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Oct. 24, 2022, 2:23 p.m.

This political era has nearly killed off newspaper endorsements for president

In 2016, U.S. newspapers were nearly unanimous in rejecting Donald Trump. Blowback from his supporters didn’t change their opinions — it only made them keep quiet about it.

Readers of Alden Global Capital newspapers: Endorsements in national and even statewide races are now verboten in your daily’s pages. As they told readers earlier this month:

Endorsing candidates for elected offices inherently means picking one party over another. At this stage of our nation’s history, that partisan selection is counterproductive to achieving the essential goal of facilitating healthy public debate and building trust in our journalistic enterprise.

Therefore we along with other papers at Tribune Publishing and MediaNews Group will no longer be endorsing candidates in presidential, congressional and gubernatorial elections. We will continue to cover these high-profile, often controversial races, but we recognize that picking a candidate may alienate more readers than it persuades.

Readers of Gannett newspapers: Your local Opinion sections are shrinking — or disappearing altogether, and you can expect fewer official opinions about political candidates.

The nation’s largest newspaper chain is of the opinion that its opinion pages are alienating readers and becoming obsolete. So newspapers owned by Gannett Co. — publisher of USA Today and more than 250 dailies — have begun to radically shrink and reimagine their editorial sections, publishing them on fewer days each week and dropping traditional features such as syndicated columns and editorial cartoons. Even political endorsements and letters to the editor are being scaled back.

The company has been pushing for the cutbacks for years, and they have become increasingly visible to readers since a committee of editors formally recommended them at a meeting in April. “Readers don’t want us to tell them what to think,” the editors, who come from Gannett newsrooms across the country, declared in an internal presentation. “They don’t believe we have the expertise to tell anyone what to think on most issues. They perceive us as having a biased agenda.” Not only are editorials and opinion columns “among our least read content,” the committee said, but they are “frequently cited” by readers as a reason for canceling their subscriptions.

Readers of McClatchy newspapers: You haven’t seen a presidential endorsement since 2016, since the chain bailed on endorsing Trump or Biden in 2020:

McClatchy’s 30 papers will be permitted to make a presidential endorsement only if they conduct interviews with both Joseph R. Biden Jr. and President Trump, who is not in the habit of talking to local newspaper editorial boards…

“If we don’t interview the candidates, we won’t make a recommendation for president,” the memo says. “Most readers aren’t turning to us for national political commentary, and they can choose among dozens of news organizations that deploy journalists to cover the presidential campaign full-time. If we’re simply observing the race from afar, our ability to provide unique content and our own reporting is severely limited.”

The decision is part of an attempt to keep the newspapers, which were recently purchased out of bankruptcy by a hedge fund, Chatham Asset Management of New Jersey, focused on their local mission. “Local, Local, Local,” reads one section of the memo, which was first circulated in January, according to a McClatchy spokeswoman, but had not been previously reported.

Readers of Lee newspapers: Your paper’s owner hasn’t announced a policy on presidential endorsements yet, but you probably shouldn’t expect to read any in 2024 — given that the chain is now centrally producing its editorial pages at the corporate level, driven by a “policy of maintaining balance across political spectra.” Local staff will be left to craft “editorials on local matters.”

What do these newspaper chains — Gannett, Alden, McClatchy, and Lee — have in common? Well, they’re the four largest in the United States. In recent years, they’ve all been taken over entirely or mostly by hedge funds, which care less about informed communities than cash flow. And they’ve all decided recently, in varying ways, that newspapers’ presidential endorsements are more trouble than they’re worth.

There are plenty of reasonable arguments against endorsements. Many readers don’t see any distinction between news and opinion, meaning an endorsement could taint the credibility of the newsroom in their eyes. (Though presumably that’s just as true of other editorials.) Endorsements’ influence on elections, once meaningful, is only the tiniest fraction of what it was in the pre-digital days.

But the only explanations I buy for this major reversal are the ones honest about the motivation: Endorsing any presidential candidate will piss some fraction of our readers off. And we don’t have enough readers left to go around making some of them mad.

Imagine you’re the new owner of Burger King, which, for some reason, has a history of issuing a general statement of fast-food principle every fourth November. “Chicken nuggets violate free speech,” “Every burger without bacon hurts democracy” — whatever. This statement doesn’t make Burger King any money — but it does anger a third of its customers at least a little. And maybe 5% of them are so mad they declare they’ll never buy another Whopper again. Wouldn’t one of your first ideas as owner be: Maybe we shouldn’t do that?

And it’s really not any endorsement that risks this harm to the bottom line. It’s endorsements of someone running against Donald Trump. Readers who might have been fine with an endorsement of Michael Dukakis or Bill Clinton have reacted much more strongly to endorsements of Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden.

