All of you highly observant, media-savvy readers out there — that is, everyone reading this column — may be aware that something has been missing from this page in the last week or so.
The Salt Lake Tribune is giving up the tradition of endorsing candidates in local, state and national elections. We won’t be giving our editorial support to either of the candidates for the open Salt Lake City mayor’s seat or in any of the other municipal elections that come to a close Nov. 5. Or in any elections after that.
There was a time when I, who has been writing endorsements for (mostly losing) candidates since Walter Mondale, would have been really ticked about that. I have long felt that editorial endorsements are the most meaningful type of opinion writing. Even though they involve by far the most work, research and lots of meetings.
Most institutional editorials are a conversation between the newspaper and the reader about someone else. We put before you the argument that they — Congress, Legislature, City Council, police chief, transit agency — should, or should not, do something.
Even when they don’t, or do, we have fulfilled our purpose of moving the conversation, setting an agenda, maybe giving public officials cover for doing stuff they wanted to do anyway.
The endorsement editorial is the one where we urge you, the reader, to take an action only you can take. To vote. For the candidate we see as the most likely to turn all that talk into action. Or for the other one, if you’ve thought we were full of beans all along.
Many good journalists on the hard-news side of the room have long been uncomfortable about the masthead they work under throwing in with some, and against others, of the politicians they cover. Even when both the reporter and the politician know otherwise — and it is otherwise — people can worry that the way reporters write about politicians will be shaded by which of them the newspaper’s separate editorial board has backed.
I always thought it odd to worry about an editorial endorsement of a candidate while taking as normal all the other editorials we write — taking a side on a bill, tax cut, school bond, speed limit increase, environmental regulation or liquor law. And I have generally been reluctant to make that point, for fear that someone would say, well, now you come to mention it, let’s not have editorials at all.
The big difference, probably, is that most editorials are about issues while candidate endorsements are about personalities. Thus, perhaps, too emotional, too likely to be seen as unkind rather than reasonable disagreement.
And, to be honest, endorsements are also the editorials that editors are most likely to later want to retract. That’s why, after Tribune Publisher John W. Gallivan came to regret this newspaper’s support for Richard Nixon, we gave up endorsements for many years.
The Tribune will still have editorials. And readers of all stripes will still have a place at the table by submitting op-eds and letters to the editor.
And, oh, yes. As you have read, The Salt Lake Tribune is in the process of transitioning to a nonprofit institution. Or, as we sometimes say, to a deliberately nonprofit institution.
Under the IRS code, nonprofits can speak up on matters of public concern. Often, that’s their reason for existence. But they are not allowed to support or oppose candidates for public office. Even though that new status for The Tribune hasn’t been approved yet, we are going to start operating under those rules.
Nonprofit status is our best hope for long-term survival as an independent news organization. If it means no more endorsement editorials, I can live with that. We, and you, will still have lots to say.
Good-bye to Washington Post columnists
And another thing.
The Washington Post Writers Group — the folks who sell us the rights to columnists George F. Will, Dana Milbank, E.J. Dionne, Eugene Robinson, Catherine Rampell and Alexandra Petri — have ordained that newspapers that aren’t The Washington Post may no longer put those columnists’ work on our websites. Those dirty birds want all the clicks for themselves, apparently.
With our limited print space, and a fire hose of good material from local commentators and The New York Times, we will, sadly, be ending our relationship with those WaPo writers effective Nov. 1.
George Pyle is the editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune.