Editorial Page Editor: The why and how of our endorsements

  • Article by: SCOTT GILLESPIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 20, 2012 - 6:38 PM

They're always controversial, but you can be confident that they've been carefully considered. And they're never the last word.

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It's difficult to trace the origins of the debate over whether newspaper editorial boards should endorse political candidates and, in the process, anger some percentage of their readers. It's by no means a new argument.

But as newspaper owners have worked to transform their business models in the face of seismic changes in news and information technology, endorsements have been in the cross hairs more frequently.

One case against them, in short, is that newspapers are in no position to tick off readers, and possibly advertisers, by picking and choosing political candidates, especially in these deeply divided times.

In recent years, several newspapers have gotten out of the endorsement game altogether, while others have confined their picks to a very small slate of local races. This year one of America's most respected daily papers, the Oregonian, of Portland, announced that it would no longer offer a presidential endorsement, explaining that the paper's "CNN-level view of the presidential race is similar to everyone else's."

The Star Tribune takes a different approach -- not because we take lightly the prospect of raising the ire of our readers or advertisers, but because we believe there's civic value in hosting an informed debate on issues that matter most to Minnesotans. That includes offering up our own opinions on key local, state and national elections, and publishing differing views in our letters and on our commentary page.

We've been publishing political endorsements, in one form or another, for more than 140 years. The Minneapolis Tribune endorsed Ulysses S. Grant for president in 1868 -- one year after the newspaper was founded.

Today the Editorial Board writes more than 400 editorials a year, offering researched opinions on a broad range of topics for print and online readers. Whether readers agree with us or not, most tell me that they expect the board to weigh in on major issues of the day, and endorsements are an important part of that mix.

Over the past several weeks, members of the Editorial Board have met with more than 60 candidates seeking endorsement in races we considered the most hotly contested or otherwise newsworthy.

Board members also interviewed leaders of groups on both sides of the two constitutional amendment issues on the ballot. And as part of the research for our presidential endorsement, we interviewed Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, representing President Obama, and former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, who is campaigning for Mitt Romney.

In addition to those interviews, the endorsements you'll read between now and Election Day were informed by original reporting and research, as well as discussion among members of the Editorial Board, including me, Jill Burcum, Susan Hogan, Denise Johnson, John Rash, Lori Sturdevant and D.J. Tice. Star Tribune Publisher and CEO Michael J. Klingensmith and chairman Michael T.P. Sweeney, also members of the Editorial Board, were involved in some of those discussions.

Veteran Twin Cities journalists Nancy B. Olsen, a former Star Tribune assistant city editor, and David Pyle, former Minnesota bureau chief for the Associated Press, assisted the board with interviews and reporting.

Our opinions on the presidential race are informed by the reporting we do all year on issues that are central to the race, in addition to meetings with cabinet officials and regular sessions with members of our congressional delegation from both sides of the aisle. In our view, we have a much better than CNN-level view of the race.

As always, the Editorial Board operates independently from the Star Tribune newsroom, and no current members of the news staff were involved in making our picks or in writing or editing the endorsements. My colleague in news, editor Nancy Barnes, is not involved in the decisionmaking and will know the outcome of our deliberations when you do.

While debating our choices, we gave points to those candidates who went beyond partisan talking points and showed a depth of knowledge on a range of issues. We valued public-service experience and a track record of producing results for constituents. If their approach to the issues is compatible with Editorial Board positions, all the better, but we're seldom in full agreement with our picks.

We expect our endorsements to get mixed reviews. Some will thank us for backing their candidates. Others will question our reasoning. Some will say it's not our place to suggest how they vote. In fact, there are often dissenting opinions on the Editorial Board.

What we really hope for is that our work will inform your decisionmaking -- not that reading our endorsements will represent the full extent of your research.

In the spirit of a full debate, we welcome your views. Between now and Election Day, you'll have a chance to make a case for the candidates you're backing. Use the "Submit a letter or commentary" link on our website, or e-mail your letters (250 words or fewer) and commentaries (700 words or fewer) to opinion@startribune.com.

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Scott Gillespie is the editorial page editor. The Opinion section is launching a newsletter this fall. Please sign up here.

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