Editorial Boards with Steve Huntley CW 32- transcript

Editorial BoardsJohn Tsarpalas: Editorial boards. Most candidates are going to get questioned by their local newspaper. Often you have to go in and sit before an editorial board. Today I am going to have the former editorial page of editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, Steve Huntley, discuss what candidates need to do to prepare for an editorial board and how an editorial board works.

Whether this editorial board is hostile or not, there are good things that can come out of this. So today on Commonwealthy, it’s Editorial Boards with Steve Huntley, Commonwealthy #32.

Today on Commonwealthy, my guest is Steve Huntley. Steve is the former editorial page editor at the Chicago Sun-Times and a columnist, now retired. Steve has advised me in the past on how editorial boards work. I thought it would really be interesting.

For those of you thinking about running, an editorial board is probably in your future. How does the system work? So, Steve, welcome.

Steve Huntley: Thank you, John. Thanks for having me.

John Tsarpalas: And thanks for being here. Steve, first of all how does an editorial board decide who they are going to interview? Do they have certain cut off levels? It depends on what the range of the paper is I would guess.

Steve Huntley: Yes, exactly, it depends on the range of the newspaper. So where I worked at the Chicago Sun-Times, with regards to municipal elections, it was mostly Chicago: the mayor and the city council. But it also included Cook County, so we did the commissioners and a number of Cooke County offices. Also we did the judicial races: new elections for new judges and retention elections.

Also outside of the city, we covered the metropolitan area for the legislatures (state senate, state house) and statewide offices (governor, lieutenant governor, and all statewide offices). And then U.S. Senate and on up there.

Obviously this would depend on the newspaper your folks would be looking at. Some might have a much smaller catch area. Some might have a larger.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. So the staff compiles a list. They go to the Board of Elections and find out who is running. The first step is what then? Do they reach out with a questionnaire, a letter in the mail, an email, or something like that?

Steve Huntley: Yes, that’s the first steps. Send a letter with the questionnaire. I know that this can be a bugaboo with candidates because they get a lot of questionnaires, not just from newspapers but from all sorts of organizations that do endorsements. So they have a pile of them I know.

John Tsarpalas: Right. In fact in our episode 29, which is a couple of weeks ago, we talked about questionnaires from PACs and editorial boards, which ones to look at and which ones to throw right in the garbage. A lot of those questionnaires are just “gotchas.” They are trying to get information to use against you. But not an editorial boards. You’ve got to answer those.

Steve Huntley: Yes. Quite a bit of thought goes into the questions. I think it’s worthwhile for candidates to spend some time on them. When one comes across, you can tell when it is basically blown off and it is basically pulling out quotes from their campaign literature or brochure.

Now naturally in answering questions, the candidate’s longtime positions are going to show up. It’s always a good idea to try to at least answer one question in a way that is aimed at your audience, the editorial board you are dealing with.

If you know the editorial board has a big issue that’s important to them, and it will come up in the questionnaire I am sure. Just be sure to give a little extra thought to that and get away from your regular campaign language when you are dealing with the issue.

The other trick is to, like I said, not just brush it off with very, very short answers. But on the other hand, don’t go on and on and on forever. The questionnaires (I think this is probably true in most editorial boards) at the Sun-Times, we always had the end of the questions. We also said, “If there is anything else you would like or anything you would like us to send, attach it to the questionnaire.”

The other thing is to remember about the big change in the past few years about questionnaires. They used to be strictly for internal use by the editorial boards and maybe they would share them with political reporters. But now, most editorial boards post the questionnaires so your questionnaire is going to be on the Internet for anybody to go over and look at. So always keep that in mind.

John Tsarpalas: Oh, so it’s public. What’s the timing of an editorial board’s questionnaires going out? Is it two months before an election or three months?

Steve Huntley: Well, we always tried to get them out a couple of months. These questionnaires getting together, the parochial standpoint of the editorial board- there’s a lot of effort that goes into them.

You have to whittle a list of the candidates down. You’ve got to get their addresses. You’ve got to put the questions together. Obviously different offices have different questions. A lot of work goes into them. Try to get them out certainly within a couple of months of when we do endorsing.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. So most candidates should be on the ballot by now and knocking on doors and talking to people. I would think they would have thought through some of the key issues, because I don’t think the newspaper is going to come up with surprises that aren’t happening in the community.

Steve Huntley: No. The one thing they will come up with, and it also is kind of a new development in questionnaires, is they try to get to the personality of the candidates. So they’ll ask, “What’s the best book you’ve read in the last six months?” or “What’s your favorite TV show?” or “What’s the most important experience in your life?”. There is the tendency to come up with something that will give you some insight into a candidate’s personality. So a different kind of question towards the end of the list of questions.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. As you’ve said, most of the questionnaires are now posted on the newspaper’s online. It’s not necessarily published; perhaps it is.

