BOB GARFIELD: If you read the local paper in Boston, Denver or Sacramento, soon you’re likely to see endorsements for candidates cropping up on the editorial page. But, if you get your news in Atlanta, Chicago or Tuscaloosa, you probably won't. In recent years, the papers in these cities have gotten out of the endorsement business. Among the big name papers to pioneer the trend was the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which stopped endorsing three years ago this month. Riley says his paper is just giving people what they want or, more accurately, don't want.
KEVIN RILEY: Readers don't want us to endorse political candidates, and they’re very clear about that in our research. Here’s what they tell us they want from their newspaper: be a reasoned and detailed source. Provide information that I can't get elsewhere, but let me make my own decisions about political candidates. Readers live in a media world where they’re shouted at by talk radio, they’re harangued by bipartisan network news. Even on Facebook, their friends are bugging them about their opinions on candidates. When they pick up their newspaper, what they want is a thoughtful insightful experience that helps them make their decisions.
BOB GARFIELD: Except for the ones who want endorsements, especially in down- ballot races, for example. I know, I'm just speaking of myself personally. I don’t represent data, but I look forward to at least hearing the considered opinion of an editorial board who has paid far more attention than I to races down on the ballot. I don’t have to do what they suggest but I kind of want to listen to what they have to say.
KEVIN RILEY: By not endorsing candidates, we aren’t relieved of the responsibility. You scrutinize them, investigate them and be a watchdog before and after they’re elected. In fact, that’s the greater responsibility that we have, and it's the one that readers hold us most accountable for.
BOB GARFIELD: Is there any evidence, three years into this new policy, that those who think the news is biased have changed their minds one bit? KEVIN RILEY: Here’s the evidence we do have: because we have stopped endorsing partisan political candidates, our readers are more satisfied with their newspaper, when we ask them that question in our research. I have never been part of something where I have gotten more positive comments.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, it happens that you weren't there when this policy was instituted. You came in two years later. But you’ve just given me a full-throated endorsement of your non-endorsement policy. Did you have to be persuaded of ending the practice of endorsing candidates?
KEVIN RILEY: I was part of an endorsement process for years, and it was hard to come to the realization that readers just didn't value it as much as we did. Once you started to get focused on things they valued so much more that you could do for them in order to inspire them to be informed citizens, it came easier.
BOB GARFIELD: Kevin, I guess I’m just hung up on the idea that there's nothing compulsory about reading an endorsement, much less acting on it. But one of the things about newspapering is it’s got a civic duty to help citizens perform their civic duty, and it's not always - fun. Some of it is a little bit of medicine. Have newspapers become so enslaved by market conditions that they can no longer prescribe medicine?
KEVIN RILEY: I don't think we’re enslaved by market conditions, but I do think that we have to go to the areas of our greatest opportunity. And, in this day and age with so many media choices, there are still many things newspapers do better than anybody else. And as long as we’re focused on those things, I think we have an opportunity to make sure that citizens of this country are informed so that they can participate in democracy.
But our readers do not want us to pick sides.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Kevin, many thanks.
KEVIN RILEY: Bob, I think this is an important, and I’m glad you’re taking it on.
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BOB GARFIELD: Kevin Riley is editor-in-chief at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.