Opining About Opinion Pages
On the future of editorial pages, and political endorsements
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
One of the paradoxes of the digital revolution is that while resulting in a reduced supply of original news it has also triggered an explosion in the provision of opinion journalism. Barriers to entry collapsed, and anyone who wants one can have their own soapbox (like this one); we all have the ability to “buy ink by the barrel.”
In the face of this, as well as the relentless cost pressure exacerbated by hedge fund control, it should come as no great surprise that legacy newspaper opinion pages are now facing a reckoning, with Gannett cutting them back significantly—likely on the way to many papers eventually eliminating them altogether. (Rick Edmonds of Poynter has more on the Gannett moves here.)
While freely acknowledging that this is all perhaps a bit too meta (an opinion column opining about opinion columns!), I want this week to take up a few questions that arise from this and similar moves.
First, a much better approach than eliminating opinion pages, in my view, is recasting them away from national issues toward local concerns, as the Des Moines Register (a Gannett paper) announced back in March that it was doing. This is in line with the larger argument, made in this space a few weeks later, that local papers should endeavor to go all-local. A cogent pitch for this point of view was offered recently in the Boston Globe by Prof. Joshua Darr of LSU, one of the nation’s most thoughtful academic commentators on journalism.
The reasons matter
But it’s important to understand why this is a good idea—and why some rationales offered in support of such moves are unwise. It makes sense for local publications to more tightly focus on local readers and local concerns. It does not serve us well for them to do so out of fear of offending people because national issues are so polarizing. Journalism will always suffer if editors become afraid to tell readers about things that make them unhappy.
Opinion pieces remain, at all geographic levels, a critical way to shed light on the complexity of public affairs, and to offer possible ways forward. But while opinion content may frequently be “clickable”—there is a reason the New York Times apps place opinion above all other sections, while the Washington Post homepage “ribbon” places opinion second only to politics—editors do readers no favor in preferring heat to light in the viewpoints they present.
The case against endorsements
Next, we come to the question of whether political endorsements by publications should be consigned to the dustbin of history. I side with those who say they should.
The argument that endorsements are not essential to editorial pages having influence is perhaps best illustrated by the case of my former haunt, the Wall Street Journal, whose last presidential endorsement went to Herbert Hoover. The Journal’s edit page, in my judgment, has nonetheless remained the country’s most strictly disciplined and effective, even as it has shifted philosophy from libertarianism (prominently including free trade, liberal immigration and the value of moral character in public life) under its previous leadership to slavish partisanship (always for the GOP, whether under Trump or not, and notwithstanding the party’s recent opposition to immigration and free trade).
Again, the reason to forego endorsements is not to avoid upsetting those readers who may prefer another candidate. Rather, endorsements feel antiquated in a number of ways:
· First, they have become unpersuasive. Where, for instance, the New York Times could in 1976 famously sway a Democratic US Senate primary by preferring the moderate Daniel Patrick Moynihan over the liberal Bella Abzug, last year’s mayoral endorsement of Kathryn Garcia was not enough to defeat Eric Adams—the primary electorate has broadened, and the Times’s influence lessened. (The influence of newspapers was always limited: FDR won four presidential elections, each with most newspaper editorialists arrayed against him.) In fact, endorsements by anyone have lost force. In Senate primaries this year in Ohio and Pennsylvania the big story seems to me not that Trump’s preferred candidates prevailed but that they got only 32% and 31% of the vote respectively in states where Trump’s approval rating among Republicans topped 75%.
· Beyond that, editorial endorsements run a unique risk of tainting perceptions of news coverage— the separation between news reporting and the views of editorial pages is lost on many readers— without offsetting gains. This is especially the case because almost all of our larger cities have become decidedly more Democratic, making their newspapers’ potentially most important endorsements those in primary elections. In such circumstances, national and even many statewide endorsements serve little point, while local primary endorsements will tend to hinge on questions of temperament and experience voters can more easily judge for themselves.
· Finally, as regular readers know, I remain deeply concerned that journalism these days strikes the balance too heavily in favor of politics and too lightly in elucidating policy. Editorial endorsements only serve to exacerbate this, while foregoing them could be a spur to editorial writers (to the extent they still have jobs) focusing on voters’ more pressing concerns.
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The demise of editorial endorsements is no great loss if it is replaced by increased access to information about the candidates. Here in Chicago, the legacy outlets no longer endorse judicial candidates in Cook County, one of the largest unified court systems in the world, but Injustice Watch produces a non-partisan judicial election guide that thoroughly profiles every candidate on the ballot. No endorsements, just empowering voters to make informed decisions.
You might find this commentary interesting. I rounded up former editors to discuss their perspectives on the historic impact: