Radical Surgery by Journal Sentinel
Its decision to end candidate endorsements is a huge change that could reshape the newspaper.
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?
-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.