Opinion: Are political candidate endorsements still worth the trouble?

The following column is submitted by ASNE board member Rick Christie, editorial page editor at The Palm Beach Post.

For many American newspapers over the past several years, endorsements of political candidates have been increasingly viewed as a double-edged sword.

If you're concerned about the perception of liberal bias by conservatives among your readers -- and, more importantly, paid subscribers -- endorsing mostly progressive candidates can turn what is normally a mild headache into a migraine.

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But if you're concerned about increasing reader engagement and hope to hang onto paid subscribers who do look forward to guidance on elections from the editorial page, then endorsements are an asset that newspapers can't afford to abandon. At least not completely.

Here in Florida, where every year has an election season because many municipalities -- like those in Palm Beach County -- have elections every spring, endorsements tend to carry a lot of weight with readers because they don't have the time or resources to research candidates on their own.

As soon as voters receive their absentee ballots, our phones in The Palm Beach Post Opinion Department start ringing with people asking when we will begin publishing our endorsements. That also goes for emails from paid subscribers seeking information.

When I first took over as editorial page editor in December 2013, we brought up the question of whether to continue endorsing in political races. We were concerned that in an increasingly polarized political environment, our image was hurting with conservative readers and subscribers.

As a majority "blue" county that went for Barack Obama twice (and Hillary Clinton in 2016), easily more than 80 percent of the Post's endorsements tended to go to Democratic candidates with decidedly progressive agendas, i.e. "controlled" growth, pro-environment, pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-Obamacare.

We found, however, that this concern was counterbalanced by a high level of digital traffic and engagement with the endorsements -- whether readers agreed with them or not.

As more than one reader told me early on: "I like to read your endorsements mainly because I want to know who not to vote for." In other words, they appreciated the fact that we were at least intellectually honest.

In fact, in 2014, the highest trafficked and engaged content in all of our election coverage was the candidate endorsements. As a result, we stayed with them. Likely, many other community newspapers came to the same conclusion.

But there is another factor that's been thrown into the equation the last several years: resources.

First, on the bias front, staffing challenges have made it difficult for smaller papers to offer a wider range of voices to their shrinking editorial boards. Many of these papers have opened up their opinion pages to those voices through Letters to the Editor and guest op-eds. That should continue if they expect a diversity of local readers (and voters) to take the editorial board's endorsements seriously.

Speaking of endorsements, even if a newspaper -- especially smaller community papers -- wanted to continue with them, necessary cutbacks to editorial boards have made it impossible to do them at the level they had been previously. For example, Palm Beach County has 39 municipalities, as well as a county commission and school board. There are also more than a dozen taxing districts with elected boards, as well as judicial seats.

Editorial boards have had to become more judicious in deciding what races they can and cannot cover simply due to having fewer people to spread the work around. In many cases, the first to go is weighing in on the presidential election -- made a little less painful due to the blanket news coverage. But still, in order to give certain state and local races proper attention to make a qualified endorsement, a smaller municipality or the Soil and Water Conservation Board will unfortunately go uncovered.

To make up for some of this, the Post Opinion Department has worked with the News side to create a "Know Your Candidates" page online that incorporates Opinion's candidate questionnaire. The site invites every candidate running in every race to submit answers to questions to create a candidate profile.

The site provides information on a candidate's background, as well as positions on issues in the candidates' own words. Of course, the Opinion Department still gets daily phone calls and emails asking about endorsements in specific races. And in this summer's primary season alone, we made endorsements in 26 races.

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To economize further on resources, The Post this year also collaborated with the editorial boards of the Miami Herald and South Florida Sun-Sentinel to interview candidates in all state-level races such as governor for the Aug. 28 primary. The project worked so well, we plan to repeat it for the November election.

Efforts like this can be worthwhile as long as paying subscribers expect it from us. One set of races that has bolstered this expectation the last few election cycles: judgeships. Florida elects judges to the county and circuit court benches, and the public votes on whether to retain state appeals court judges based on merit.

Of course, most voters expect never to spend time in front of a judge or ever meet one. They know less about judicial candidates than about any other, despite the fact that a judge's rulings can have a greater impact on citizens' everyday lives than any other official's action.

To be sure, well-researched candidate endorsements are a great reader service that voters can only get from their local newspaper. At our best, we are the reader's surrogate at election season.

But as newsroom resources continue to tighten, we'll surely continue to question whether endorsements of political candidates are worth the effort compared to other coverage needs.