Critical Thinking: Should More Newspapers Charge a Fee to Publish Political Endorsement Letters?

CriticalThinking

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.

 

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Published: June 14, 2018

4 thoughts on “Critical Thinking: Should More Newspapers Charge a Fee to Publish Political Endorsement Letters?

  • June 14, 2018 at 9:29 am
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    Newspapers are often described as the “voice of a community,” so we always want to encourage engagement. Small to mid-size markets make for an ever better forum. Although we try and publish all qualified letters here in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho at our flagship, The Press, we are not bashful about prioritizing letters submitted by subscribers (with an audience reminder). Newspapers – the voice of a community (and) supported by the community. Larry Riley – Regional Publisher, Hagadone Media Northwest Idaho.

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  • June 14, 2018 at 12:46 pm
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    Our city and school board elections are usually not contentious; sometimes there aren’t enough candidates to fill the vacant seats (average town population is less than 1,000). State elections are another matter, though. Nearly all of the letters we receive endorsing political candidates come from political party spokespeople or colleagues, spouses, neighbors, even first-grade Sunday School teachers. Neither the candidate nor the letter writers are part of our local communities, in most cases. Our official policy is that each candidate for any office gets one “free” story announcing their candidacy, with a photo if they choose. Anything after that needs to be a paid ad that we format to look like an actual letter, and we include the usual “paid endorsement” verbiage in the ad. We run incumbent columns, when they focus on local or government issues and not the upcoming election. We had to set this policy because of abuse by one candidate who had 5-7 people sending us letters every week; his wife sent us a new letter nearly every week. This same candidate is the reason for another policy: all political advertisements must be pre-paid. (Yup, this guy lost the election and didn’t pay for the few paid ads he ran.) If we ever get more engagement for truly local elections, we’ll have to rethink our letters to the editor policy.

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    • June 14, 2018 at 3:44 pm
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      From the time we bought our newspaper in 1984 until we sold a year ago, the policy was simple: local residents or out of town subscribers could write to the same length and taste on politics. We limited letters to once a month due to volume. And if it was a form letter, we returned it to the sender and asked for them write it in their own words. Others can choose–pay sytd rates for an ad or letter goes in file 13. Our Oklahoma readers don’t care what a lobbying group thinks, but they do want to read what people here or w/strong enuf ties to pay out of town rates think.

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  • June 16, 2018 at 8:26 am
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    At the Tomahawk (WI) Leader we’ve charged minimally for endorsement letters for five years or more. First, it irked me to see political advertising money go in other directions but politicians want newspapers to only print their press releases and endorsement letters. Second, I used to work in politics and have written some of those letters myself in years back. You simply type up a glowing letter and find a supporter to sign it. You even mail it for them. It really got me when I saw two identical letters signed by different people in different newspapers. We only charge $25 because we don’t want to force out letters for local candidates who are normally not so sophisticated in the realm of big time campaigns.

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