3Qs: Do newspapers’ presidential endorsements even matter?

Many prominent publications with a history of endorsing Republican candidates—or of avoiding endorsements altogether—have bucked tradition this election cycle, eschewing Donald Trump in favor of Hillary Clinton. There’s The Cincinnati Enquirer, which had not endorsed a Democrat for president in nearly a century, and The Arizona Republic, which had never endorsed a Democrat for president in its 126-year history. One newspaper—USA Today—took a side in the presidential race for the first time in its four decades of existence, while Foreign Policy endorsed a candidate for political office for the first time in its nearly half-century history. And The Atlantic, which the Chicago Tribune once called the “granddaddy of periodicals,” endorsed a presidential candidate for just the third time since the publication’s founding in 1857, making a case for a Clinton White House while calling Trump an “enemy of fact-based discourse.”

dan_kennedy_125With less than one month to go before Election Day, Trump has yet to receive an endorsement from a major daily newspaper’s editorial board. But one crucial question still remains: Do newspaper endorsements even matter anymore, especially in a day and age saturated by social media? We asked Dan Kennedy, asso­ciate pro­fessor in the School of Jour­nalism and a nation­ally known media com­men­tator.

Studies show that newspaper endorsements don’t often matter to voters—unless the paper bucks political tradition and makes an unexpected pick. How much of a factor do you think newspapers’ censure of Trump—and approval of Clinton—will play in the outcome of this presidential race?

The Trump campaign is hanging by a thread. Scores of Republican officials are urging Trump to drop out of the race because of obscene comments he was recorded making in 2005 in which he also bragged about behavior that could only be described as sexual assault. It was The Washington Post that exposed the existence of that recording. High-impact journalism like that is always going to count for more than endorsements. But that doesn’t mean endorsements are worthless.

Presidential endorsements are a way for newspapers as community institutions to express their values and their vision. I’ve written plenty of endorsements over the years, and I was never under any illusion that what we had to say about the presidential candidates was going to change anyone’s mind. Rather, it is a way for a newspaper’s editorial board to say, “This is who we are. This is what we believe.”

A counterintuitive endorsement could have some effect at the margins. Absolutely no one was surprised when papers such as The New York Times and The Boston Globe endorsed Hillary Clinton. But when longtime Republican papers such as The Arizona Republic and The Cincinnati Enquirer did so, it might have helped tip the balance among voters who would normally back a Republican but who just couldn’t bring themselves to pull the lever for Trump.

Mark McKinnon, political adviser and co-host of “The Circus,” Showtime’s documentary series on the 2016 presidential election, told The Associated Press that “Newspaper endorsements don’t have nearly the impact they used to. There are just way too many other sources of information for voters today.” How has the rise of social media—coupled with the fragmented media landscape—contributed to the decline of newspapers’ power to shape opinions, political or otherwise?

I think McKinnon is wrong to believe that newspaper endorsements ever had much effect on voters in high-profile races—that is, those for president, U.S. senator, and governor. Voters are generally well informed in those situations and are perfectly capable of making up their own minds.

For instance, newspapers in the 1930s and ’40s overwhelmingly endorsed Republican challengers to President Franklin Roosevelt, which did not stop him from winning election four times. It’s possible that fragmentation and the rise of social media have made endorsements even less important, but there is nothing especially new about voters’ ignoring them.

Where endorsements have real value is at the local level. Voters are generally not well informed about candidates for the state legislature, the city council, the school committee, the library trustees, or what have you. In those cases, newspapers can provide a real service by identifying worthy candidates and making the case for why voters should support them.

How might a Trump victory affect how newspapers go about endorsing political candidates in the future? Is it more likely that papers will abandon endorsements altogether or harness the power of the digital age to come up with more modern ways of dispensing their wisdom to the public?

A Trump victory—which seems more hypothetical by the hour—is not going to change how newspapers go about endorsing presidential candidates because, as I said, such endorsements are more an expression of values than a genuine attempt to persuade voters to change their minds.

I do think we’re going to see newspapers try innovative approaches to be heard above the media din. A good example of that is The Boston Globe, which put together a fake front page earlier this year imagining the dystopian reality of a Trump presidency. The Globe won national attention for that effort, although there was plenty of criticism as well as praise.

My concern is that we’re already starting to see local endorsements disappear. Most small community papers are owned by out-of-state corporate chains, and their executives don’t want to risk alienating some of their customers by choosing sides. Then, too, the economic realities of the news business have led to new forms of journalism such as nonprofit news websites, which can’t endorse without risking their tax-exempt status.

There is something old-fashioned about the newspaper endorsement. There is no question that the form harks back to an earlier time when a newspaper’s authority was more respected than it is today. But endorsements continue to play an important role in the civic conversation. As long as newspapers survive, so, too, will political endorsements.