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Skip exercises in editorial masochism.

SOME EDITORS MUST LOVE the political endorsement process. They interview dozens of candidates, hundreds, thousands even.

Like ultra-marathoners, they relish the grueling task. At the end they're aching and exhausted but proud. To them, the pay-off is worth the pain.

To me, it isn't. Over the years I have spent so many afternoons writhing in an ergonomically unsound chair interviewing candidates that at the sight of a sample ballot I feel back pains. In 1992, with the backing of editor Rich Oppel and publisher Rolfe Neill, I decided to try something different.

First, some history. Endorsement interviewing is particularly onerous here for three reasons:

1. North Carolina is a long-ballot state. North Carolina's founding fathers wanted every official to be directly responsible to the voters. These are the men, you will recall, who refused to ratify the U.S. Constitution because it lacked a Bill of Rights limiting the government's power. Most North Carolinians don't trust government much under any circumstances; the farther away it is, the less they trust it. (That's why North Carolina sends Jesse Helms to Washington.)

2. Not only does North Carolina elect a humongous number of officials, but it also allows them to serve only short terms -- for example, two years for the Charlotte mayor, city council, county commissioners, school board, legislative delegation, and a host of other offices. And somebody is up for election every year.

3. The down side of North Carolina's development as a two-party state is that now both Democrats and Republicans have an alarming number of party primaries.

Traditionally, our editorial board sought to interview every candidate on the Mecklenburg County ballot, from president to soil and water service commissioner. Some years that meant our four editorial writers interviewed more than 100 candidates. We spent so much time indoors interviewing candidates that by election day we had acquired a Siberian pallor.

I had come to consider it an exercise in editorial masochism.

Doing it meant that we spent afternoon upon afternoon sitting in my office asking similar questions to candidates who might or might not tell us in private the same thing they would tell voters in public. Not counting the toll it took on posture, that practice had two drawbacks: The drain on time and energy meant that many of our daily editorials during endorsement season were insufficiently researched and hastily written; and we missed the political campaign, so we either didn't comment on it or relied on secondhand impressions.

Time for self-examination

Our self-examination began with the fundamental question: Why are we doing this?

There were two reasons, we concluded. First, to get information we needed to make endorsement decisions. That, we decided, was sensible. Second, to persuade candidates of our fairness by engaging in an extensive conversation with each of them. The reward for that, we decided, was not worth the investment. Our interview-everybody policy meant we spent a lot of time with candidates we either knew we were going to endorse or knew we would not endorse in a race against Saddam Hussein.

Here's what we decided to do:

* Do no pro forma interviews. Treat candidate endorsements as we do other issues, and interview only the people we need to interview.

* Rather than have all the editorial writers interview a candidate, assign each editorial writer to research specific races and bring the editorial board a recommendation about whom to endorse and whether to interview either or both of the candidates.

* Get out of the office and attend candidate forums around the community. And sponsor some candidate forums ourselves.

How did this three-point plan change our lives? Instead of more than 100 sit-down candidate interviews involving the full editorial board, we did no more than a dozen. In the time we saved, we sponsored a debate between Democratic candidates for governor and public forums for school board, county commissioner, and several legislative seats. We attended 15 other candidate forums around the county. At the forums we co-sponsored, we asked the questions we would have asked in an editorial board interview. A major and enlightening difference: When candidates responded, they did so in front of potential voters and opposing candidates. When we needed more information, we used the time-honored journalist's tool: We asked.

Because candidates saw us at forums, they knew we were keeping up with their races. Sure, we got some complaints from candidates we didn't interview and didn't endorse, but no more than we got when we were interviewing everybody. An added bonus: At the forums we met a lot of active citizens and heard their concerns. Some of their questions produced more useful answers than questions I would have asked.

I learned two lessons from this process:

1. When you're doing something you don't think is worthwhile, figure out why you're doing it. Maybe you can do it better. Maybe you shouldn't be doing it at all.

2. Our commentary on campaigns is better when we're out where the candidates meet the voters -- and we learn a lot of things there that we wouldn't learn sitting in the office.

What would I do differently next time? I'd sponsor more public forums for candidates whose races get lost in the shuffle, particularly legislative and county commissioner candidates. The forums not only provide us with information, but they also strengthen our ties to the political community. I'd find out when various special-interest groups are holding forums, and be there. And I'd be sure to get copies of questionnaires that special-interest groups send to candidates.

We have the energy and time to do these things because we don't spend so much of it interviewing candidates.

To you, the number of candidates we didn't interview in 1992 may not seem like something to brag about, but I'm proud of it. I see it as our response to the great newspaper challenge of the '90s: How can we use existing resources to serve our readers better?

NCEW member Ed Williams is editor of the editorial pages of The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Williams, Ed
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Words:1003
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