The Missed Opportunity of Newspaper Endorsements

Research, both scholarly and anecdotal, suggests that newspaper endorsements make little difference in the minds of readers. This fact led Edward Morrissey at The Week to argue that “Newspaper endorsements are at best meaningless anachronisms, and at worst damaging to the newspapers themselves.” Given this, Morrissey asks, why do it?

However, what if, instead of scraping the newspaper endorsement we re-imagined it? Could we make it work better?

Over the past week the New York Times endorsed President Obama for a second term and the Des Moines Register endorsed Governor Romney, the first time they have endorsed a Republican since Nixon. The endorsements were very different in tone and style, but they had one thing in common: There were no links in the web version of either editorial.

While the reticence of some newspapers to link, especially to articles outside their own archives, has been well documented I think the lack of links in most, if not all, newspaper endorsements is a missed opportunity.

A missed opportunity to add context.

By the time a newspaper endorses a candidate, usually in the final weeks before the election, a lot has happened in the race and in the news. While those endorsements often present a wide-ranging and thorough argument about the candidate, they don’t help connect readers to the context of that argument.

For people who are just tuning into the election in its final weeks, newspaper endorsements that were deeply linked and contextualized could be civic roadmaps helping readers navigate a year’s worth of important reporting about the issues and the campaigns of this election. They could point back to the best reporting done by the paper itself, as well as others, and become a kind of Cliffs Notes for the year’s policy debates.

A missed opportunity to show your work.

Newspapers still make endorsements because they believe that as careful observers of the election they are uniquely positioned to assess the big picture, pull together diverse viewpoints and important threads of the debate with the goal of boiling it down for their readers. I believe there is some truth in that notion, but that in the digital age where transparency is king, readers expect the newsroom to show their work.

It is no longer enough for editors to simply pass judgment and outline the reasons for their endorsement. They should be able to back up their arguments, show us the data, point to the sources you drew on. A massively linked endorsement will be far more credible.

A missed opportunity to write better endorsements.

I think we can create a better endorsement, one that more concretely serves the local community and builds engagement and trust amongst readers (even if they disagree with the endorsement itself). If, as the research suggests, these newspaper endorsements carry little weight, papers should want to fix that.

What if editorial boards opened up the meetings in which they debate who they will endorse and turned them into something akin to a town hall? What if papers produced in-depth explainers for the issues the editorial board based their decision on? What if newspapers mine their own archives to help put the current race and their endorsement in a uniquely local and historical perspective? What if editorial boards judged candidates by some transparent criteria like the “citizens agenda” which Jay Rosen has been developing?

There has been a great debate of late about how to reinvent the role of the public editor or ombudsman. I think a similar debate about newspaper endorsements is long overdue. Done right, newspaper endorsements could be about transparency, community engagement and more networked and connected election year reporting.

Other thoughts and feedback: I’ll post follow-up discussion, tweets and links below as the conversation unfolds. How would you reinvent endorsements? Send your ideas to @jcstearns on Twitter or in the comments below.

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