A newspaper poll tax? Locals charge nickel-per-word for pro-candidate letters

[Update: City Pages’ Kevin Hoffman makes a great catch: the Proctor news is three years old. Editor & Publisher, which posted the AP story this morning, has since taken the story down. It’s still an “I had no idea” for me — and maybe you? — though now that has multiple meanings.]

Put this one in the “I had no idea department.”

According to AP, the Proctor (Minn.) Journal will begin charging a nickel per word to publish letters backing a political candidate. You want to write 100 words extolling your favorite pol, that’ll be 5 bucks, please.

Even more amazingly, the Journal is not the first Minnesota paper to charge: The Alexandria Echo-Press has done this for more than 15 years. (The Alexandria paper is owned by Fargo-based Forum Communications, which just cut its Red Wing paper from five days a week to two. Does the policy apply online?)

This smacks a bit of a poll tax, though I have the tiniest bit of sympathy for the impulse. Most pro-candidate letters I’ve read over the years areas are as Astroturfed as any corporate “grass-roots” lobbying effort. Campaigns often coordinate the missives, and even though they’re sent by citizen-volunteers, read like the stalest talking points. I can understand Proctor publisher Jake Benson regarding them as free ads.

But discerning the genuine from the Astroturfed is tricky business, and metering the community conversation seems exactly the wrong thing for democracy and the times. Most papers don’t over-cover politics, and letter-writers are already providing free content.

If journalism is going to go the “15 bucks per checked bag” route, I wonder what’s next? An upcharge for florid adjectives? Frequent-writer discounts? (Or a surcharge for excess verbiage?) A brave new world, indeed.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by dan buechler on 08/07/2009 - 10:45 am.

    Cringe. At least they have to sign their names to the letter(s) and that can be a big thing in a small town. Small town life can be a bit like graduate school you can know a lot about a little. Also a little about most everything local.

  2. Submitted by jake benson on 08/07/2009 - 02:01 pm.

    The story was first published in 2006. What was lacking, besides a call from a reporter, was the salient point that anyone and everyone can contribute their thoughts until the primary election – free.

    If a subscriber or registered user sends in a letter they get a pass. It’s one of the benefits of being part of the Journal family.

    Newspapers are about community conversation. However, you do not have to be in this business long before you can recognize what is corporate Astroturf and “grass-roots.” We want to ensure that the grass-roots writers can be heard over the din of the spammers.

  3. Submitted by Norma Doty on 08/07/2009 - 02:09 pm.

    Maybe they will charge readers a fee to use good style, grammer and spelling in the articles. I’d pay for that. Then maybe the papers can rehire the people that did this.

  4. Submitted by David Brauer on 08/07/2009 - 03:43 pm.

    But Jake, wouldn’t simply editing the letters solve the astroturf problem, rather than turning letters space into pay-for-play space?

  5. Submitted by dan buechler on 08/07/2009 - 04:01 pm.

    Good clarification on the prepimary letters I was gonna ask about that. To be perfectly honest with you there are times that I wished they charged a small user fee for comments as about 80% of the political arguements break down along party lines. Also I could get back to my real life gardening and home repair.

  6. Submitted by William Pappas on 08/09/2009 - 08:03 am.

    I can’t get away from the feeling that this is more pay to play that disenfranchises the ordinary citizen. The entire political system is a result of obscene lobbying practices that reward those with the resources to pay off legislators. Is this one more attempt to silence and erode one of the troubled pillars of our democracy?

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