03/12/2012 03:06 pm ET Updated May 12, 2012

To Endorse, Or Not to Endorse

There is a long tradition of newspapers endorsing candidates for election, but lately some papers are changing course.

While the Chicago Sun-Times has opted out of the process, the Chicago Tribune has written about continuing their more than 150-year tradition of telling readers who they should vote for.

I don't think there is any correct answer to the question of whether a newspaper should endorse a candidate, but let me tell you why we at Windy City Times do not endorse in any elections, even when there is a gay person running against a homophobe.

First, some background. When I was at GayLife newspaper in 1984, right out of college, that paper did endorse candidates, and its owner, Chuck Renslow, was very active in Democratic politics. While Renslow did not influence our editorial coverage, he did have a say in our endorsements. When we disagreed, we could write our own opinions in the paper about why we backed someone else. And of course people wrote letters to the editor in opposition. The community was even smaller then, and with Renslow being an activist in Democratic politics, it presented a perception of conflict of interest.

When I co-founded Windy City Times, the publisher, Jeff McCourt, wanted to continue the tradition of gay papers endorsing, so we did. But we soon had disagreements, including his backing of a straight aldermanic incumbent (Ald. Bernie Hansen) over a gay challenger (Dr. Ron Sable). He and I ended up doing competing endorsement editorials in 1987.

When I left to start Outlines newspaper a few months later, I felt strongly that we should not endorse candidates, and we began a long trend of this by the late 1980s. When we purchased Windy City Times from McCourt in 2000, we stopped the WCT tradition of endorsements.

Some people were upset that Windy City Times would no longer endorse candidates. But most of those were people who were pitching for their own candidates, and wanted the newspaper to help sway our readers in their favor.

For readers, I have found few who really care what a newspaper tells them to do -- but they have long appreciated our approach of listing out the endorsements and ratings of a range of LGBT and pro-LGBT groups. We also survey the candidates on our own series of LGBT questions (the questions depend in part on what office they are seeking). For more than 20 years, we have then taken all that information and created a chart with the endorsements, rankings and recommendations, something easy to carry into the voting booth.

Would telling readers how to vote make a difference? I don't think so. I have seen some newspapers that pretty much always endorse one party or the other. Some newspapers that are so conservative they are tone deaf to the actual voting patterns of their constituents. And some newspapers who endorse candidates despite the efforts of their own reporting staffs to try to be objective in covering campaigns.

So there are several kinds of voters, and I don't believe that any kind is served by a newspaper endorsing:

  1. Voters who do their own research.
  2. Voters who rely on organizations that reflect their views to recommend candidates.
  3. Voters who just make up their minds in the voting booth.
  4. And voters who don't show up to vote.

Because the LGBT community is a small subset of the mainstream, we also have a secondary burden. A lot of people know one another, and there are potentially a lot of conflicts of interest. Windy City Times has a few dozen shareholders. None of them, except me, have ever been active in running the paper. But some of them do donate money to candidates, gay and non-gay, local and national. I am not even aware of most of their donations, and because we don't endorse candidates, we don't have to worry about those conflicts impacting our selections.

This is likely the case on a larger scale at the major newspapers. The owners and shareholders, and even some staff, likely do back certain candidates, but their readers may never know those conflicts.

We also have a very diverse community, along political, racial, gender, religious and class lines. We barely can agree on any agenda, much less a candidate.

In journalism school, the discussions often centered around whether a reporter should even vote in elections. That just by pulling a lever, a reporter was taking sides, and could not be objective. Interestingly, some of the same newspaper editors who pushed for this non-voting approach for reporters worked for publishers who had no problem telling their readers how to vote.

How were readers to distinguish between what a paper told them to do election day, and an allegedly fair report on the race itself in the news pages? Those lines inevitably blurred in the minds of readers, and in the minds of candidates.

So Windy City Times does not endorse in elections. But we do rate, we do interview, we do report on the races extensively. And we hope those readers who do care enough to vote will use our guides to make a more informed decision.

Tracy Baim is publisher and co-founder of Windy City Times.