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FLX Politics: The case for and against newspaper endorsements

Newspaper endorsements have been a mainstay in the news world for decades. While the role of physical newspapers have evolved a great deal in the digital age many have continued the practice. The rise of the Internet, though, has caused a larger volume of friction when they do make those proclamations of support.

Having spent enough time in the industry to see the backlash that can come from a news organization, print or otherwise, endorsing any candidate – it felt like a solid idea to lay out some reasons why endorsements are a good and bad thing for those organizations.

Different organizations have different methods for endorsing – but generally speaking, an editorial board makes a selection as a group. Those selections, as well as the reasons supporting those selections, ultimately are what make up the “endorsement section” of any pre-Election Day newspaper. The selections typically cover the races relevant to the readers of that publication.

In my Election Day Eve addition of FLX Politics, which has been notably absent from FingerLakes1.com over the last several weeks, I decided to outline the reasons for and against newspaper endorsements, which locally have drawn a significant amount of expected criticism.

Editor’s Note: The FingerLakes1.com editorial team does not endorse any specific candidate for any race. We let the news, voters, and people of the Finger Lakes speak for itself. If you’d like your voice to be heard, we are always accepting editorials and guest-appearances. Send them to FingerLakes1.com Lead News Editor Josh Durso by dropping him an email at josh@fingerlakes1.com.

Why news organizations should avoid endorsing a candidates:

Polarization has the biggest impact on endorsements after they are publicized. On the national stage, two deeply flawed candidates are running for office, which has resulted in an endorsement of one candidate, or another, to be perceived as an indictment on those who support the other.

That polarization has created a divide over the last 18 months, as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have moved through the ranks. By default the polarization has become a solid reason against newspaper endorsements.

After all, when your business model relies on newspaper sales – and endorsing a candidate theoretically alienates 40 to 50 percent of your customers – making those endorsements could have real dollars-and-cents implications.

Think about it this way: Newspapers are already being hurt by digital media. The Internet has made “daily” operations a bigger struggle, and even as exclusively digital news organizations have risen – the rise of Facebook and Twitter have done far more damage to physical newspapers.

Taking that argument a step further: If a newspaper has 40,000 subscribers, and roughly half of them are displeased enough to argue that they will cancel their subscription it poses a major threat to the organizations readership, but more importantly financial well-being. No one would ever expect half of those 40,000 subscribers to walk away and pull that subscription – but even if half of one-percent of subscribers in that scenario decide that they have had enough – that is 200 subscribers.

National averages suggest that a newspaper subscription, for one year, costs as much as $360. That would mean a loss for that news organization of $72,000 in one year. If it’s a smaller operation where the yearly cost is around $100 for a subscription – those 200 walkers would cost that organization a couple thousand dollars. Another item for consideration here are those readers who don’t purchase a subscription, but pick up the newspaper on a daily basis at a newsstand. Those customers are shelling out more than $350 a year – if the paper costs only $1.00.

Point being: Alienating a very small portion of your readership, for the sake of endorsing specific candidates, could be a very, very expensive undertaking.

Perceived bias is another major challenge when it comes to newspaper endorsements.

Let’s be clear: I call it perceived bias because the people serving on an editorial board are not the ones reporting news. Unless a specific organization has made a policy to do such; those handling the specific beats of political figures, campaigns, or government entities – are not part of the process.

An editorial board can consist of many things, but frequently they include some combination of the following: Publishers, news editors, community members, guest columnists, and sometimes the authors responsible for features in any given publication.

The perception is that those making these decisions are the same ones, and like I said, unless the news organization has made it a policy to include those folks in that decision, then the process does have integrity.

It’s fair to assume that some readers don’t know that because newspapers haven’t done a great job, historically, of making information like that clear. There is always talk about an organization’s “editorial board,” but who, and what makes that entity up is only made clear in few instances.

News organizations are also faced with the challenge of combating the notion that editor’s drive the narrative. That they solely and independently determine what is news and when it will be news. That might be the case in some select situations, but generally speaking, the news is covered too quickly, and the news cycle is too short to ever exert that kind of control over the situation.

That perceived bias can translate into the same scenario described above. To avoid repetition, we’ll move on to the next reason.

Covering the news is challenging enough without creating more roadblocks.

I’ve noted that the newscycle happens quickly, stories become irrelevant if not updated several times over a few hours. It’s a major challenge for every news organization. Whether they are exclusively print, exclusively online – or some combination of the two – doing news in 2016 is incredibly difficult.

Sprawling sources, more information than ever with the advent of social media, sourcing practices that are being tipped upside down as deadlines get shorter by the moment, and a push for more information in 160 character or less.

That has been a major reason why I made the decision that FingerLakes1.com would not go down the path of doing “endorsements.” We strive to do the news differently. Our process is unlike others in the business. Our goal is to provide information, content, and the best of everything to our readers and viewers without an antiquated process.

Why news organizations should continue endorsing candidates:

While the number of compelling reasons to keep newspaper endorsements around is shrinking, in my estimation, there is some value offered by the practice.

Newspapers know how to tell the story. They have seen it. They have lived it. Everyday. Every moment. Oftentimes seeing, hearing, and writing the story to absolute excess. During a political campaign, the sheer excess of information and coverage is what drives so much of the division that exists in our political climate.

However, it’s a necessary evil.

That said, if a news organization has lived a story for several months – or in this case 18 months since the launch of the presidential race. The one that has highlighted just how much polarization exists in our political world. Then they have a right, as well as duty, to publish the conclusions they’ve drawn from covering the story over time.

While many will call that bias, it’s also a necessary process for driving a conversation forward. News organizations and those who report on the news are the conduit between all of the moving parts inside a story.

Covering those sides, repeatedly and thoroughly is an important part of the process. In a Democratic process, the will of the people is what actually matters. The conclusions drawn by a news organization days before an election is just the final step of taking in all that information. The campaigns have been covered, the issues have been written about, and at that final stage – before everyone moves on beyond Election Day – is that organization taking a stand.

They have lived the story like others haven’t. That’s why it’s a deserved right.

Fear shouldn’t dictate policy. The fear of losing a subscriber or reader shouldn’t prevent a news organization from publishing a piece that they feel will further the cause of information sharing. Especially if the conclusions drawn from the process are well-supported. That is an important thing to remember when it comes to media coverage of any issue or story.

While newspapers contend with a changing market – they will undoubtedly have to consider scrapping these endorsements, which if nothing else – are a unique form of content that should be taken like any editorial. It’s an opinion. It’s an opinion expressed by a board instead of an individual, but the important thing to remember is that endorsements are not a suggestion of fact.

They’re just another item for consideration to drive the conversation forward.

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  • John Plugger Mellencamp

    Where’s the byline? It took me several readings to figure out this was Josh Durso’s work.