FL: Rethinking newspaper endorsements in the digital age

By Yaël Ossowski | Florida Watchdog

ST. PETERSBURG —  In the last days before election time, the media narrative inevitably falls on tracking quick shifts in public sentiment or mood that may swing the general election, chiefly through public opinion polls and newspaper endorsements.

Polls are reprinted almost daily, leaving plenty of interpretation from the pundits and analysts alike who will attempt to decipher the latest findings.

But in an age of digital new media, complete with a plethora of growing sources of information catering to different types of news consumers, what kind of influence do newspaper endorsements still hold on the public?

Throughout Florida, much ado has been made about newspapers going back on their 2008 endorsement of Barack Obama to bank on Mitt Romney in this election, namely the Sun Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel.

Political observers, such as CNN conservative political commentator Ana Navarro, sum it up nicely, “It’s better to have a frosted cupcake than an unfrosted cupcake … but they aren’t that influential anymore when we have such an overflow of information from different sources.”

But while analysts debate the weight of such endorsements, it is also important to put the readership of newspapers into context, especially in the new digital age, when stories reach most Americans by other means.

Less than 29 percent of Americans read newspapers in print or digital form, according to a recent study published by Pew Research Center. A full 55 percent still receive the majority of their news from television, 39 percent from online and just over 33 percent from the radio.

The last time newspapers were comparatively popular came in 2006, when 35 percent of news consumers said they read papers, still losing out to the 57 percent who watched TV.

These numbers point to a more active digital transition to online and mobile news and a decline of the influence of newspapers, as well as the effect of their political endorsements.

“To some extent, that (influence of endorsements) has declined as newspapers have been superseded by other forms of communication and have lost their dominance in the media structure, to begin with,” Christopher Arterton, founding dean of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, told Watchdog.org’s Virginia bureau.

That way well be the case in Florida’s U.S. Senate race.

Writing in the alternative weekly Miami New Times,Kyle Munzenrieder points out that no major newspaper has been willing to endorse U.S. Rep. Connie Mack in his bid for election to the U.S. Senate — not even his two hometown newspapers: The Naples Daily News and The Fort Myers News-Press — leaving most of the ink reserved for incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, who remains just three points ahead of his GOP opponent in the latest Rasmussen poll.

2011 study on media bias published by Brown University economist Brian Knight finds endorsements most influential when they make unconventional choices that stray from their political bent, such as a conservative paper choosing a Democratic candidate.

“In this way, 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,” wrote Knight.

Knight’s research, as well as further findings from the Pew Research Center that show growing skepticism of major media organizations, seems to put a dent in the notion that newspaper endorsements still have the potential to swing a major election.

But considering the political history of the Sunshine State, it remains to be seen what could arise in the last few days before the election, including a push from highly circulated metro newspapers.

“If decision-makers at newspapers quit trying to be kingmakers, they and their readers would benefit,” wrote USA TODAY founder Al Neuharth in 2004.

His paper has always refused to back political candidates, preferring to leave glowing endorsements to other major dailies.

Read more: Florida Watchdog

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