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

Press Publications, which owns 18 newspapers in Minnesota and Wisconsin, is now charging $25 to publish letters that endorse or oppose a candidate or ballot measure — a policy that has become increasingly common. 

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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.