Newspaper endorsements scarce for candidates in crowded CD1 race

THE CROWDED field in the 1st Congressional District race has seen few newspaper endorsements due to to shifts in media approach and attitude toward politics. / ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

Former Providence Journal reporter Linda Levin remembers the impassioned debates within, and outside, the newsroom over newspaper endorsements in political races. 

It wasn’t just a question of who to throw the company’s weight behind, but whether a print publication should be backing any candidate. 

“Were they effective, were they useful, or should newspapers be endorsing anybody?” said Levin who went on to head the University of Rhode Island’s journalism program, where she now serves as professor emerita.  

The once lively discussion has quieted, as fewer print publications nationally, and in Rhode Island, opt to wade into the muddy waters of political endorsements. Indeed, The Providence Journal has not endorsed anyone in the 1st Congressional District special election, having stopped running editorials of any kind in 2020. 

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Gannett, which took ownership of The Journal in 2019 as part of its acquisition of GateHouse Media, declined to comment. 

The Providence Journal is hardly an anomaly. Of the country’s 100 biggest newspapers by circulation, 92 endorsed a presidential candidate in 2008. By 2020, only 54 made a choice, according to research by the University of California Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project. 

In Rhode Island, too, newspaper endorsements have become scarce. East Bay Newspapers’ endorsement onWednesday backing former White House staffer Gabe Amo in the upcoming special Congressional Democratic primary may be the only endorsement issued in the race at all. 

Scott Pickering, general manager for the family-owned East Bay Media Group, declined to comment on the endorsement. 

In northern Rhode Island, community newspaper The Valley Breeze will not be backing anyone in the race, said Ethan Shorey, the paper’s editor-in-chief. Unlike the Providence Journal or other print publications, however, the free weekly newspaper has never issued endorsements since its founding in 1996, according to Shorey. 

He wasn’t interested in changing that tradition. 

“My main thing is always combating this perception of bias,” Shorey said. “I am always trying to convince people that newspapers aren’t biased and reporters aren’t biased. It’s already enough of a struggle.” 

Mike Mello, editor of Providence Business News, voiced similar sentiment in explaining why the biweekly business publication stopped endorsing candidates a few years ago. 

“There was more to lose than gain from allowing ourselves to do that,” he said. “People start to question your allegiance. For us, it was a case of declining returns.” 

Newspaper endorsements were born out of the publications’ close alignment with politicians and political parties, whose sponsorship of major papers at the turn of the 19th century was hardly a secret. Though the news has since sought to separate itself from political persuasions, readers and viewers are more skeptical of its objectivity than ever. 

Indeed, public trust in news media has fallen sharply over the last decade, with just over a third of Americans expressing trust in mass media’s ability to report the news fairly and accurately, according to a 2022 Gallup poll. That’s only two percentage points higher than the record-low confidence level in the media during the 2016 presidential election. 

But even in the 1960s, when Levin was starting her reporting career at The Providence Journal, those same worries about newspaper endorsements influencing public perception of reporters’ bias played out, she recalled. 

What changed, in her view, was not the concern over public perception, but the benefit of endorsements for voters. The wealth of information available to voters – through news coverage, debates, social media and more – renders a newspaper endorsement less useful to helping make up their minds at the ballot box. 

“Let’s face it, if you are reading a newspaper, I think you probably have a good idea who you are going to vote for,” Levin said. “I don’t think it would hurt the democratic system in this country if newspapers gave up endorsing candidates entirely.” 

John Howell, editor and publisher for Beacon Communications, which publishes three weekly newspapers in the West Bay, still saw the value in a newspaper endorsement. 

“One hopes that the impression the public has of the newspaper is that it looks through an unbiased lens and offers both sides of the story, and then argues for one point of view,” he said. “Part of your role is to invite debate and discussion on the community level.” 

While the paper hasn’t endorsed anyone in the congressional race – its coverage area falls outside the 1st Congressional District – it has backed candidates in local, state, and national races, including in 2022 general election races. 

That other papers aren’t following suit is “absolutely loss,” Howell said. 

“What seems to dominate in election coverage is whether a candidate has the resources financially to just dominate the media,” he said. “We’re not endorsing based on whether they advertise or not.” 

On a practical level, endorsements, or editorials of any kind, require people to write them. That’s at least in part why The Westerly Sun stopped doing them. The newspaper, one of three local print publications within the family-owned Sun Media Group, has lost 75% of its newsroom staff in the last decade, said Corey Fyke, the paper’s editor. 

Fyke couldn’t recall when the paper, which was sold by The Record-Journal Publishing Co. in 2018, stopped endorsing candidates. He was “fine with it,” he said, but lamented the staffing cuts that forced the paper to stop writing editorials at all. 

“What can I do with five people covering six towns,” Fyke said. “I don’t have the people that I trust to be an editorial brain trust. And I don’t have the time.” 

The Boston Globe’s editorial board, which endorsed Helena Foulkes in Rhode Island’s 2022 gubernatorial primary, has not endorsed anyone in the upcoming congressional district primary. James Dao, The Globe’s editorial page editor, was not immediately available to comment. 

The special primary for the upcoming 1st Congressional District race is Sept. 5. 

 Nancy Lavin is a staff writer for the Rhode Island Current.

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