Steve Huntley: Right, it’s on the Internet. They are not published.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. And it is called a board. So how many people were on your board? What’s the usual? Who makes it up?

Steve Huntley: When I was editorial page editorial, I think it was about half a dozen people. On bigger papers, it would more. On smaller papers, it would be fewer.

But that’s misleading because except for the big offices, the various races are kind of farmed out to individual board members. Like you’d get state senate candidates, half a dozen or a dozen state candidates, and that one board member would be responsible for reading all the questionnaires and doing, most likely in that kind of race, telephone interviews before we ever got to sit down with the board.

John Tsarpalas: So the telephone is a preliminary interview? Or is it the official interview?

Steve Huntley: It can be preliminary or it can be official. It depends. For the vast majority of state legislative races, it is probably the official interview. But there will be select races where there is a lot of interest or the personalities involved or the candidates involved or the geographical area for some reason may elevate it. Then candidates will be brought in for those interviews.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. And they are scheduled at the candidate’s convinced or the board says, “Everybody running for Cook County is going to show up at 2 o’clock on such and such day.”?

Steve Huntley: Well, they try to be a happy medium between getting the schedules to mesh now. Back in the old days, not so old days, it used to be the candidates would be brought in. It would just be candidate A talking to the editorial board.

Now in recent years, as you know, the editorial boards have seemed to gravitate towards turning these candidate interview into mini-debates. So scheduling gets a little more complicated that way because you’ve got several candidates to try to schedule a time to get together.

John Tsarpalas: Let me interrupt. So you are saying you are not interviewing one candidate at a time and they are going away. You are saying everyone running for that office is-

Steve Huntley: Sometimes.

John Tsarpalas: Okay, it can be either way.

Steve Huntley: That’s the latest trend in editorial boards, to try to set these up as mini-debates. Now I think there are problems with that approach. The old approach of just having the candidate in and then having the editorial board go with him and her often produces some quite deep discussions on issues, where as the debate tends to highlight differences between the candidates. Maybe you don’t get quite deep into issue X as you might have during the one on one.

At least in the past few years there seems to be a serious trend towards debate style things where you get candidates in to go at each other to a certain degree.

John Tsarpalas: Are these recorded or video recorded? Is there an audience?

Steve Huntley: Yes, they are video recorded. Again, these are posted on the Internet.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. Why not? It’s content for the paper. It drives traffic there. Hopefully they sell more ads. I would think that’s their motivation.

Steve Huntley: Yes. There is no going off the record in forums.

John Tsarpalas: That’s actually very important because I think that might come up at point. It would be helpful I know.

Steve Huntley: Yeah, in the past, again, you could be doing a one-on-one with just one candidate during an editorial board interview. There might be a point where the candidate would say, “Let’s go off the record for a minute.” The board could say yes or no.

You might learn something that goes against the grain of the newspaper experience in that kind of environment where you go off the record because you want as much to be on the record as possible. But again, once you have a debate situation, there is no going off the record, at least not in my experience.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. It is interviewed. This is over. They leave. Do you then all have a discussion of what happened? Is that done privately? And is there a vote? What happens between the board members?

Steve Huntley: Then there is a series of editorial board meetings. The vote is explicitly about coming to conclusions about endorsements. Now, if you go back to the point where the telephone interview is the official interview and you don’t have the group of candidates in, then in that case the person who has done the interview will sit down with the rest of the board members and go over each of the individual races.

He or she will say, “Here is this candidate’s strengths. Here’s that candidate’s weaknesses. Here’s candidate three’s strengths and weaknesses.” That board member will usually make a recommendation on the endorsement. I guess I would have to say seventy-five to ninety-five percent of the time that recommendation is accepted.

But not all the time because individual board members will have some special knowledge about the area of the city or the county or maybe about one of the candidates. I have seen the recommending board member being overruled by the rest of the board because this one board member had special knowledge about a certain race. But most of the time in that case, the interviewing board member’s recommendation is adopted.

In regards to the instances where a group of candidates have been involved, usually during the board meeting with the candidate, there is a lead questioner. That is the board member who has studied on that race most and is most familiar with it.

So when you have the follow up meeting about endorsements, that board member will usually lead the discussion and may or may not have a recommendation. They usually do. Then it will be up for debate amongst the board members where it goes.

It is usually a vote now. That said, some votes count a little bit more than others. The editor of the editorial page usually has a little more influence in the case. And of course, the proprietor (the owner) of the newspaper-

John Tsarpalas: Yeah, right. He outranks you all.

Steve Huntley: Yeah. They don’t usually intervene. But in my experience, there have been some cases, some of them unhappy, where that has happened.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. This is a little touchier subject, but are there biases happening here? First of all, is there a bias towards the incumbent?

