As if local newspapers did not have enough problems, with plummeting circulation and shrinking staffs, some recent endorsements of Hillary Clinton by editorial boards look like more self-inflicted wounds by an industry that specializes in them.
When the Arizona Republic endorsed Clinton this week, longtime readers threatened to cancel their subscriptions - and many others trashed the paper on Facebook. When the Dallas Morning News endorsed the Democratic presidential nominee earlier this month, cancellations followed, and protesters picketed the building
“We’ve paid a price for our presidential recommendation,” Dallas Morning News editor Mike Wilson told Poynter.org, a site for news about the media, but he would not say exactly how many subscriptions had been lost.
In both cases (and quite a few others, including the Cincinnati Enquirer), these papers had not endorsed a Democrat for president in generations.
Does anybody think for a second that a newspaper editorial might be worth antagonizing a dwindling customer base and feeding into the already rampant claims of journalists’ liberal bias?
Isn’t this exactly why so many newspapers, according to Columbia Journalism Review, stopped doing political endorsements?
And certainly, there can’t be a chance in the world that this ossified form of communication might actually influence voters.
Well, not so fast. There are two pretty good reasons for newspapers to take these potentially unpopular stands.
First, if the right factors come together, editorials really can influence voters’ decisions.
Although research shows that most voters say a newspaper editorial had no influence on their vote, two recent studies suggest that there’s one exception to that rule: when the endorsements are unexpected.
Surprise editorials are the ones that count, as long as they make sense, given the paper’s usual tone.
“Endorsements which are consistent with respect to the newspaper’s discourse, and which come as a surprise compared to the newspaper’s endorsement history, have a large and potentially decisive effect in tied contests,” the Northwestern University economist Agustin Casas discovered, according to coverage in the magazine Pacific Standard. That research echoed earlier findings from the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The Republic’s editorial certainly seems to qualify as that kind of a surprise.
It begins: “Since The Arizona Republic began publication in 1890, we have never endorsed a Democrat over a Republican for president. Never. This reflects a deep philosophical appreciation for conservative ideas and Republican principles. This year is different.”
The editorial goes on to detail - acerbically, in some places - Donald Trump’s disqualifying flaws and his rival’s attributes: “Clinton retains her composure under pressure. She’s tough. She doesn’t back down. Trump responds to criticism with the petulance of verbal spit wads.”
That, the Republic wrote, is “beneath our national dignity.” Or, in the words of the Dallas Morning News editorial: Trump “plays on fear - exploiting base instincts of xenophobia, racism and misogyny - to bring out the worst in all of us, rather than the best.” (Trump has gathered almost no endorsements from mainstream news organizations. The Washington Post has endorsed Clinton.)
Which brings me to the second reason for writing an endorsement editorial - even if it proves ineffectual and even if it deeply angers some readers: Publishing them is the right thing to do.
Editorial boards are mostly made up of thoughtful, smart and well-informed journalists who have had a chance to study and discuss the candidates seriously. In some cases, they have had the chance to meet with them in person. They have a unique and important vantage point.
What’s more, they have a bully pulpit. In a contest this important and this close, they need to use it. They would be walking away from their responsibility if they thought first about making some readers mad enough to cancel, even temporarily.
“We write our editorials based on principle, and sometimes principle comes at a cost,” the Morning News’s Wilson said.
He’s right about that.
Newspaper editorials may indeed be going the way of the dodo, but every once in a while, they still can fly.