The Arizona Republic had never endorsed a Democrat for president, ever, before 2016, and endorsing Clinton generated death threats and a wave of cancellations. “Certainly we’ve paid a price for our presidential recommendation,” said the top editor of The Dallas Morning News after it endorsed Clinton, bringing protestors to its offices. The Cincinnati Enquirer, a reliable Republican endorser for decades, faced hundreds of cancellations after its endorsement. (“The only thing I don’t particularly care for is some of the language people have used,” editor Peter Bhatia said. “The anger, the vitriol, whatever you want to call it.”)

In 2020, The Dallas Morning News, Cincinnati Enquirer, and Arizona Republic all declined to endorse a candidate for president.

“Neither our corporate owners nor our locally appointed editorial board…have any desire to tell you whom to vote for,” said the Enquirer.

“Rather than making a presidential recommendation, we will endorse ideas,” said the Morning News.

“Readers have made it clear: You want to be informed about elections but not told how to vote,” said the Republic. “We hear you.”

To track this move away from endorsements, I assembled a unified dataset out of a wonderful resource assembled by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley of The American Presidency Project at UC Santa Barbara. For every presidential cycle between 2004 and 2020, they identified the 100 highest-circulation newspapers and recorded which presidential candidate they each endorsed.1

The first thing I looked at was how many of these newspapers chose not to endorse anyone for president in each election cycle.

2004: 9
2008: 8
2012: 23
2016: 26
2020: 44

Holy neutrality! Since the Obama–McCain race of 2008, nearly 40% of large U.S. newspapers have stopped expressing a presidential preference. The increases were sharpest between 2008 and 2012 (the Tea Party era) and 2016 and 2020 (the Clinton blowback/Trump effect).

If the chains above — Gannett, Alden, Lee, and McClatchy — all eschew endorsements in 2024, you could see that 44 non-endorsing number jump to 60 or 70.

Okay — let’s look specifically at the interaction between 2016 and 2020. In case you’ve been blessed with amnesia, the 2016 election pitted Hilary Clinton against Donald Trump. The nation’s editorial boards were nearly completely united in endorsing Clinton and labeling Trump beyond the pale. (This was actually quite unusual — newspaper endorsements had been only about 60/40 Democratic in recent cycles.)

Among the country’s biggest newspapers in 2016:

61 endorsed Hillary Clinton
1 endorsed Donald Trump
3 endorsed Gary Johnson
2 endorsed “anyone but Trump”
21 endorsed no one
7 are unknown2

Those same newspapers in 2020:

44 endorsed Joe Biden
7 endorsed Donald Trump
44 endorsed no one

That fall-off is really striking to me.

Endorsing a presidential candidate is, in the editorial-resources sense, a low-cost endeavor. No editorial board needed to put in months of research to figure out whether they’d rather have Joe Biden or Donald Trump be president. Whichever one you preferred, if you were even a vaguely engaged member of society, it probably wasn’t hard for you to pick. (Even without personally interviewing with the candidates, something candidates are getting better at doing.) The presidency isn’t some city council race where you’ve never heard of the eight candidates and feel obliged to do hours of prep work to make a decision.

So who were the newspapers that endorsed in 2016 but decided not to in 2020? Did they suddenly decide Trump wasn’t so bad after all, and that they just couldn’t make up their minds? No: They are disproportionately Democrat-endorsing newspapers located in Republican-leaning states. Blue dots surrounded by red. And this happened after cancellations and other blowback made their Clinton endorsements, in retrospect, costly.

Let’s look at the breakdown. All the newspapers I’ll be talking about from here on out are ones that endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016. (Since only 1 major newspaper endorsed Trump in 2016, there’s not much to analyze.)

Of the 61 newspapers that endorsed Clinton in 2016:3

39 endorsed Joe Biden
1 endorsed Donald Trump4
21 endorsed no one

What’s up with those 21 Clinton papers that skipped an 2020 endorsement altogether? Let’s break them down into the political environment that each paper was in. We’re going to be moving from left-to-right, politically speaking, starting withe bluest states and ending with the reddest.

First, let’s look at newspapers in the deep blue states — the ones which Clinton won by at least 10 percentage points in 2016. We’re talking states like California, Massachusetts, and Illinois. What did the 26 newspapers there who endorsed Clinton in 2016 do in 2020?

They mostly stayed put and endorsed Biden:

21 endorsed Joe Biden
1 endorsed Donald Trump
4 endorsed no one

Deep blue states (Clinton won by 10%+)

2016
Clinton 26 ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤
2020
Biden 21 ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤
Trump 1
No one 4 ◯ ◯ ◯ ◯

Only four newspapers in this group drifted from “Clinton!” to “Eh, we don’t really have much of an opinion.” (And two of those didn’t have any say in the matter. California’s Bees in Sacramento and Fresno are owned by McClatchy, which had already issued its ban on endorsements chain-wide. Since that decision was made at a national level, it’s harder to say they were responding to local market conditions.)

