By BRUCE KYSE
During the election last fall, The Press Democrat did something it hadn’t done for as long as anyone can remember. We sat out the election without providing a single candidate endorsement on our editorial pages.
As many of you know, the newspaper announced September 2 that Halifax Media Group, our previous owners, had adopted a no-endorsement policy for all of its publications. While no-endorsement policies have become more common in recent years, this was an abrupt and largely unwelcomed change for Press Democrat readers. And Sonoma Media Investors, our new local ownership group, agrees.
Endorsements for political candidates will return to the editorial pages of The Press Democrat. In fact, they will return on Tuesday, if timing allows, with our recommendation for filling a vacancy on the Santa Rosa City Council.
For decades, the newspaper placed a high importance on election recommendations. Every election, the Editorial Board spent weeks interviewing candidates for local, state and federal offices. During an election year, it is not uncommon to interview more than 100 candidates. We believe the process works and that the endorsements provide an independent voice and information for local communities.
It’s a responsibility we don’t take lightly. And neither did many of readers who voiced their disappointment when we stopped making endorsements.
“I have not always agreed with you on who to vote for, but I have always cut out your recommendations to put in my pile of reading and studying to do before voting,” wrote one Santa Rosa reader.”
“At least I knew that you had spoken in person, in private with them and made a reasoned decision. I must say I am frustrated that you have lost your voice on this …”
This was typical of the kind of response we received.
But we recognize that not everyone is going to be happy with this reversal in policy. A number of newspapers have made the decision to eliminate political endorsements in hopes that it will enhance their ability to stay neutral on such political decisions.
But is it our belief that just the opposite is true — that disengaging from local elections makes a community newspaper less relevant.
Our editorial pages provide a forum for the expression of a wide variety of perspectives. This includes editorials we offer on a topics ranging from unlighted street lights in Santa Rosa to imaginary girlfriends in Indiana to real and present dangers abroad.
It seems incongruous to us that the one time a newspaper would not offer its opinion is when it comes to making the most important decision a community makes together — choosing elected leaders. How can we be in a position to criticize or praise the actions lawmakers make after declining to take part in the process that saw them elected?
In the Editorial Department, there hangs a letter from an 81-year-old reader thanking us for our ballot recommendations. “I rely on your advice and comments,” she wrote.
This is why we do it. Because in an age when there is so much money in politics and voters are inundated with election material and endorsements from myriad special interest groups — all with their own agendas — we believe people crave a place where they can find even-handed assessments of candidates and credible recommendations. We believe we serve that role. And we believe our input is appreciated now more than ever.
We do not take this responsibility for granted. We spend 45 minutes to an hour meeting individually with each candidate. Before the election, Editorial Director Paul Gullixon makes a practice of writing a column or editorial explaining our endorsement process, what we see as the biggest issues confronting our area and what we will be looking for in terms of leadership.
In crafting our endorsement editorials, we always strive to be respectful and honor the effort it takes to run for political office. If there is a strong field of candidates, we make that evident to readers. We also tell them when there is no clear favorite.
In the past week, members of the Editorial Board have been going over the applications of the 17 people who have applied for the Santa Rosa City Council vacancy and trying to meet with many of them in hopes of offering our recommendation on who is best qualified to serve on the City Council. Granted, this is not a public election, but we believe our role is the same — to offer input in the process of selecting a community leader.
Our hope is to make a recommendation on Tuesday, prior to a City Council decision that evening.
We respect the argument that we have no right to “tell” people how to vote. But I would offer that we are not telling people what to do. We make recommendations just as we, as a newspaper, regularly recommend movies, restaurants, books and places to vacation. We do it because we are often in the best position to offer perspective.
We also trust that when readers disagree with us, they will let us know — and we will print their opinions as well.
Finally, we do it because it’s what we do — it’s part of our role as the primary source of local news and opinion for more than 100 years. That’s a role we take seriously and, thanks to our recent return to local ownership, one we plan to continue for generations.
(Bruce Kyse is publisher of The Press Democrat and a member of the Editorial Board.)