Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Radical Surgery by Journal Sentinel

Its decision to end candidate endorsements is a huge change that could reshape the newspaper.

By - Oct 24th, 2012 05:51 pm
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The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is going to drop its political endorsements. It’s a momentuous change for a newspaper that for many decades prided itself on announcing from on high its judgement on who was the superior candidate in elections. The move was confirmed by editorial page editor David Haynes to national media writer Jim Romenesko.

Sources tell me the newspaper felt the heat of endorsing Republican Gov. Scott Walker in the bitterly contested recall election and decided it wasn’t worth it. The word is the newspaper will do no more endorsements unless the editors really feel like a candidate has crossed the line and they need to weigh in.

I’m not shocked by the decision. Amid the bitter partisan divide of 21st century America, it has become increasingly difficult for a “mainstream” newspaper to find the middle of the road. There’s not much middle left, and that seems all the more true in Wisconsin, which became ground zero for partisanship in the dispute over collective bargaining rights.

In this fall’s U.S. Senate election it looked at first as though there might be some crossover vote for Republican Tommy Thompson, long seen as a moderate. There was evidence that a chunk of voters would vote for both Thompson and Democratic President Barack Obama. But the onslaught of campaign ads helped blow away most of those ticket splitters and by now, few are left, as the paper’s political analyst Craig Gilbert recently wrote.

In 2010, the JS tried to split the middle, endorsing Walker for governor and Democrat Russ Feingold for U.S. Senate. But the idea of trying to find a way to split your endorsements can become an artificial process, all the more so when Thompson seems to exactly echo Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on the issues, while Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin echoes Obama. The logical choice is to endorse either two Republicans or two Democrats, but that would have generated a firestorm of criticism.

The Journal Sentinel is not the first to drop endorsements. Others include the Chicago Sun Times, the Knoxville News and the Halifax chain of papers, with papers concentrated in Florida and other southern states.

Still, most papers seem to be trying to hang on to the tradition. As Chicago Tribune editorial page editor Bruce Dold wrote to Romenesko back when the Sun Times dropped its endorsements, “I think endorsements are at the heart of what an editorial board does. We recommend an agenda and ask readers and government leaders to push that agenda. We push ideas for better public schools and economic growth and government that won’t tolerate the miserable culture of political corruption in Illinois. I don’t think it makes sense for us to recommend how to have better government but avoid recommending who is best to lead that change.”

Spoken like a traditional newspaper man. But these aren’t exactly traditional times. Newspapers like the JS are bleeding readers, ads and staff at an alarming rate. I’m guessing the editors decided it just wasn’t worth the blowback to do endorsements, all the more so when the evidence suggest they have little impact on readers anyway.

I think it’s an inevitable and probably smart decision by the newspaper, but it does present it with a big challenge: to reinvent the editorial page. The fact is that policy editorials, the kind listed by Dold, typically get very little readership, whereas candidate endorsements get much more discussion and exposure, including in ads by candidates.

Will the newspaper continue to devote the resources, the staff time it takes to write thoughtful, policy wonk editorials that get low readership? Once you dump editorial endorsements, isn’t the whole editorial page up for grabs?

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Newspapers need to reinvent themselves. But what struck me when I worked at the JS was what a dinosaur it was, with all sorts of quirky, often lovable ways of doing things that went back decades, as they did at most American newspapers. Well, Milwaukee’s dinosaur has just cut away what someone like Dold would call its heart. The question is, how will it cope with the loss, what changes will it make to keep the blood pumping?

Short Takes

-It probably didn’t help the Journal Sentinel that the newspaper first announced it would make no endorsement in the recall race, then argued against the recall and finally endorsed Walker. It was a monumental flip-flop that stoked additional outrage from liberals, with some calling for a boycott of the paper.

-Dave Reid offers an interesting account of how Ald. Bob Bauman’s fight with Rocky Marcoux resulted in a new ordinance regulating how a developer’s design changes are handled by the Department of City Development.

-And Jeramey Jannene offers a smart critique of a proposal to end transfers and change the cost structure for the county bus system.

16 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Radical Surgery by Journal Sentinel”

  1. Steven Blackwood says:

    That the JS is losing readership is actually a 40+ year trend. When I was a paperboy in the mid-sixties, I could count on 1 hand how many homes did NOT get the paper. Now a route will cover whole neighborhoods, necessitating a car. Of course, what was a slow trickle has become a geyser. Any bets on how soon the JS ceases to publish on certain days, maybe becoming a weekend paper only?

  2. Steven Blackwood, yeah I agree with you all of my friends had a paper route up there off 51st and Keefe(Main Neighborhood garage). After deliver newspaper went to Wally’s Gas Station off Rosevelt and Keefe or 60th Street Store and got snacks and then went to 53rd Street School to play sports

  3. Bruce Thompson says:

    I always thought that the most influential newspaper endorsements were those for down-ticket candidates, the candidates that most readers know little about. This is particularly true in nonpartisan elections and party primaries where the voter cannot depend on the short hand of the party label. The apparent decision in the last few years of the J-S to drop local endorsements in favor of national or state-wide ones seemed to me to get it exactly backwards.