Steve Huntley: Yes, there is a bias towards the incumbent. I think the first question, when you deal with an incumbent, is “Has this incumbent done something that makes him or her a candidate for being ousted from office?”. So there is a slight bias there. That’s not to say it is overwhelming or an insurmountable bias, but there is a bias towards the incumbent.

Another bias of course is the editorial board conservative or is it liberal? You should know that. Candidates should know that. If there is an opposing political philosophy from your own, you should be prepared for that. Be prepared for it. It’s one of the things that should help make you a better candidate.

If I can go back just one minute to the interviews, when you are brought in for an interview and sometimes on the telephone, but especially when candidates are brought in for an interview, they are usually asked to make an opening statement. Again like the questionnaire, this is not something that should be blown off with just your top three talking points.

You out to give them thought about how you should tailor your issues and your candidacy to your audience, the board member you are dealing with. Just a little tip.

But going back to biases, like I said, every candidate will at some time face an editorial board that has a different political philosophy than your own. You should view it not as a hostile encounter, but as a chance to have some of your issues challenged and help you refine your answers to them.

It can be a good experience to you. Jim Edgar once came by after he had left the governor’s office and was meeting with the editorial board on some good cause. Before he sat down, he said that whenever he was running for governor, he always came to the Sun-Times editorial board. He knew he wasn’t going to get the endorsement, but he always found the encounters fun and enjoyed them.

So it should be a positive experience either way. Always be prepared. Be prepared.

John Tsarpalas: So how do people prepare? Sit down, answer the questionnaire and think it through? Should they meet with friends and people? Find someone to help them write answers? What’s a good way to work this stuff through?

Steve Huntley: Well, for a new candidate, for somebody running for the first time, it would be good to go to somebody like you or maybe this website to seek some advice and some help on dealing with an editorial board. I have had enough experience of people coming before and they are just clearly not prepared. It’s a pretty sad thing to watch sometimes.

I can remember once, and I will leave the candidate unnamed, a son of a long time office holder making his first run for office. Despite having obviously the access to the advice of his father, it was a pretty poor performance. I cut it short. As he was going out the door, his campaign advisor, who had worked for his dad for a long time, thanked me for showing mercy.

John Tsarpalas: So practice.

Steve Huntley: So be prepared.

John Tsarpalas: Yeah, sit down and think about it. Write it. Practice. Talk to some other people about it.

Steve Huntley: Yes, absolutely.

John Tsarpalas: And then do your best. I think you are right about attitude. I think you have to go in and look at it as an fun adventure. How often are you going to go to an editorial board in your life, no matter what you are running for? I am sure in small towns, the local paper is going to interview you or at least question you on the phone and want to get some type of something out of it.

Steve Huntley: Yes.

John Tsarpalas: I think that’s the way to approach it. You don’t go in hostile. How about rephrasing questions? Do people do that in an editorial board? I know they try to do it in the debate.

Steve Huntley: Yes, they will occasionally try to do that. In the one-on-ones it was harder to do. But again, when you have a debate situation for an editorial board, you see that a little bit more.

Again, the best thing, as in all politics I think, especially in this media saturated age, a direct answer to the question that you can give without appearing heartless or caring or something like that. A direct answer always comes through clear, whereas an evasive answer also always comes through clear. I think evasive answers cannot help you.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. Something else I have always said to candidates going into an editorial board: You might not get the endorsement, but maybe they will pick up a few good points about you. “Oh, this was a strong business person who understands budgets, but we prefer the current treasurer.”

Steve Huntley: Yes, that is absolutely true. I think if you read endorsements, you will frequently see that. “Our vote goes with candidate X. He’s got this kind of experience. We like him on these issues. Although we didn’t endorsement candidate B, she showed strong promise, is very intelligent, and is well versed on the issues.”

John Tsarpalas: Right. And then you get to lift that quote and put it on your literature. It says, “The Chicago Sun-Times says I am…”

Steve Huntley: Absolutely. That goes to the issue of how important are endorsements. Well, there’s been a lot of debate about how much they sway voters. But I can tell you, especially on the down ticket races, the legislative races, if you haven’t endorsed yet, you start getting telephone calls from candidates wanting to know when the endorsement is coming because they’ve got to schedule with their printer to get their campaign literature. They want to be able to cite those.

John Tsarpalas: Right. When you are at the editorial board, can you ask for an approximate date of when these will be released? Is that usually known?

Steve Huntley: Yes, you can ask. You might get a rather vague answer.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. It will be before the election obviously.

Steve Huntley: Yeah, before the election. Obviously candidates want it early enough for their print materials if they get the endorsement. It’s not that we keep that in mind, but you do want to get your endorsements out as early as you can. But not too far ahead of the election obviously so they are out of touch.

