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Now on video: Editorial board interviews

SHOWCASE | April 11, 2004

By Dan Froomkin

Some newspapers have been posting editorial board interviews with political candidates on their Web sites – an excellent multimedia enhancement for people who'd like to follow politics closely.

Broadcast political debates often generate little more than sound bite fury, signifying nothing. So how is the public supposed to find out what a candidate really stands for?

One way of getting a better look at candidates' command of the issues has historically been the exclusive domain of a small journalistic elite: The editorial board.

Candidates typically make respectful pilgrimages to the editorial boards of their local (or national) newspapers, lured by the possibility of a valuable endorsement. They then subject themselves to a wide range of questions from some pretty sharp minds, in a setting that tends to be more congenial to thoughtful exploration than to snappy one-liners.

It used to be – and still is, in most cases – that all the public ever got out of that process was the much-refined end-product: An editorial, endorsing someone.

But an increasing number of newspapers, large and small, are blowing the process wide open.

Using audio and video and the Internet, they are offering the public an opportunity to see candidates grapple with probing questions. And as a bonus, they're also offering the public insight into the workings of the editorial board – itself a powerful and generally mysterious institution, that could benefit from transparency.

As an example, The San Francisco Chronicle posted the raw video of editorial-board interviews with both candidates in the December 2003 mayoral runoff on its SFgate.com Web site.

A note from Editorial Page Editor John Diaz says: "In an effort to give readers a window into our endorsement process, as well as to give voters a chance to view the candidates answering questions at greater length than they typically see at debates, we decided to videotape the interviews and make them available on SFGate."

You can watch, broken down into segments, the interviews with Matt Gonzalez and Gavin Newsom.

The Chronicle eventually endorsed Newsom.

There's another advantage to doing editorial board interviews this way: If the interviews are detailed enough, there is lasting value in them – or at least in the winner's.

As Robert Cauthorn, vice president of digital media at the Chronicle and general manager of SFGate.com, told Mark Glaser of USC's Online Journalism Review recently: "The beauty of it is that we have a mayoral candidate on the record with his positions well in advance of him taking office... That's a powerful thing."

Other examples:

  • In August 2002, the three candidates for the Democratic Party nomination for governor met with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Editorial Board in a series of endorsement interviews before the primary election. In an even more reader-friendly presentation, jsonline.com made the interviews available not only in audio, but also in that old standby, text – which, while lacking the you-are-there intimacy of multimedia, remains easier to scan and browse.
  • Here's a list of 51 Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial-board interviews between 1996 and 2002, originally broadcast on TVW, Washington State's Public Affairs Network. The audio is posted on TVW's Web site.
  • In February, before the New York Democratic presidential primary, the New York Times put up video of its editorial-board interviews with candidates John Edwards and John Kerry.

San Francisco Chronicle
Multimedia editorial board interviews

Online Journalism Review
Videos bring transparency to the endorsement process

Jon Dube
More on editorial board videos

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