Endorsements get endorsement.
About twenty convention-goers turned out for a 7:30 a.m. Saturday discussion of "Endorsements: Do They Matter?" led by Ed Jones, editor of The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
A consensus: Yes, they do matter, especially in local races. Yes, they matter even when readers don't take the newspaper's advice. And yes, they matter even if they're rescinded two days before the election.
Candidate endorsements give readers more information on which to base their decisions, said Bonnie Calhoun Williams, editorial page editor of the Anderson Independent-Mail in South Carolina.
Playing devil's advocate, Jones suggested, "Why not endorse in only some races?"
Doug Floyd, editorial page editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, responded, "They [voters] have to decide; we have to decide." Williams said the omission of an endorsement sends the message that "this issue or candidate isn't important"
Some newspapers stop short of endorsing candidates. Instead, they make "recommendations" or rate candidates on specific issues according to how their views stack up against the newspaper's.
John Taylor, editorial page editor of The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, said he sees such practices as "a copout, a distinction without a difference" Morgan McGinley, editorial page editor of The Day in New London, Connecticut, agreed, saying, "A rating equivocates."
Pete Wasson, opinion editor at the Wausau Daily Herald in Wisconsin, said, "If you're not offering an endorsement, I don't know if you have the right to criticize later"
At The St. Petersburg Times and The Fresno Bee, the decisions were made to "disendorse" candidates when their campaigns took an ugly turn within two days of an election. Editors at both papers thought the about-face enhanced the newspaper's credibility with readers.
Jones asked for shortcuts to lessen the burden of adding endorsement interviews to an already full workday. Some editors noted they interview candidates in groups. At The Journal Star in Peoria, the editorial writers devote a Saturday morning to twenty-minute, back-to-back interviews. Floyd said his newspaper doesn't interview candidates who are sure to be endorsed.
When Jones brought the discussion full circle, asking if endorsements really matter, Williams suggested that endorsements in local races do make a difference. 'Readers tell us they use our endorsement boxes," she said.
"Do they provoke discussions and articulate the paper's philosophy and values?" Floyd asked. If so, he said, that's more important "than whether they're followed."
Gayle Beck is editorial page editor of The Repository in Canton, Ohio. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org