You’ve got toe remember. The candidate comes in and says, “Gosh, when will my race be endorsed?” You have to remember, especially if the answer is vague, there are a lot of other races that are being considered. They’ve got to get in the paper, too. So it can take a while.

John Tsarpalas: Right. How about attire? I would imagine Chicago guys would have a coat and a tie. But if you are in a more rural area, what are you trying to look like? What you think the editorial board’s dressed like? Or do you want to be dressed like you are a candidate? Is that a factor in any of this?

Steve Huntley: I can’t really recall anybody coming in dressed in a way that that became an issue. I do think that nearly every candidate I can think of, if it is a guy, comes in with a coat a tie or if it is a woman candidate, an appropriate suit or dress. So that’s not an issue. But it’s obviously not an issue because they know that kind of thing makes an impression.

This is not actually get directly with politics, but I can remember during my career at the Sun-Times we were interviewing a guy for a job. He had a lot of qualifications and all that, but everybody we interviewed, when we talked about it afterward, remarked that he had not polished his shoes. So appearance matters. Yes, do put on a coat and tie.

John Tsarpalas: Well, this is business. It’s the newspaper’s business and it’s your business, so dress for business and go in appropriately.

Steve Huntley: I will say if you look at TV now, there’s more informality in dress on the campaign trail. You can probably get away with not having a tie.

John Tsarpalas: Yeah, it depends. Gotcha. Alright, any other thoughts or tips?

Steve Huntley: Not really. Just like I said, I think the number one tip is be prepared and treat it seriously. Treat the questionnaire seriously. Treat especially the interview seriously.

It’s always best if you can come in and answer a question or in your opening statement with something that says you are aware of the newspaper you are dealing with. You are aware of a big issue that they care about or something like that that touches on them.

I will say one other thing. Unless your opponent has that day or the day before attacked you in public, do not open your presentation with an attack on your opponent. You can get to that later, but don’t start out your presentation with that, unless like I said, it is in the news and you have to respond to it right away.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. So your opening statement isn’t going to be an attack on the other guy. Does attacking tend to make you look less favorable because you are attacking?

Steve Huntley: If you start out it will. But at some point, especially if you are running against an incumbent, his or her record has to be a part of your argument. Attack is maybe too strong of a word there. But you will certainly be critical.

John Tsarpalas: You need to point out the failings and the flaws and why you are going to be better.

Steve Huntley: Yes, exactly.

John Tsarpalas: It is basically you are selling yourself.

Steve Huntley: Just like any other part of work, you’ve got to be prepared and you’ve got to know what you are doing. You’ve got to know the terrain you are operating in.

John Tsarpalas: Right, very good. Well thank you, Steve. I think you’ve given us a lot of good thoughts and background. Hopefully people will be prepared when they go in for their editorial board.

Steve Huntley: Thank you for having me.

John Tsarpalas: Thank you! People can reach you at shuntley.cst@gmail.com.

Steve Huntley: Yes, sir.

John Tsarpalas: We will have a link to your bio and your photo on the Commonwealthy website if people want to check out you and some of the columns you’ve written, which I have enjoyed over the years.

Steve Huntley: Thank you.

John Tsarpalas: Thank you, Steve. Take care. For many years, Steve was one of the few conservative voices in the Chicago newspaper market. I’ve enjoyed his friendship and talking to him about different situations where it requires an experienced journalist and, in this case, an editorial page editor.

He’s an amazing guy. I hope you got some good thoughts out of this. Especially take away that you need to go in and have fun with this. It’s really important to think of that. Just think of it as an experience. Out of it can come good no matter what happens.

Endorsed or not endorsed, there are ways you can take little snippets from the paper that you can use in your materials. That’s important. You want to do these editorial board meetings.

We have links to some of the columns Steve has written and his bio on our website at Commonwealthy.com. Please take a look. I’d love to have a comment. If you can go to iTunes and write us a review, that’s huge. That really, really helps Commonwealthy.

Be sure to spread the word. If you have other people out there, friends that are activists that are thinking about running for office, let them know we exist. We are here to help.

Feel free to write me at john@commonwealthy.com. I am glad to answer questions and also take your suggestions on where the program should go and things you need to know.

Thanks for listening!

Steve Huntley: That’s the latest trend in editorial boards, to try to set these up as mini-debates. Now I think there are problems with that approach. The old approach of just having the candidate in and then having the editorial board go with him and her often produces some quite deep discussions on issues, where as the debate tends to highlight differences between the candidates. Maybe you don’t get quite deep into issue X as you might have during the one on one.

At least in the past few years there seems to be a serious trend towards debate style things where you get candidates in to go at each other to a certain degree.

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