Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sun-Times ends endorsements

Smart move or more homogenization?

Crain’s Chicago Business on Tuesday reported that the Chicago Sun-Times no longer would endorse political candidates, a move that likely will raise eyebrows among readers and perhaps in the industry.

My initial reaction was to scoff that this is just one more step in a long line the company has trod toward homogenizing its printed and online products for the sake of efficiency and mass appeal.

Perhaps my initial reaction was wrong. But I do not believe it is.

There is much to be said for the explanation publisher John Barron and editorial page editor Tom McNamee gave to Sun-Times readers this week. In their editorial, they question the value of editorial endorsements by any newspaper. In essence, they wrote that a newspaper’s candidate endorsement is irrelevant to most readers who already have decided which candidate they support and are unlikely to change their minds. This appears particularly true in major races. Further, they reference something which has been evident for some time — that there are abundant resources available today by which voters can educate themselves.

Of course what they neglect to say about these resources is that it can be difficult for the average Joe to determine which are credible, which are biased, etc., particularly on the Internet.

Barron and McNamee also pointed out another concern —candidate endorsements feed a perception that the publication has a bias buried within its editorial content.

They present good reasoning for the decision to end candidate endorsements. I, too, believe many people make up their own minds long before news organizations issue candidate endorsements. An editorial position will have little impact on them.

I also understand the concern they raise that candidate endorsements might lend weight to the perception of a publication’s editorial bias. I’ve worked at newspapers with conservative bents and at newspapers with liberal inclinations. I have seen firsthand how candidate endorsements can affect readers’ perceptions about the publication, although my experience has been that it is rarely so black and white. Some Republicans, for example, might accuse even the Chicago Tribune of being liberal. I’ve even heard liberals accuse the Sun-Times and its sister papers of being too conservative.

The bottom line is that you cannot please everybody. Yet part of me wonders whether this is precisely what the Sun-Times is trying to do in choosing not to endorse political candidates. After all, when you have been losing readers for years, why risk losing more? Right?

If that were true, then it indeed would mark this as another step toward homogenizing a unique blend of once outstanding community newspapers into tasteless pabulum that, while tolerable to many, appeals to few.

The editorial page long has been the place where a newspaper has shown its ability, or inability, to be a leader in its own community. Whereas a newspaper’s news pages are a place to shed light on issues, the editorial page has been the place to offer solutions, to point the way toward resolution.

Well-considered editorials, whether endorsing a candidate or taking stands on local issues, are an opportunity for a publication to showcase not only the depth of its understanding of the community and its issues, but also the critical-thinking and communications skills of the editorial board as it steps up to lead on an issue.

On other occasions, such as when a news organization rejects its own political bent in favor of a candidate who clearly stands head and shoulders above the rest, that editorial endorsement points to character.

My concern is whether as an institution the Sun-Times has decided it no longer can afford that character. It is not clear from the Sun-Times editorial whether this new policy will trickle down to its collateral papers. Perhaps, however, that concern has not been relevant for some time — aside from letters to the editor, there is very little editorial content on the opinion pages of its sister publications’ websites.

Here are some points that are clear to me, and to others in Elgin, the community where I live.

Simply from a staffing perspective, the Sun-Times’ sister papers no longer are capable of being leaders in their respective communities.

I am not trying to discredit the work of the few journalists who remain at these papers. I know many of them and am proud to call them friends. But the company in recent years has cut hundreds of employees from its payroll, and a significant number of those were in the newsrooms.

Looking specifically at The Courier in Elgin, there remain three full-time news reporters and a photographer. The associate editor who guides this group and the sole remaining copy editor from The Courier now must divide their time among multiple publications.

That leaves The Courier with fragmented leadership. Further, the entire staff is busting its collective butt to put out a newspaper each day. These folks have their hands full. The Courier’s editorial page, as well as those of its sister papers, diminished along with the rest of the publication as page numbers and staff members were pared away in recent years.

As a community leader, The Courier and its sister papers have faded, their voices muted by a media company that has been fighting for its life.

Realistically, there simply is not enough manpower left to put out regular editorials for many of these publications. In terms of leadership, Sun-Times Media has relegated its sister publications over the past four or five years to a position of irrelevance.

This week’s announcement that the Sun-Times has decided to diminish or homogenize its own role as a community leader on its editorial pages merely formalizes that.