    Most of us live in one-party districts, so the primary determines who wins the election. In sitting down with the candidates, and lacking a partisan or ideological bias, the editorial board could be helpful to separate thoughtful candidates interested in solving problems and working across the aisle from the partisan and ideological hacks.

  4. Richard Schwalb says:

    Good points about the local endorsements, and primary endorsements. Whether I agreed with many of their more prominent and higher profile endorsements lately or not, I for one am disappointed with this announcement,

  5. Nick Hayes says:

    Boycotts matter.

  6. Duke Dean says:

    Traditional NewsPapers will not survive in a digital world.

  7. “Once you dump editorial endorsements, isn’t the whole editorial page up for grabs?”

    That, Bruce, would indeed by the logical conclusion.

    So I can’t agree that this is an inevitable or smart decision by the JS editorial board. The thing that most distinguishes major newspapers from the rest of the modern media hoard is the careful, hashed out opinion of veteran print journalists, the type who tend to be the most informed and intellectually attuned to current events, whether or not we agree with their conclusions. Their printed, institutional opinions still carry a formal weight.

    This decision seems like nothing but journalistic abdication which will ultimately make the newspaper appear more irrevelant.

  8. mike mervis says:

    I can live without endorsements but the trade off is tighter,sharper, more focused editorial content that is created by writers who are on top of the cutting issues in the community and the country. Either take a strong stand on what matters or pitch the tent and leave democracy without one more advocate.

  9. Excuse the typo– I meant “irrelevant.” (Editors, at least, are not irrelevant.)

  10. If the Journal Sentinel’s editorial page is refusing to take a stand on the US Senate race, is there seriously any point in considering their view on any upcoming federal issue? Have they no opinion on whether Baldwin or Thompson would be more effective in representing state interests affected by federal regulations and policy–dairy farmers, manufacturers, educators. The winner of this race has the potential to impact a host of issues–almost of all which have local implications for Wisconsin taxpayers and Journal Sentinel readers.

    And if their view is that neither Romney or Obama can be elevated over the other at this moment in our history, isn’t that also a legitimate rationale for simply not voting?

    This decision trumpets just one thing: Pay us no mind. And given the rapidly growing choices readers have, it’s an increasingly easy thing to do.

  11. Bill Kurtz says:

    Bruce Thompson’s point is well-taken, and I’m speaking from personal current experience. I’m running for the state legislature as a first-time candidate with little money, against an incumbent with a prominent name in the area. One of the few chances for me to compete was a (possible) endorsement, and coverage in a news article about both candidates.
    Then I learned there won’t be news stories on individual legislative races either. I’m sorry to get on a soapbox, but campaign coverage (to help us govern ourselves) is a big reason for the First Amendment – not celebrity gossip, warm fuzzy features, or Packer overcoverage.

  12. Richard S. Russell says:

    I’m not so sure this is a bad idea. I’d like my news coverage to be reasonably objective. If I see an article about a big grocery chain that I know is a major advertiser, there’s always this nagging suspicion that the writer may be pulling her or his punches in describing the extent of the coliform bacteria pollution.

    Same deal with candidate endorsements. If the editorial board has come down in favor of one or another candidate, how biased (vs. objective) are the reporters going to be in reporting on that race? You’re always left wondering. Now, at least, there’s no overt reason to suspect the reporters are under any pressure to make the editors’ dreams come true.

  13. Jay Burseth says:

    NPR’s On The Media covered this issue on their program this week. Definitely worth the listen.

    http://www.onthemedia.org/2012/oct/19/?utm_source=local&utm_media=treatment&utm_campaign=carousel&utm_content=item2

  14. bob says:

    We dropped the Milwaukee Journal after the Walker endorsement, we were enraged at the flip flop and then endorsing Scooter. We still do not get the paper, yes we miss it but we stand firm in not supporting the Milwaukee Journal because of the Walker endorsement.

    We did get a nice letter from the editor asking us to return.

  15. Tom Reeves says:

    I’ve read the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel from the 1950s on and can assure readers that its leftist bias has been unswerving. How many decades has Craig Gilbert been writing utterly predictable stories? The new policy is a positive sign, I think, even if based solely on the need to keep subscribers. Perhaps a new measure of objectivity will flourish.

    You may find it amusing to learn that the newspaper does everything it can to discourage cancellation, both in print and Online. I tried to cancel the Online recently and received word that the staff had no knowledge of my subscription. There is no option to cancel on your account. You are supposed to call a number, giving the staff the opportunity to talk you out of it. The Wall Street Journal, by the way, has the same policy. It’s no secret that newspapers are dinosaurs.

  16. Patty Doherty says:

    I recently heard a political pundit refer to our Country’s current political polerization as a cold civil war. This seemed a bit extreme at first, but after giving it some thought I’d have to sadly admit I agree.

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