When people lament the decline of the newspaper industry, there’s a lot of over-simplification that goes on. The conventional wisdom is that “The Internet” killed newspapers (damn tubes!) but I’d argue that still-profitable individual papers trying to support a bloated corporate structure has done far more damage. However, that’s another post for another time.
Even the whole Internet excuse is more nuanced that just the giving-stories-away-for-free stuff. Newspapers survived the invention of radio and TV somehow, because those technologies were just new ways to distribute the same information. The reason getting a handle on social media is like squeezing a bar of soap for most media outlets is because it represents a fundamental shift in the way people read, process and most importantly, share information – but that’s a whole other blog post too.
There are some steps newspapers can do to stay relevant that aren’t as complicated. The first thing I’d do if running a major daily is end the practice of endorsing political candidates, as 34 papers in the Halifax Media Group have just done. (Link via Jim Romenesko.) The Chicago Sun-Times also announced earlier this year that they would do the same. (For discussion’s sake, here’s what Chicago’s other paper posted in response to that announcement.)
There’s a lot about newspapers that’s going to take a Nobel Prize winner to fix (hello, Web comments) but its seems to me that some small fixes that wouldn’t be hard to implement are being held back by editorial arrogance. The same arrogance that drives newspapers to send 15,000 reporters to political conventions no one outside the wonk community cares about drives the endorsement game.
Has a newspaper endorsement ever changed one voters’ mind? Probably not. But editors and publishers just love the fact that people running for office come into their conference rooms and submit to a grilling.
OK, maybe that last paragraph isn’t fair. Maybe there are people out there who want to cast and educated vote in an upcoming election, but they don’t feel knowledgable about the candidates. So they think, “I usually agree with the Boston Globe editorials, lets see who they’re picking for state representative in the 3rd Suffolk district.” And maybe reporters in an editorial board meeting can press candidates used to giving vague stump speeches for clearer stances on major issues.
But here’s where time has passed newspapers by. In the age of blogs and hyper-partisan news sites, the average media consumer can’t separate the newspaper from its editorial page. Fair or not, readers are looking for bias in everything, and endorsements are always going to be perceived as bias. If a paper endorses a candidate who gets in trouble, they’re tainted by association at best, and at worst, are seen as part of the coverup. If they endorse a candidate who loses, even the most well-supported critiques of that person may be brushed off, because this isn’t the person the editorial board “wanted.” Endorsements do more harm than good. I really can’t see the potential benefits, except for the fact that editors really like writing endorsements.
Also, that voter who wants to be informed isn’t picking up a newspaper, even one he or she is a loyal reader of. Not when they can go right to the source. Candidates these days usually have their platforms detailed on Web sites. And when they don’t, journalists should be pressing for answers and clarity in the public forum, not inside the comforts of their own newsroom.
For me, the worst part about endorsements is that papers are missing an opportunity. I’m not suggesting papers do away with editorials entirely. Especially for local papers, strong editorial campaigns can effect positive change.
Journalism should be about demanding answers, not just passively reporting. I can’t stand the whole “savvy press,” both-sides-are-bad-but-aren’t-we-cute-about-it trend that’s infecting the media these days.
But if newspapers aggressively pressed for the truth on an issue-by-issue, case-by-case basis, rather than aligning themselves with individuals or parties, the public would be better served, and those organization would have more cache because they wouldn’t be linked in readers’ minds to a particular person, party or ideology. So here’s to more fiery editorials and less tepid endorsements.