The Sadness of Newspaper Endorsements

“Lets keep doing exactly what we’ve done the last 100 years…there’s no way we’re on the wrong side of this history thing.”

I just noticed this article rounding up the latest newspaper editorial board endorsements of this presidential election cycle. While both campaigns seek endorsements and both subsequently tout the newspaper endorsements they receive, the whole process fills me with a sense of sadness. A traditional endeavor driven forward by little more than inertia. For any conservatives reading this, “inertia” is a scientific term for what you’d call, “God’s extra little shove.”

Newspaper endorsements historically carry weight because the average voter had little access to the day-to-day campaigning and viewed the race through the lens of a newspaper with reporters or affiliated services embedded with the candidates. As the most trusted media outlet for campaign, the local newspaper served as a voter’s font of campaign wisdom. Toward the end of the election season, the editorial board of the local paper might have the opportunity to sit down personally with the candidate and ask direct questions pertinent to the local electorate. The newspaper endorsement reflected the informed judgment of the preeminent local news source servicing the voters.

With 24-hour news cable news as well as Internet and Twitter, the local newspaper no longer dominates political reporting. Without blinders, voters now, for better or worse, get more political insight from CNN, MSNBC, and Fox than newspapers. Technology has created a nationalization that most voters embrace. Facebook generates a public forum for political discussion and education across the borders of weekly circulation.

It’s telling that the campaigns seem uninterested in convincing non-partisan online publications or cable news channels to begin endorsing candidates. While a lot of the persuasive talent is now at these institutions, they adhere to the canard of “objectivity” employing pundits to spread competing partisan endorsements. The idea of an overtly (and MSNBC and Fox still do not overtly claim a partisan editorial slant) political national media outlet is anathema even while we fully expect local publications to take a stance in the same manner they did 100 years ago. It’s such an antiquated philosophy.

In addition to losing influence to competing outlets, that competition has also eroded the reach of local papers. Take for example the Des Moines Register, which endorsed Mitt Romney to much fanfare (summary: “Mitt Romney can’t possibly mean anything he says so go ahead and vote for him”). In the 1960s, the Register had a circulation of 250,000 for the daily edition and 500,000 for the Sunday paper. Today its circulation is a mere 105,151 daily and 216,648 on Sunday even though the population of the state has grown by roughly 300,000 (in fairness, not all the state reads the DMR, but the point remains).

The sole remaining purpose of newspaper endorsements is the hope that the scribe penning the endorsement will include a beautiful turn of phrase that could be included in a future advertisement. But after reading a number of these endorsements there’s not much more ingenious writing on display here than in the average pundit column. Perhaps next election a candidate will give up the ghost of pursuing these empty symbols. Either that or papers will find ways to turn newspaper endorsements into something more relevant to modern political communication.

That said, I’d be happy to retract all of these comments Romney-style if a newspaper would like to hire me!

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