Newspaper endorsements still matter

I’ve been on the “ed board” circuit lately—tromping around the state and attending meetings with newspaper editorial boards. The goal is for my clients to wow the opinion-makers with their acumen and insight, and win an endorsement for their candidacy or cause. Some may ask, in this era of declining newspaper readership, if the effort is still worth it.

After all, the numbers get progressively bleaker with the passage of time. In one year alone, from Fall 2008 to Fall 2009, average weekday circulation at the nation’s daily newspapers fell more than 10 percent – and it’s not like they were thriving before that.

Yet we still have interns prepare briefing memos, analyzing each ed board member’s pet issues (this one’s obsessed with Pike tolls, that one’s wife is a public school teacher). And we still make the pilgrimage to scruffy newspaper offices, the passage of time marked only by their insistence that we record a video clip for their website with their hand-held Flipcams. In 2010, are these treks simply an outmoded force of habit?

My vote is no. In fact, I believe endorsements are even more powerful and useful today than in the past. It’s become a truism of the Internet age that the strongest recommendations come from your friends and “social networks.” (A radio ad might inform me that a new restaurant has opened, but I won’t try it out until a friend says it’s good.) As recently as 15 years ago, virtually every mainstream professional who sought to keep up with conversation and society read the newspaper regularly. Newspapers were middle-class, middle-brow…the equivalent of the Big Three television networks before the advent of cable. They had a monopoly on information and (at least tried to) appeal to everyone. Back then, a newspaper endorsement for your candidate or your cause was powerful because so many people saw it and read it—the local equivalent of a 30 second ad during the Super Bowl. You could further heighten the endorsement’s impact by reprinting and mailing it to potential supporters, buying ads citing the complimentary quotes, robo-calling—you name it.

Today, you can still do those things. But you also have a website, social networking sites, blogs and Twitter feeds that you can use to pump out the endorsement—and so does the newspaper in question. And you both have your own devoted legion of fans. That number may be a lot smaller than the circulation of most papers in their heyday. But this fragmentation has created a new power for endorsements. No longer are newspapers reaching legions of lukewarm supporters. The hearty band of readers that’s left—and the even heartier posse that’s geeky enough to subscribe to a paper’s Twitter feed—are true believers. (In a nod to its groupies, the Cambridge Chronicle recently posted a tantalizing blog post encouraging readers to “check our site at midnight tonight” to see who they endorsed in a state senate primary.)

The casual readers have sloughed off—they’ve got options. They’re checking the New York Times website on their lunch break, or listening to Rush Limbaugh in their cars, or not consuming any news at all. It may be bad for democracy, but the fact that people are increasingly choosing media that reinforce their pre-existing beliefs helps the causes that receive newspaper backing, because readers are primed to take those endorsements seriously. It’s true that endorsed candidates or causes don’t always win. But in a world of microtargeting and leveraging limited resources, firing up your base with messages from a trusted source—and letting them loose to evangelize to their own contacts and friends—isn’t a bad way to spend your time.

Dorie Clark–a marketing strategy consultant for clients such as Google, Yale University, the National Park Service, and political and issue campaigns–is President of Clark Strategic Communications. A former New England Press Association award-winning journalist, she can be reached at www.dorieclark.com and www.twitter.com/dorieclark.

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