Thursday, March 17, 2011

Are newspapers losing their clout?

A funny thing happened the other day.

The Miami Herald recommended a NO vote on the question of recalling Miami-Dade mayor Carlos Alvarez and commissioner Natacha Seijas.

Not many noticed or if they did they chose to vote another way.

I didn't know about the recommendation until a friend who reads the print edition pointed it out to me.

Today, I had a little fun and came up with this mock ad. ...

...which I'm guessing we won't be seeing in the paper anytime soon.

A Facebook friend posted it on his page yesterday with this comment:
"Is this for real??? Did The Miami Herald really recommend we vote NO in yesterday's recall election? 88% of Miami-Dade citizens voted YES. Guess that means 12% of the county reads The Herald. Out. Of. Touch."
His post received quite a few comments, including this from the Herald's Gkenn Garvin:
"The Herald, I believe, also endorsed Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter and George McGovern, back at a time when the circulation was much larger than it is now. Hell, the Herald once endorsed Hugh Rodham for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate. People read (or don't read) newspapers for many reasons, and political endorsements are surely way down at the bottom of the list, not just in Miami but everywhere else."
Despite what Glenn says, years ago, newspaper readers would clip out a paper's recommendations and take the clipping to the polling place. These days, the Herald posts its recommendations on a printer-friendly page on its website. I wonder how many actually bother printing the page?

But how could the Herald be so out of touch with its readers?

Are the people who sit on the editorial board so much smarter and better informed than the readers?

Well, let's assume for a minute that every one of the paper's readers read every political story printed in the paper prior to an election.

Now they know as much as the editorial board and can make their own decisions...right?

It's not quite that simple. Here's an excellent column from 5 years ago that explains how the St. Petersburg Times editorial board came up with their recommendations in 2006:
In the past four weeks, we have interviewed 170 candidates for state and local office in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties. In addition, we asked the candidates to provide biographical information and respond to our issue questionnaire. In some local races, we also talked to people in the community who know the candidates' strengths and weaknesses.
Each election season I hear from readers who say they appreciate our efforts to help them sort out their thinking on candidates, especially in races for circuit and county court judgeships and school boards, where too often voters know little about the candidates. I also hear from a few readers who say a newspaper has no business telling people how to vote. Voters, they say, are capable of making up their own minds and editorial boards should just butt out.
Voters are free to consider or ignore our recommendations. However, we believe we provide a public service by doing our part to inform voters who do not have the time or the means to assess candidates and their positions on issues. We work hard at it and believe that whatever voters think of our choices, they benefit from having our opinion in the mix, even if they reject it.
I'm sure the Herald editorial board doesn't do anything radically different from the St. Pete Times.

If you're really curious about how little all newspaper endorsements matter, you don't have to look any further back than the general election of 2010.

Rick Scott was elected governor without the endorsement of a single major Florida newspaper.

And there's this:
Once upon a time, newspaper endorsements were a big deal to candidates for higher office because there was a belief that the news media were a good proxy for the peoples' views and values.

But today, that arguably is no longer the case. A Wall Street Journal-NBC poll this month found that only 13% of voters had a "great deal" or "quite a bit" of confidence in the national news media, less than the portion who had confidence in the federal government, the auto industry or the energy industry, and only four percentage points better than the 9% who felt that way about Congress.
So, how can the Herald - and all newspapers - align themselves a little more closely with the thinking of their readers?

Here's a suggestion for the Herald editorial board.

How about inviting a few of your readers to sit in on the deliberations the next time you decide on your recommendations?

That way you won't have to take all the blame if you screw up like you did on Tuesday. And you might actually learn a thing or two.

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