A company that owns 16 Florida newspapers has announced it will cease the traditional practice of endorsing political candidates.
CEO Michael Redding of Halifax Media, which owns papers including the Lakeland Ledger and Sarasota Herald-Tribune, says he's taking the step because endorsing candidates could "create the idea we are not able to fairly cover political races."
"Right or wrong, that is the perception," Redding said in a Lakeland Ledger announcement of the move.
Besides the Lakeland and Sarasota papers, the decision applies to the Gainesville Sun, Ocala Star-Banner, Daytona Beach News-Journal and 11 smaller Florida papers, plus Halifax papers in Alabama, California, Louisiana and the Carolinas.
It apparently applies to races for non-partisan seats including judgeships and school board seats, according to the Ledger's announcement.
The newspapers will continue to take sides on state constitutional amendments and local initiatives, and express opinions on public policy issues.
They also announced no change in their use of signed opinion columns, sometimes called "op-ed columns" because they often run on the page opposite the editorial page.
Halifax bought the Florida papers this year from The New York Times and Freedom Communications.
In recent years, candidate endorsements have been abandoned by a number of newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Chicago Sun-Times.
"Sometimes it annoys more readers than it enlightens," said University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus. "When so much information is available on candidates from other sources, you're not educating voters as much.
"News is a business, and the payback for endorsements has been minimized while the blowback is intensifying."
Newspapers seek to maintain separation between the editorial pages and news pages, with opinion on the editorial page and news reporting on news pages.
But some journalism and political science experts question whether readers understand or trust the distinction. They also question how much endorsements influence voters' decisions.
The endorsements matter most, several experts said, in "down-ballot" races, including judgeships, school board seats and other local races, on which voters tend to be uncertain and less well informed.
"Once you go up the ladder to governor, senator and president, the candidates are flooding the airwaves and voters tend to pay more attention," said Sherry Jeffe, a senior fellow in public policy at the University of Southern California.
New College of Florida political scientist Frank Alcock said the endorsements matter less than they used to because increased political polarization makes voters less inclined to trust news organizations.
Besides down-ballot races, he said, endorsements are most influential in primary races, where Democratic vs. Republican conflict isn't at issue.
Tampa political consultant April Schiff, a Tampa area Republican campaign strategist who works for local candidates, regrets the decision.
"A lot of voters depend on the editorial pages," she said. "How many times have I seen people walking into the polls with a list of the endorsements? They won't have that information any more."
Schiff, who works mostly with local candidates, said they work hard for endorsements, including rehearsing editorial board interviews and studying issues, "because it means votes." She typically uses endorsements of her candidates in mailers or advertising.
Redding didn't respond to telephone and email requests to talk about the decision.
His company was formed, according to its web site, when it bought the News-Journal in 2010.
It paid the New York Times $143 million in January for 16 newspapers, including five in Florida. It bought 10 more Florida papers from the Freedom chain in June.
Under the New York Times ownership, the Florida papers varied in the political orientation of their editorial boards. The Lakeland and Ocala editorial pages, for example, backed Republican George W. Bush's re-election in 2004, while the Daytona, Gainesville and Sarasota pages backed Democrat John Kerry.
It's not as if the new owners are politically neutral.
Redding has contributed to the Republican Party.
And one of the main investors in Halifax Media, Warren Stephens of Little Rock, Ark., has a long history of contributions to Republican candidates and causes, including recent contributions of $1 million to Karl Rove's American Crossroads super PAC and $500,000 to the Restore Our Future PAC backing Mitt Romney.
Stephens has also donated to Democratic congressional candidates, according to federal election records, but has given far more to Republicans.