Democrat-endorsing papers remained Democrat-endorsing papers — in other words, what you’d typically expect, given that Clinton and Biden were facing the same opponent.

What about in purple states — ones that could be up for grabs? Let’s look at states where the margin of victory in 2016 was less than 5 percentage points either way.5 We’re talking about your Michigans, your Wisconsins, your Floridas. What did the 18 Clinton-endorsing papers in swing states do in 2020?

9 endorsed Joe Biden
0 endorsed Donald Trump
9 endorsed no one

Swing states (margin of victory < 5%)

2016
Clinton 18 ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤
2020
Biden 9 ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤
Trump 0
No one 9 ◯ ◯ ◯ ◯ ◯ ◯ ◯ ◯ ◯

In these battlegrounds — states where the race is likely to be close, where an endorsement could conceivably move the needle a hair — only half of Clinton-supporting newspapers bothered to endorse a candidate in 2020, even though none were moved to switch over to Trump.

Okay, let’s move on to the light red states — ones that Trump won comfortably but not overwhelmingly in 2016, by between 5 to 10 percentage points. States like Ohio, Texas, and Iowa. What happened to those states’ 10 Clinton-endorsing papers in 2020?

7 endorsed Joe Biden
0 endorsed Donald Trump
3 endorsed no one

Light red states (Trump won by 5-10%)

2016
Clinton 10 ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤
2020
Biden 7 ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤
Trump 0
No one 3 ◯ ◯ ◯

And finally6, let’s look at the deep red states. These are places Trump won easily, by more than 10 percentage points. States like Alabama, Kentucky, and Nebraska. Six big papers in those states endorsed Clinton in 2016 — what did those six do in 2020?

2 endorsed Joe Biden
0 endorsed Donald Trump
4 endorsed no one

Deep red states (Trump won by 10%+)

2016
Clinton 6 ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ⬤
2020
Biden 2 ⬤ ⬤
Trump 0
No one 4 ◯ ◯ ◯ ◯

To put it more bluntly:

  • In states Trump won in 2016, 46% of Clinton-endorsing papers endorsed no one in 2020.
  • In states Clinton won in 2016, only 21% of Clinton-endorsing papers endorsed no one in 2020.

Newspapers — more specifically, their owners — stopped endorsing more often in political environments where there was a cost to opposing Trump.

That cost — canceled subscriptions, protests in front of your office — was more readily ignored when newspapers were profit machines owned locally. But when they’re owned by distant hedge funds focused directly on the bottom line, it’s more salient.

The demise of presidential endorsements doesn’t rank in the Top 100 list of Threats to American Democracy. But it’s a shame that — without the opportunity to “both sides” an election — so many news outlets are instead opting to take no side at all.

  1. Some nerd notes for the footnotes readers:

    The list of 100 highest-circulation newspapers changes from year — so, for example, the 2008 and 2020 lists don’t include the same 100 newspapers.

    The 2008 endorsements were the first American Presidency Project recorded, so the only 2004 endorsements in the dataset are those for papers that also made the 2008 list.

    For my purposes here, I removed anything that isn’t a paid metro daily newspaper. That meant removing a small number of national papers (USA Today, The Wall Street Journal), ethnic newspapers (La Opinión, La Raza), and free newspapers (amNewYork, Metro Philadelphia). I also removed the one appearance of a Puerto Rican newspaper (El Nuevo Día) because none of the island’s 3 million residents, criminally, can vote for president.

    As a result, the number of newspapers being tracked here will be slightly less than 100, depending on the cycle. For these comparisons between 2016 and 2020, I’m using the 95 papers that appear on both lists. ↩︎

  2. These are newspapers that made the top-100 list in 2020 but not in 2016, so their 2016 endorsements (if any) aren’t recorded in the dataset. ↩︎
  3. Neither of the two “anyone but Trump” endorsers in 2016 — the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram — endorsed a candidate in 2020. ↩︎
  4. This was the Spokane Spokesman-Review in Washington state. The reason for the change is simple: In 2016, the paper had an editorial board that could make its own decision on endorsements. By 2020, the entire board had been cut and it was left to the publisher, Stacey Cowles, whose family has owned the paper since 1883. He’s a Trump fan. You can read the endorsement here↩︎
  5. True confession: I’m actually using a cutoff of 5.33% instead of 5%. Why? Because Virginia, which Clinton won by 5.32%, was the only “light blue” state in 2016, and it’s weird to have a whole category for one newspaper in Newport News↩︎
  6. You may have noticed I skipped over the light blue states — ones Clinton won by between 5 and 10 percentage points. The reason is…there weren’t any in 2016. ↩︎
POSTED     Oct. 24, 2022, 2:23 p.m.
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