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Pay to sway: more Minnesota newspapers charging to publish political endorsement letters

As they prepare to vote in November on a $326 million bond referendum in the White Bear School District, supporters and opponents of the measure learned of a new Letters to the Editor policy in their local weekly newspaper.

An excerpt of Press Publisher Carter Johnson's editorial
MinnPost photo by Joe Kimball
An excerpt of Press Publisher Carter Johnson's editorial
Call it: “Pay to sway.”

Press Publications, which includes the White Bear Press, is now charging $25 to publish letters that endorse or oppose a candidate or ballot measure.

Press Publisher Carter Johnson said in an editorial: “Over the years, the opinion pages in our newspapers have been abused and, quite frankly, it’s our fault. We have allowed what are really advertisements in our opinion pages.”

All the Johnson’s family-owned group of 18 newspapers in Minnesota and western Wisconsin have adopted the paid endorsements policy.

The kicker came last election cycle, when two identical letters, signed by different people, were published side by side in one of the Press publications, said Matt McMillion, CEO of the Johnson newspapers. “We should have been able to catch it,” he said. But they didn’t.

He said the new policy in White Bear wasn’t geared toward the upcoming school referendum, which, if passed, will be the most expensive ever in Minnesota. “The abuse has been picking up steam, and we wanted to get ahead of it by announcing before the 2020 elections,” he said.

Other papers charge, too

The pay policy isn’t unique. The Proctor (Minn.) Journal has been charging for endorsement letters for 15 years, said Publisher Jake Benson. “We were getting all these letters endorsing candidates, very similar, with only the names changed. We had to do something. It was the equivalent of today’s spam.” 

And a year ago, the Duluth News Tribune adopted a similar policy, as have other  Forum Communications papers, the North Dakota-based chain that includes about 30 dailies and weeklies in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The Alexandria Echo Press, part of the Forum group, started a paid letter policy decades ago, said News Editor Al Edenloff. “Our policy kicks in after the filing period in an election year, or two months before a referendum vote. It’s 10 cents per word, 200 words or less. Pay in advance,” Edenloff said.

“We just got too many letters, and it was impossible to put all of them in the paper. We had to decide: put them all in a barrel and draw at random? Or try to pick and choose which letters were better? Our publisher at the time decided it was best to have a modest charge.”

The Proctor paper charges $5 an inch for endorsement letters, although paid subscribers “can send a couple free ones — one of the benefits of being a subscriber, Benson said.

‘I see the logic’

In Duluth, the paid letters are bundled together on Sundays, and printed on a page separate from the Opinion pages, said Chuck Frederick, the News Tribune’s editorial page editor.

“As a long-time journalist, I was reluctant to make the change; asking them to pay seemed wrong,” Frederick said. “But I see the logic. We used to get dozens and dozens — many of them we suspected were mass-produced — designed as a way to skirt buying advertising and dominating the opinion page with one name.”

Edenloff, Benson and McMillan also noted that political campaigns often urge supporters to send mass-produced letters to local papers. 

“It’s a concocted message from slick political campaigns, amounting to an ad, and they expected our papers to run it,” Edenloff said.

Benson said: “At campaign workshops, they tell people to write these letters to the newspaper; it’s one of the tricks of the trade.”

“It’s part of Campaign Management 101,” McMillan said. “They orchestrate waves of letters, identical or nearly identical. Last cycle we saw it picking up, and wanted to get in front of it.”

One place it’s not happening is at the state’s largest newspaper, the Star Tribune. “We’ve never discussed that approach,” said Scott Gillespie, the editorial page editor. “We publish letters from campaigns if we think they have something important or interesting to say, or if they are writing to counter something we’ve previously published and we believe they deserve to make their argument in response.”

Still early in White Bear Lake

In Proctor, Benson said readers have become used to the policy. “They call and ask about it, and sometimes, they’re passionate enough about a candidate to send a letter and a check. But it’s not like we get a lot.”

“I have found it interesting that people might be a little disappointed that we charge for the letters, but they all want a healthy local newspaper, and if that means charging for letters to the editor, they understand.”

