Wayne Garcia and I discuss the Ledger’s decision to end candidate endorsements

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Halifax Media Group, which has quickly become a major newspaper chain in Florida, will no longer make candidate endorsements, according to The Ledger of Lakeland

While endorsements are done by editorial boards, Halifax said it is concerned about the perception of unfairness in news coverage of election races. Halifax bought The Daytona Beach News-Journal in 2010 and later bought Florida papers formerly owned by the New York Times Regional Media Group — such as The Ledger and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune — and papers owned by Freedom Communications.

My initial thoughts on this decision are here. I invited Wayne Garcia, who teaches journalism at USF, to add his thoughts on the issue:

The old-schooler in me, of course, decries what is an abdication of community responsibility, the need for a newspaper to speak as an important institution about what it believes is best for its community. Every journalist over the age of 45 recalls when an editorial recommendation or endorsement meant a lot, when editorials changed society, when they spoke with an authority that moved issues or campaigns or polls.
But those days are gone, unfortunately.
In some ways, editorial recommendations seem an anachronism. Earlier studies showed them to have little impact on an election, and firsthand from being in politics, I saw an editorial “bounce” go from a couple of points to negligible. I’m a political junkie and I never read them any more, sad to say. Kathleen Hall Jamieson wrote an excellent book on politics and reporting and said in an interview about the book, “The direct effect of editorials does not appear to be significant enough to find. The effect of newspaper endorsements is largely created through advertising about them that is sponsored by the candidate.”
The Ledger’s move should prompt a real discussion of just exactly what is the role, purpose and efficacy of editorial candidate recommendations in this age of partisan media, blogs, and other new media outlets. Academia could respond as well with some updated research on exactly how news consumers use those editorials.
Having said that, The Ledger’s move seems a mistake from two standpoints: First, from the notion I stated above from legacy media that having an editorial voice in a community is an important thing. I still believe it plays that role, even if the public is (I hope temporarily) turning away from the product.
Second, if the play is for more “objectivity,” it’s wrong. The idea of an “objective” news media is increasingly rejected by the purchasing public. They seem to want partisan outlets (see: cable news, online sites, blogs), so if Halifax thinks it is creating a more “objective” product to appeal to readers (or more accurately, I suspect, advertisers or business leaders), it is way off target.
Halifax cited this decision as “an effort to prevent a perception of bias in political races” but frankly that perception is best dealt with by aggressively pursuing fair, probing, evenhanded reporting and more transparency about how the newsroom works, the editorial writers’ roles and the reporters and their own biases.
I suspect that newspapers that go the route of The Ledger are essentially admitting they can’t afford to do the comprehensive campaign reporting that would undo any perception of bias caused by editorials.
I then wondered about what I describe as the deterrent factor:
Even if a candidate has no chance of winning the newspaper’s endorsement, they conduct themselves as if they are in the running for it right up until they are not.
Im literally dealing with a candidate right now who has no shot of receiving the Times endorsement but the hope of it has them acting differently than they would if there was no endorsement whatsoever.
Garcia wasn’t buying this:

So you are saying it deters the candidate from doing anything crazy?

For some, yes. But more and more realize how useless the endorsement is and understand they are under no such deterrence.
Also, what about the reversal effect? I remember running Tom Lee first time, he got the SP Times endorsement over Mark Proctor and somebody actually used that against him at the last minute, I think at Tiger Bay, that if Lee was really a conservative why would the liberal Times endorse him?
The bottom-line for Garcia:
I honestly believe the only thing a candidate endorsement can do these days is to give legitimacy to a first-time/unknown candidate. It makes people pay attention to them if they get it, now they are a serious candidate whereas before it they were not.
I believe there are some exceptions to this:

Except, of course, in judicial and school board races.

I think the endorsement makes a huge difference.

Remember Days of Thunder with Tom Cruise? Robert Duvall explains to Cruise:

“When you were racing Indy cars, the tyres were twice as wide – and the car weighed half as much. Now it’s the opposite.”

Judicial, school board = Indy; Leg races = NASCAR. “Tyres” being editorial endorsements.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.