“Too Many Mitts,” The Salt Lake Tribune endorsement of Barack Obama for re-election, went viral online much to the amazement and amusement of many on staff.
You’re never sure what will catch the interest of readers, but this opinion piece caused more than a stir. It broke The Trib’s record for page views of a single story. It had exceeded 1.1 million views by the end of the week and was still bringing in more than 40,000 daily views seven days after it was posted.
Why? What chord did it strike?
W. Dean Singleton, Tribune publisher, said it took off because it wasn’t just another endorsement — and it isn’t just another presidential contest. It was about the first Mormon nominee, an adopted son of Utah, being passed over by the largest newspaper in the state — the reddest and most Mormon state in the union.
Logic would have the newspaper endorse Mitt Romney.
To regular followers of The Tribune, perhaps it was not so surprising — the newspaper has long been seen as independent and progressive — but to people outside the state it was an eye opener. And where usually we have more in-state readers for our pages, for this piece, nearly three quarters of the views have come from out of state. Our international visitors were up considerably, with Canadian views about twice the normal number and European, and even African, numbers up as well.
“The decision to endorse Obama was a unanimous decision of the editorial board,” says Singleton, “ I accepted the recommendation of the board. Their reasoning was sound.
“All of us know Mitt, and like Mitt, but the Mitt who was running for president was not the Mitt we know. That candidate had no resemblance to the Mitt who served us on the Olympic committee, or as governor of Massachusetts, or as a moderate senate candidate.
“Which Mitt would we get? Mitt from the extreme right wing? Or Mitt in the center?”
Voters tend to be tied to political parties, Singleton says. “That’s why they are perplexed when we go both ways. We are independents and not tied to just party views.”
The board is made up of three editorial writers, the editorial page editor, Vern Anderson, and the publisher. It is separate and distinct from the news side of the organization, just as the newsroom is separate from advertising. Each side operates independently of each other. Opinion writers are not reporters and reporters are not editorial writers.
Anderson says it was Romney’s comment to wealthy donors about 47 percent of Americans being freeloaders, who take no personal responsibility for themselves or their own care, that clinched the decision for the board. “It was an egregious example of his pattern of saying different things to different people — trying to be all things to all people.”
The endorsement, finely crafted by Anderson, also set a Tribune record for comments. As of Friday there were 8,476 reader comments on that one piece.
Reactions came from every perspective — negative, positive — some saying they were disgusted. Others saying they admired a gutsy call.
Anderson says the board makes endorsements by weighing pros and cons, looking out for the well being of citizens. “You make a judgment. You try to be rational. And you like to imagine that what we write matters,” he says, “but there is really no way to gauge the effect.”
Both Singleton and Anderson say the intent of an endorsement is not to tell people how to vote, but to tell people what the board thinks. They have a unique vantage point. They have access to officials and candidates on all levels that readers don’t have.
“Newspapers have made endorsements for generations,” says Singleton, “they have an obligation to share their views with readers because they have a view from the front row.”
Readers are free to agree or disagree.
“We are a sounding board for the community. Communities need that for democracy to work. If we walked away from endorsements we would be walking away from our civic responsibility. Free Americans have their own opinions. We don’t tell them what to think. We do tell them what we observe.”
Nancy Conway is the editor of The Salt Lake Tribune. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.