Though U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin's proposal to save newspapers is well-intended, it would, as written, undermine a linchpin of community discussion: opinion pages. Seattle Times editorial page editor Ryan Blethen writes about why endorsements matter and should not be excised from newspapering.
Washington state’s populist roots created a system in which citizens elect public officials to run everything from the whole state to the county coroner’s office. Unlike many states, we also elect judges and have a strong preference for open primaries.
The sexy races for higher office receive a lot of attention and regular voters do their homework for these races. Things are a bit more dicey down ballot. I’m not convinced the average voter does much homework for Superior Court judicial races. That is understandable. These races garner less media attention and lack the money to hammer voters with big advertising campaigns.
These contests still matter. Any job that is determined by voter choice is important. That is one of the reasons we do endorsements. We have access to elected officials that most voters do not. We carefully vet candidates and issues and make informed decisions in as many races as possible.
Much has been made the past couple years about the viability of newspapers as institutions. No doubt the past couple years have been difficult here at The Seattle Times, as it has been for the rest of the industry and for many other sectors. But there is much more to the survival of newspapers than advertising revenue. Content and audience still matter.
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Newspapers, yes papers, have a solid base of well-read subscribers and will for the foreseeable future. According to Scarborough Research, more than 100 million adults read the print edition of a newspaper on an average weekday. That number increases to 115 million on Sunday.
That kind of reach ensures influence. Unfortunately, there is a chance that some opinion pages won’t be around to leverage that influence. Newspaper executives have gutted many opinion sections during the past couple of years. This self-imposed damage could be compounded by a threat lurking in the U.S. Senate — a threat that springs from a gesture of goodwill.
Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., came up with a bill that would change the tax code to allow newspapers to become 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations. I commend Cardin for trying to use legislation to perpetuate a vital part of American democracy. So what’s the problem? If the bill passes as is, any newspaper that opts to become a nonprofit will not be allowed to endorse candidates in political elections.
The National Conference of Editorial Writers, of which I am a member, sent a letter to Cardin last week urging him to tweak the legislation to allow a nonprofit newspaper to run political endorsements. If the bill is not changed, NCEW asked him to withdraw it.
The letter, which was signed by Tom Waseleski, acting NCEW president and editorial page editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Christian Trejbal, chair of NCEW’s Open Government Committee, explains why endorsements are important and that the loss of endorsing would extend to readers:
“Letters to the editor and guest commentaries from readers as well as from candidates contribute to vibrant campaigns. As tax-exempt organizations, newspapers would lose the ability to serve that vital function during election season.”
If I’ve learned anything in this business, it’s that nothing makes readers more irate than the loss of their favorite comic strip or any reduction to published letters.
In an e-mail exchange with Trejbal, who is an editorial writer at The Roanoke Times, he said something that rings true for Washington state because of our love of electing for a wide range of offices.
“… we have the time and resources to delve into the races and issues that most people would not even bother with. We will think about a soil and water conservation district race. We will wade through tremendously dull government reports and discuss them,” he said.
Trejbal also pointed out something I hadn’t thought of. Opinion is fun to read. Why stymie informative fun and community dialogue? There is no good reason.
Any bill that threatens a linchpin of an opinion page is bad for readers and their community.
Ryan Blethen’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org