Charging for political candidate endorsement letters

September 11, 2012

By Jon Whitney
Publisher | Carroll County Review, Thomson, IL
Five or six years ago an article in Publishers’ Auxiliary piqued my interest enough that I copied it and placed it in the stack of ideas I keep on the corner of my desk.
That story discussed how a Minnesota publisher had become fed up with an apparent coordinated effort by multiple candidates for public office to use his letters to the editor section for endorsements instead of purchasing advertising space in his newspaper. The owner of that newspaper chose to implement a policy of charging for candidate endorsements letters.
A heated campaign four years ago here for a seat as a representative in the U.S. Congress, resulted in a regularly spaced, coordinated letters to the editor effort from a variety of writers, all touting reasons to vote for one of the two candidates.
Ironically, and obvious to me, the letters all showed up in the same type of envelope, typed exactly the same way on the front, including the return address, though they were signed by different people. The body copy of the letters were also typed in identical fashion and the writing style all seemed identical although the wording was different. Each ended with a ringing endorsement for one candidate with handwritten signatures by different writers.
That jogged my memory, and a gleaning of that folder of ideas revealed the Pub Aux story about this one publisher’s solution to this perceived abuse of his letters to editor space. A candid conversation between a campaign worker  and me revealed that, yes, the candidate’s campaign staff knew that letters to the editor were an effective means of showing citizen support for candidates and were instrumental in swaying others to vote for a particular candidate. Best of all, the campaign worker bragged, “They don’t cost us anything.”
That same election brought out a series of letters supporting three local candidates in contested elections that appeared to have been orchestrated by the candidates’ campaigns.
Although there is an ethical line that concerned me, I wrestled with the issue of possibly stifling honest public opinion about candidates versus advertising revenues. I determined that it was the various candidates who had crossed the line from honest expression of opinion to a crass attempt at seeking free advertising.
As the publisher of a weekly newspaper, I decided there was no easy way to determine which letters might be part of an orchestrated effort to garner a candidate free advertising. I decided to implement a policy that all letters to the editor endorsing candidates for public office would be treated as advertising and charged my open advertising rates.
A notice in the letters to the editor section explained the policy, and letter writers of candidate endorsements are offered the choice of paying for the space used or not having their letters published. These letters also carry wording noting they are paid advertising.
The policy has worked fairly well. About one-third of such letters are paid for now. For local candidates, the percentage jumps to about 80 percent. An added benefit of this change is that writers have condensed their copy. In one instance, a local campaign coordinator called and asked to have four letters billed to the candidate’s campaign committee. And this is in an area where there are three other papers covering the same market that do not charge for similar letters.
Billing a local campaign committee has not been a problem in this small market. In larger markets, I would recommend getting paid up front.
The net result for my 2,000-circulation weekly has been a substantial increase in revenue that was not received in previous elections. Several letter writers did decline to pay, but none of them have been overly angry about the policy.

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