Newsroom strategies

Tread carefully when requiring down payment for democracy

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My hometown newspaper instituted a new policy requiring that readers "pay" for the First Amendment right to express, and explain why, who or what they support or oppose at the voting booth.

The newspaper is sadly is not the first and won't be the last to begin charging readers for election endorsement letters. As a former editor, I appreciate the arguments presented for enacting the policy. It's still disappointing, and I respectfully disagree.

To be certain, orchestrated letter-writing campaigns are part and parcel to every candidate's election strategy. I distinctly remember, during my tenure as editor, the newspaper's strong editorial campaign to unseat a slate of incumbents in a city council election. It prompted a flurry of letters. One memorable letter came from a candidate's daughter. She likely was assisted in crafting the letter. We published it in the interest of fair play.

Before implementing a blanket policy of charging for "endorsement" letters in election campaigns, consider other circumstances – issues facing a "public vote" by an elected body:

  • A school board decides whether to close an elementary school building, or eliminate an academic or extracurricular offering.
  • A city council faces any number of votes on issues at the center of community conversation. Should the city establish a skateboard park? Should a big-box developer receive tax incentives? Who should be appointed to fill a vacancy on the City Council or Port Authority?
  • A county board weighs in on a contentious feedlot ordinance.

Supporters and opponents line up on all of these issues. In many cases, organized campaigns lobby the elected officials, often incorporating a stream of letters to the editor. Should these "endorsement letters" also be allowed only on a "pay for play" basis? 

Letters indeed carry repetitive themes during election season. It's a time when editors and the public will become reacquainted with the Boy Scout Law. As an Eagle Scout myself, I still can recite the credo: "A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent."

I exaggerate a bit. But show me a candidate for elective office, and I'll produce letters from supporters that extol values befitting of an upstanding scout.

On the other hand, the election season also generates some thought-provoking letters that generate worthwhile and beneficial dialogue.

So how can newspapers handle the churn of letters that may be less substantive but still show the endorsement of an individual, a voter? It's easy to criticize a new policy. It's more challenging to offer solutions.

Here are some ideas:

  • Limit the number of endorsement letters written by one individual.
  • Edit letters liberally, especially as election day nears. For starters, it's a good bet that the introductory and concluding paragraphs can be eliminated from many letters.
  • To save space, group letters by candidate or issue and run them all under a banner headline.
  • Reserve space in the print edition for the more substantive letters. Publish the others, especially those that simply repeat themes, on your website where space is unlimited.

I believe that community newspapers can still play a vital role in today's fractured media landscape. Community newspapers, at their best, are stewards of their communities. The news columns are a blend of stories that people like to read and stories they should read. The advertising columns promote and grow local commerce. The editorial pages are a marketplace of ideas.

Letters are the lifeblood of a vibrant editorial page, especially during election season. Our democracy is invigorated by debating the strengths and weaknesses of candidates seeking elective office – the very individuals who will enact the myriad local, state and national laws that govern our everyday lives. Do we really want to limit this debate to "paid opinions" only?

Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of "Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage," "Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage" and "Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers." He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at jim@pumarlo.com

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