‘Paid’ letters raise many questions

by | Apr 1, 2008 | Reprints

Publishers’ Auxiliary/April 2008

A Minnesota newspaper publisher generated national headlines when he started charging 5 cents a word for letters to the editor that endorse a candidate. He was frustrated with the orchestrated letter-writing that has become standard fare among political campaigns – a challenge facing many editors as the 2008 elections approach.

The idea of “paid” letters is most likely unthinkable at most newspapers – and for good reason. The practice is in conflict with newspapers’ strident defense of the Fourth Estate that everyone is entitled to an opinion. At the same time, candidates have only themselves to blame for the backlash from some editors.

The intensity and frequency of letter-writing campaigns pick up during election season as candidates look to stretch their treasuries. Why pay for an ad when faithful followers can write a letter, extolling the attributes of particular candidates? Charging for letters is a slippery slope, however. Beyond the ethical questions, editors and publishers will be hard pressed to set guidelines, and stick to them, to differentiate those letters that qualify as “free” letters and those that require writers to “ante” up to get their views published.

A common standard among newspapers that charge for letters is whether a letter simply endorses a candidate or whether it addresses issues. The threshold is admirable. Every newspaper relishes editorial pages devoted to robust discussion of substantive issues. But editors need to make sure this policy is being followed fairly and consistently.

Editors are certain to be challenged on their decisions from candidates and readers alike – unless the paid letters are purely nondescript, such as: “I support Mary Hanson,” or “Joe Smith will get my vote.” The reality is that many local contests are void of issues – are you going to charge letter writers in those cases?

Newspapers also should not forget the significance of the writers. Their identities may well be the “issue.” For example, a retiring lawmaker endorses the candidate from the opposing party. A proponent of a strong downtown supports the owner of a strip-mall development for city council. A city father endorses a relative newcomer for the school board.

Two reasons cited for implementing paid letters are because they lack substance or because the free letters are replacing paid ads. If those truly are the reasons, many newspapers better rethink what kind of letters they accept year-round.

How many opinion pages are filled with “thank you” letters following a successful bloodmobile visit, Salvation Army or United Way campaign, or a church fundraiser? How many newspapers also accept letters publicizing these events, even though they have been promoted in news stories? The examples are limitless.

No one questions the worthiness of these events. But where’s the substance in a “free” letter signed by organizers of the Red Kettle campaign thanking all donors vs. the substance of a “paid” letter encouraging fellow residents to elect an individual as the town’s next mayor?

Vibrant editorial pages are often a target of organized campaigns. Downtown revitalization projects, arena proposals and riverfront developments are among numerous issues that prompt letters. Some individuals weigh in simply because they are interested. Others are clearly part of campaigns, even identifying themselves as members of a particular group formed to support or oppose the proposal.

Newspapers have plenty of opportunity to lay down the ground rules and govern the debate. Letters should be edited for substance and redundancy. It takes time, but the extra effort will keep the page fresh and make room for numerous voices. At the same time, newspapers should identify and seize opportunities to pitch the respective groups for a parallel advertising campaign.

It’s a dangerous path when editors start restricting access to editorial pages simply on the basis of supporting a candidate for elective office – the very heart of the democratic process. Editorial pages, at their core, are intended to foster debate.

The Minnesota publisher’s irritation with orchestrated letter campaigns was understandable, especially since the letters flowed from individuals who never read his newspaper. His frustration could have been handled by enacting a policy to accept letters only from individuals within the newspaper’s readership area.

At the same time, the publisher spoke to an issue which faces all editors: “They know where we are when it comes to free publicity, but when they have to advertise, they seem to go to the electronic media.”

In the end, the burden of getting candidates to spend money on ads vs. trying to supplement limited funds with free letters rests with newspapers. That point may appear harsh, and it is made without any reflection on those newspapers that charge for endorsement letters. It’s a reminder that election coverage is a tandem responsibility between news and advertising departments. Coordinating efforts is the key to solid coverage and increased revenue for the newspaper.