Edenloff in Alexandria said their policy has been in place so long that everyone understands. “There are no complaints or calls about it,” he said.

In White Bear, McMillan said there’s been some positive responses and some questions. It’s still early in the process, he said.

But on Wednesday, just one week after its announcement, the White Bear Press published a letter about the new policy: “I fear that a policy like this will all but guarantee that the only letters the Press receives will be ones written by campaigns … [which are] far more likely to pony up the fee than a citizen wanting to express support for a candidate,” wrote Salena Koster, a local attorney and DFL activist.

“I value our Press and want to see it survive and thrive. However, I do not believe that this policy is well-targeted…. Surely there is a way to address repetitive letters without charging citizens for their opinions.”

Koster confirmed that she did not have to pay for the letter.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Barbara Skoglund on 09/12/2019 - 11:40 am.

    What? We don’t live in a pure democracy? Money can buy candidates and votes?

  2. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 09/12/2019 - 12:07 pm.

    Putting these paid comments in their own “Paid Political Comments” section is one thing, mixing paid comments and unpaid reader submissions right next to one another without identification of paid vs.unpaid is “fake news”.

    Does a letter supporting an idea that is embodied by a ballot proposition or candidate require payment? Let’s say we have a referendum on sulfide mining statewide. Does every tangential comment get judged as pro or con and require a payment?

    If 100 letters are submitted and the unpaid ones are published on their merits and the ones that come with a check attached get in automatically why even read their opinion page?

  3. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 09/12/2019 - 12:51 pm.

    One of the purposes of a public paper is to provide public discourse. Pay to play silences those who cannot afford it. It sounds more like a money-grab than some idealistic referendum. With all the cuts newspapers are doing, one would think articles written for free would be enough for them.

    In the end, it hurts the public, especially at the local level.

  4. Submitted by Tom West on 09/12/2019 - 02:15 pm.

    As a retired newspaper publisher in this state, I acknowledge my friends’ concerns regarding the origins of some letters to the editor. However, the paramount concern. in my view, is how do we draw readership or how do we keep readers engaged? At my last paper, the Morrison County Record in Little Falls, we put rules in place. We limited each side to three 200-word letters each week, pro-candidate or anti-opponent, in a given race. Particularly in small communities, if people are willing to put their names on a political letter, that in itself carries some weight. It also shows the public — and particularly advertisers — that their newspaper is still relevant, even as other media preach only doom and gloom about print.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 09/13/2019 - 10:01 am.

      A perfect idea from Tom West:

      If they print 3 identical 200 word endorsements, one after another, on the same page and these campaigns will soon be more hesitant to say: “here’s our words, just put your name at the bottom”. Especially if the competition has 3 original arguments why their person is best.

    • Submitted by Susan Maricle on 09/13/2019 - 12:09 pm.

      Love this idea, and the idea of public newspapers allowing public discourse. I have felt that letters to the editor are the best way to reach undecided voters or disenchanted voters. On social media, everyone is in their respective echo chamber.

  5. Submitted by Joe Musich on 09/14/2019 - 10:33 pm.

    Well pay to print. Sounds like an Amazon project. He he. So newspapers print political ads from various political organizations and interest groups. They make a lot of money doing it also. So why not monetize the opinion section. Some editors already seem to pick and choose who and what to print under the guise of letters from the readers when in fact the editors make that choice and thereby exercising their own or the owners influence. To charge however puts the “reader” who writes in a for hire position, as in an interest group sees someone has skills so let’s pay then to advocate. The best solution is an outside committee or group making choices regarding what letters get printed to make the entire process above suspicion. After all it is the owners paper and that person gets to hire who makes the choice for printing paid or otherwise.

  6. Submitted by Joe Musich on 09/15/2019 - 08:39 pm.

    Here is something that popped in today fitting the writers musing quite nicely…..”…..Newspapers are a public service. Why don’t we fund them like that ?”…

  7. Submitted by Joe Musich on 09/15/2019 - 08:40 pm.

    Opps for the link….

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