Several North Dakota newspapers recently started charging for political endorsement letters. Should more newspapers charge a fee to publish such letters?
Colin Sheeley, 20, junior, Fordham University (New York, N.Y.)
Sheeley is a journalism major and the editor-in-chief of the student-run newspaper, Fordham Observer. He has been a staff member since 2016 and also served as a news editor.
I admit that I am initially split on this question. Living and writing through this time in American politics has made me wary of candidates and their campaigns. That many would exploit the opinion pages of newspapers to push across ingratiating messages free of charge is enough to make any editor bristle, especially in an age where regional and local publications are starved for revenue.
Indeed, much of my family lives in North Dakota where these papers circulate. In them, they have witnessed over years the deterioration of editorial content as publishers scramble for promotional deals, endorsements, buyouts from media conglomerates—not to mention advertisements—to keep from going under.
In light of these strains, levying submissions that have little intention of contributing a thoughtful and reasoned opinion seems justifiable. Unless you are the reader. To the reader, a paid political endorsement-marked-ad could only further restrict their interest in the pages of a paper.
In this time where grandstanding already appears to be the only way in which one can present oneself, the reader would recoil from the letter—another valueless deal stuffed between a few good articles. Just another example of the low standards journalism has sunk to, they might think.
Yes, yes, the newspapers “retain the right” to deem any letter fit or not for publishing, but think of the pitfalls. What if one candidate’s letter is published as standard while their opponent’s is slapped with a fee? What if one runs in the opinion pages and the other along with the ads? What stops a candidate from calling the whole business of letter charging a scam? This goes without even acknowledging what should stand as the true objective for any opinions section: rational, shrewd arguments, contentious but conceding. To give over to anything less is to give up on the objective altogether. Higher fees are not the answer to political endorsements. Higher standards are.
Lindsay Gloor, 23, associate editor, Joliet (Ill.) Herald-News
Gloor was recently promoted to Herald-News associate editor. Previously, she reported breaking news for Shaw Media’s various publications, including the Herald-News and Northwest Herald in Crystal Lake, Ill.
This is a tricky question.
As the associate editor for a more locally-focused newspaper in the Chicago suburbs, I am in charge of sifting through our letters to the editor. Election-related letters certainly pop up around the primaries and general election, but I have not seen influx like that in North Dakota.
I see benefits to both sides of the argument. If media outlets are experiencing an influx of letters that campaigns appear to have generated, then, to me, it seems only fair to charge for those letters, as one would charge for a typical political advertisement.
But charging everyday subscribers—ones editors can be sure are writing of their own personal opinion—could create a chilling effect in the letters section. Our subscribers so appreciate being able to have their voices heard on the page and, I believe, adding another fee could dampen that mood.
Then the question is how can editors determine what a campaign produced? This could inevitably create more work, if letter writers are not forthcoming in their motives. We all know journalists handle a variety of tasks throughout the day, and adding onto that is something that should be done with caution.
To sum it up, I think it is entirely fair for publications to charge for letters that can be confirmed to have come from one side of the aisle or the other, but charging everyday letter writers might be going too far.