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Election editorials offer guidance

In almost every respect, newspapers have updated their way of doing business in the time since I entered this industry 35 years ago. Reporters carry tablets and smart phones instead of pencils and legal pads. They craft their stories on laptops instead of typewriters.

Technology has streamlined a laborious production process. Pixels become press plates with the click of a mouse. Film, chemicals and darkrooms have given way to PhotoShop. News is now delivered minute by minute digitally, instead of only day by day or week by week in print.

Yet, in the face of overwhelming transition, newspapers cling to outdated traditions — and one of them, at least in my mind, is the belief that we possess privileged information when it comes to telling people how to vote.

This topic is current, of course, because we’re entering the thick of another election season, and the Pamplin Media Group soon will offer recommendations about candidates and measures appearing on the November ballot. This is a decades-old practice, not just for Pamplin’s newspapers, but for many others throughout the nation.

It also is a practice that no longer has the same utility for readers it once did.

If we traveled back to 1979, not only would we find some reporters using manual typewriters (because newspapers didn’t want to splurge on electric ones), we’d also be reminded of how limited information was in those days.

When it came to politics, there were no candidate websites complete with position papers, supporter lists and other propaganda. There were no election division databases with daily updates of campaign donations, no ballotpedia.org and no webcasts of candidate debates.

In that environment, newspapers truly did have access, knowledge and observational opportunities that simply were not available to even the most engaged voter. Newspapers provided a vital public service by compiling that collective data and making informed election recommendations.

In 2014, it’s impossible to argue that newspaper editorial boards have a monopoly on inside political information. The perceptions of our readers have evolved as well. There may have been a time when they welcomed their local paper’s supposedly unbiased, reasonably moderate evaluation of a U.S. Senate or presidential race. But in today’s partisan races, where the lines are firmly drawn between Democrats and Republicans, our endorsement process seems to serve readers mainly as a statement of what we believe, rather than as an influential voice that helps determine who will best serve the state.

As a result, readers often assume that individual endorsements reflect some deep-seated partisan bias on our part. When we endorse Republican candidates, as we have done many times, we hear from liberal-minded readers who are absolutely convinced we are advancing a right-wing agenda. When we endorse Democrats, as we have done on an equal basis, conservative-leaning readers blast us for being part of the liberal mainstream media.

Don’t misunderstand. We don’t mind criticism. But we prefer to be criticized for the right reasons — and partisan bias actually isn’t prominent among them.

On a practical level, I’ve also noticed that newspapers aren’t all that adept in forecasting how a candidate will perform in office. I could rattle off a long list Oregon politicians — Republicans, Democrats and nonpartisans alike — who were endorsed by newspapers that later hounded them out of office after revealing moral and ethical transgressions.

So, our access to information is no longer grandly superior to anyone else’s. People generally suspect our motives. And our track record isn’t measurably better than the average voter’s. Given all of that, what’s the best role for newspapers in the election process?

I still believe we have an obligation to shed light and expand understanding. At a time when there’s an overabundance of partisan opinions available through the electronic media, there’s relatively little unbiased analysis of how larger political issues affect our local communities.

So, in the coming weeks, our emphasis will be less on how we think our readers should vote and more about how elections could affect them and their neighbors, so voters can make their own decisions.

When it comes to ballot measures, we’ll apply only one standard: what’s best for Oregon and its communities.

When it comes to candidates, we’ll choose our battles carefully. Community-oriented newspapers like ours provide the greatest insight when we focus on local races that attract less voter attention, partisan hype and money. However, they arguably have a greater impact on our readers’ day-to-day lives.

The candidates running for local offices — city councils, school boards and others — are people we cover on a regular basis. We know who talks a good game versus who actually gets things done. Our newspapers’ endorsements remain meaningful in these political contests.

And, of course, our local publishers and editors will retain their autonomy. They are obliged to shout loud and incessantly on their editorial pages if they think a particular statewide candidate or ballot measure will harm their communities — or, conversely, offers rich potential. But when it comes to higher-level partisan politics, we won’t expend as much institutional credibility in ways that matter little to readers and voters.

This approach is in keeping with our company’s philosophy of being truly balanced and giving readers the information they need to make well-grounded decisions.

Our goal, after all, is be helpful, not high-handed. To shed light, not heat. And to generate consensus, not conflict, in our communities.

Mark Garber is president of the Pamplin

Media Group’s newspaper division.


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