated the endorsements were a foregone conclusion.

Newspapers still should expect criticism from the naysayers.

“What gives you the right to tell us how to vote?” “It’s little surprise you’re going to endorse all the Republican candidates. You’re the Republican Eagle, after all.” “Newspaper endorsements? They’re the kiss of death for a candidate.” All of these comments and many more are familiar to editors.

They all underscore that editorials, especially candidate endorsements, are among the most watched and most misunderstood roles of newspapers. Editors should explain to readers the rationale behind endorsements. A column about this should appear every election cycle, and may warrant publication a couple of times during a single season.