[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.