Editorial boards cling to last remnants of old media power

Debra Pickett is president of Page 2 Communications (www.page2comm.com).  A former newspaper columnist and television commentator, Pickett offers consulting and training services to law firms and lawyers who deal with the media.  She writes here each week on topics related to law and media.  To learn more, reach her at deb@page2comm.com.

There’s significant consensus around the idea that newspaper political endorsements don’t really matter.  Survey respondents pretty consistently tell pollsters that they take of the word of Oprah Winfrey or, should Oprah not be available, their other religious leader, far more seriously than they would an editorial from their local paper.  In a survey taken during the last presidential election, 69 percent of voters polled said newspaper endorsements have “no effect” on their vote.  Indeed, a number of major newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and, for a while, the Chicago Sun-Times, declared themselves to be out of the endorsement business all together.

Still, newspapers do make news.  After all, someone has to give the 24-hour cable guys something to talk about.  In the current presidential campaign, the endorsements of papers in battleground states have been considered newsworthy, as have a few “reversals,” such as the one by the Orlando Sentinel, which endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 and is now backing his challenger instead, and the surprising decision of the Salt Lake Tribune editors to pass over Utah’s “favorite adopted son,” Mitt Romney, in favor of the president.  There’s no concrete evidence that these editorials have changed anyone’s mind, but the Orlando Sentinel and Salt Lake Tribune pieces in particular have “gone viral,” circulating far beyond the papers’ regular readers and contributing to each candidate’s sense of momentum during the last weeks leading up to Election Day.

For this reason, the presidential candidates still seem to consider lengthy, in-depth interviews with newspaper editorial boards to be good investments of their time. 

But, for the rest of us, with a case to litigate or a matter before the Zoning Committee, is reaching out to a newspaper editorial board worth the effort?

Surprisingly, yes.

While voters in national elections typically are not influenced by newspaper endorsements, surveys show that on local issues – from the election of judges and city officials to popular referenda – citizens still trust newspapers as their key sources of information.

Making your case to a newspaper editorial board requires no small amount of effort.  First, you have to get on their calendar (one of few media relations tasks that is almost worth outsourcing to a specialized consultant).  Then, you’ve got to show up, in person, and devote an hour or more to briefing the board members on your issue, an experience something like offering oral arguments before the Supreme Court, but with coffee.  Then, after taking more detailed questions than you ever thought possible, you’ll leave the building with no sense of when, or even whether, the paper might run an editorial about your issue.

It’s a big investment of your energy, but, if it pays off (and the odds are pretty good that it will), it will be a huge boost to your credibility and a tremendous influence among folks concerned about your issue.  This is one area where the power of the old media still holds fast and, even better, can be amplified by new and social media, through posting and tweeting the positive editorial to additional audiences.


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