Jac Wilder VerSteeg: The rise of gutless newspapers

How sad that Skip Foster, new president and publisher of the Tallahassee Democrat, has decreed that his newspaper no longer will endorse political candidates.

I expect that soon he and Gannet will need to change the paper’s name to the Tallahassee No Party Affiliation.

This is almost certainly a business decision. Foster, like many people running newspapers these days, is afraid of offending readers and afraid of losing circulation. The choice is – or can appear to be – between being in business or being gutless.

Being gutless will backfire in the end. Newspapers are giving up readers they’ve got to chase subscribers they’ll never get.

In a column introducing himself to readers, Foster announces the new policy in a way his reporters should find insulting. He is killing endorsements, he says, because:

“Whatever benefit exists for readers is far outweighed by the perception (or even reality) that we are now ‘attached’ to the candidate we endorse. I’d rather us focus on taking positions on issues – an area in which we can show improvement – and leave the selection of candidates to voters in the booth.”

If Foster has news reporters who don’t respect the church-state line between news and opinion, he should fire them. And he seems to be saying he’s seen that reality. If, on the other hand, he is worried about “perception,” he is letting ignorant readers drive the publisher’s decisions. Perhaps he should be more worried about the perception that he is gutless.

There also is something nonsensical about his stance that the paper will focus on positions and issues but then will shy away from endorsing candidates who agree with the newspaper’s positions on those issues.

Foster goes on to claim that “(W)e will still provide the same level of information to readers on local candidates – one-on-one interviews with reporters and/or the editorial board; online forums that allow readers and viewers a chance to hear directly from the candidates; opportunities for readers to submit questions to the candidates via social media as well as other avenues for arming voters with all the information they need to cast their ballots.”

The paper will not be providing the same level of information because the paper will be depriving its readers of its editors’ judgment. If a newspaper doesn’t know which candidates to endorse, by the way, how does it know which issues to focus on? And if it is afraid of offending readers by endorsing candidates, won’t it be afraid of offending readers by tackling difficult issues?

I mourn the end of an era in which editors and publishers instinctively understood not only what readers wanted to read but what they ought to read. That has given way to focus groups and fear-induced, oxymoronic opinion neutrality.

The business climate is far different now. But if local newspapers give up or water down their opinion pages, then they are yielding one of the most vital niches in journalism to Internet entrepreneurs, just as they disastrously yielded classified ads to Internet entrepreneurs.

The newspaper that claims to serve Florida’s capital and claims to cover the Capitol now is afraid to endorse candidates.


Jac Wilder VerSteeg is editor of Context Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Jac VerSteeg


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