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Why the St. Paul Pioneer Press dropped political endorsements

The more conservative Twin Cities paper tries not telling you its political favorites.

I know who the St. Paul Pioneer Press is going to endorse for President. And Senator. And the legislature.

No one.

In a rare but increasingly common industry move, the Pioneer Press has ditched political endorsements — at least for now. “We just wanted to do it this way, this year,” editor Mike Burbach says. “At this moment, it’s more comfortable for me.”

Burbach was the editorial page editor in 2010, but has since ascended to editor without giving up opinion-page responsibility.  In other words, the PiPress can’t plausibly say, as the Strib does, that “our newsroom and editorial staff are separate.”

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Readers have never quite trusted the imperviousness of such a barrier, which is why editorial editors like the Strib’s Scott Gillespie repeatedly explain them. Some papers, like Florida’s Halifax chain and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, have given up. In dropping endorsements at Montana’s Great Falls Tribune, editor Jim Strauss was blunt: “Simply put, we don’t want to undermine the hard work of our reporters covering the races.”

A less noble reason is that editorials may be bad business. In a divided nation turning from printed papers, editorials can piss off a healthy chunk of a threatened subscriber base. Burbach acknowledges, “There probably is a business case, but that was not part of our consideration.”

At the same time, the Pioneer Press editorial board has become more business-heavy. Two years ago, publisher Guy Gilmore and community relations person Pat Effenberger were balanced by full-time journalists Burbach and Jim Ragsdale. But Ragsdale returned to the Star Tribune 14 months ago, and Effenberger now writes most of the editorials, Burbach says.

The Pioneer Press still interviews candidates and editorializes on the races, but drops the punch line. At times, the traditionally conservative section seems to be straining at the leash, but in general, the editorials seem like anodyne recitations of biography and talking points — a feature story with even less bite than a reporter’s news analysis.

“You could make that case, and we’ll see how it goes” Burbach acknowledges. “But news analyses carry a different set of obligations [than editorials]. If they’re to be done well, they carry a wider range. We wrote a piece about the 2nd [Congressional] District that, at the outset, observed that John Kline tended to match the limited government concerns of the Pioneer Press opinion page. We wouldn’t make that observation in a news story.”

Burbach says the board decision not to endorse was unanimous, not dicated by Gilmore or the paper’s DigitalFirst management unit. He also says there’s been very little feedback from Pioneer Press readers. “I guess that tells me people are going to make up their own minds, whether you do endorsements or not, and they have ever-more sources of information.”

Which brings us to the age-old tail-chase, “Do endorsements matter?” It’s fashionable to think no, but I tend to judge political power by what the money does — and there’s no doubt that media endorsements regularly crop up in political TV ads. (Burbach says such use wasn’t a factor in the PiPress decision.)

A widely circulated 2008 paper by two Brown University professors makes the case that endorsements “are influential in the sense that voters are more likely to support the recommended candidate after publication of the endorsement.” (Check out the map here.) However, the authors add, “endorsements for the Democratic candidate from left-leaning newspapers are less influential than are endorsements from neutral or right-leaning newspapers, and likewise for endorsements for the Republican.”

So if you were being mischievous, you could argue the PiPress forgoing endorsements only hurts Democrats, though I’m betting several east-metro GOP legislative candidates aren’t at all happy having to ride past the brass ring.

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As someone who doesn’t hide behind the objectivity curtain, I’m actually pretty comfortable at MinnPost, where I can say what I want but my organization can’t endorse, due to non-profit laws. (In other words, the opposite of how mainstream newspapers have operated.)

Given that publishers can big-foot the consensus of editorial journalists, there’s a good case for closing the barn door entirely. If you want to be truly horrified, look no further than the Seattle Times, where ownership designed print ads touting the editorial board’s gubernatorial choice … effectively becoming that candidate’s third-largest independent contributor.

Gillespie, whose much larger Strib editorial board puts in significant time on candidate interviews, defends endorsements as the logical extension of regular opining on the issues of the day. Even though I have more than occasionally longed for the death of endorsements, reading the watered-down PiPress has made me careful what I wish for.