I was saddened this morning to read that the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram will end their longstanding tradition of offering endorsements of political candidates and races.
Although this decision will likely be a popular one among the newspaper’s readers, I think it is a terrible mistake.
In today’s media world, newspapers are struggling to keep up with increasing competition (broadcast journalism, blogs and social media). Newsrooms across the country are also facing other challenges: budgetary constraints that are decimating newsrooms and declining advertising revenues.
For those reasons, and some others, newspapers are losing their gravitas and their once dominant position as the chief source of news and information.
In today’s editorial, the newspaper makes its case for discontinuing endorsements.
“Editorial endorsements are a tradition from the 19th century, when American newspapers were affiliated with political parties. Those newspapers existed to affect the outcome of elections, not just to report on them. The news business changed, but although most newspapers have hung on to the tradition, we could not convince ourselves that hanging on made sense for us.”
The editorial goes to great lengths to disclose its ownership interest by S. Donald Sussman, a frequent contributor to Democratic candidates and the husband of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree as a another reason why it should refrain from making endorsements.
That is, perhaps, the newspaper’s best argument, but the rest of their argument is weak, and not what one would expect from the state’s largest daily newspaper.
“Some people say that a news organization, because of its access to candidates, is in a better position than the average voter to make a choice, but no voter has a shortage of information these days.”
Based on my own experience working for both newspapers and candidates, this argument is tepid, at best.
For the better part of two decades, I worked as both a reporter and an editor at much smaller, community-based newspapers.
During my days as editor of the Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach Courier (1999-2006), I ran endorsements of local candidates. Today, as it was then, fewer than 2 of 10 people could tell you who was the councilor from Ward 4 in Biddeford or which city council candidates voted against the proposed school budget.
Today, I no longer cover local politics. I work on public policy issues across the state of Maine and beyond.
I spend very little time in my hometown. It’s now basically where I eat and sleep. If I want to know what’s going on, I read my local newspapers. I view the newspapers as more credible and more informed than a local blogger or what Susie Q. Public posts on her Facebook page.
It’s the same for most people I know. We lead busy lives: our kids need back-to-school clothes, there are bills to pay, lawns to mow, laundry to fold, not to mention the demands of our careers. I no longer have the luxury of hanging out at City Hall as a paid witness.
But when I was an editor, I could speak with authority about local issues and the players driving them. I had a unique perspective. It was my profession.
Shortly, after I left the newspaper business, that publication also stopped offering endorsements of local candidates. I heard from a lot of people who bemoaned the lack of those endorsements and a vibrant editorial page. The purpose of the editorial page is to be subjective (a departure from the rest of the paper that should be objective and neutral) It’s the whole point of an editorial page: for the newspaper to take an informed position on important issues affecting its readers.
How an endorsement changed my life
Finally, the best reason for making endorsements:
It was almost 13 years ago today that I sat down to write a set of endorsements. There were three candidates seeking two seats on the Old Orchard Beach School Board. This was a minor race that the Press Herald would not weigh in upon. Of those three candidates, one was a respected incumbent and two were political newcomers.
But I made a mistake, I thought there was only one seat available. So, I endorsed the incumbent.
The next day, I got a rather nasty e-mail from one of the candidates who told me I should do a better job with my research.
We traded barbs for several days, an e-mail exchange that eventually turned friendly. I met her on election night, but did not dare speak to her.
There were some more e-mails and then a first date.
And then a second and third date.
We have been happily married now for the better part of 12 years.
If I didn’t make any endorsements, I would have never met the love of my life.
And if that isn’t a good reason for making endorsements, then what is?
If I could go back and do it all over again, I would not change a thing.