Paid endorsement letters

Paid endorsements: treat carefully when requiring down payment for democracy

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?


safer newsrooms

Community newspaper newsrooms are accessible because they represent relationship journalism

Adapted from remarks at “Journalists in the Hot Seat: Staying safe in a hostile political climate,” a panel discussion at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications convention in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 9. (The discussion was telecast on C-SPAN and is available at

Most of us who have worked in rural newsrooms probably gave little thought to safety until the recent mass shooting at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, where a man upset with the newspaper’s coverage of his court case walked into the newsroom and shot five people to death.

I once worked in newsrooms much like the Capital Gazette’s, where anyone coming in the door could spot you. In Monticello, Kentucky, where I was running the second paper in a one-paper town, my desk was right next to the front door; I was a 21-year-old from the next town, Albany, and I wanted to meet as many people as I could.

In community journalism, you’ve got to be part of the community or you won’t succeed. Community journalism is relationship journalism; you have a closer and more continuing relationship with your subjects, your sources and your audience. So being accessible is not just a good idea; it’s mandatory.

In Russellville, Kentucky, where I worked for the great weekly publisher Al Smith, he liked to tell how a farmer walked into his office to complain about his editorials for school consolidation, which would raise property taxes. As the farmer talked to him, Al turned to his typewriter and pecked out what the man was saying. He whipped the paper out, handed it to him and said, “You just wrote a letter to the editor. Read it, sign it and we’ll put it in the paper.” He did.

My friend Jock Lauterer at the University of North Carolina, who has also run community papers, did a study that confirmed what he suspected – the smaller the newspaper, the more accessible its staff was to the public. The good thing about being accessible is that it makes you more accountable. And when you’re more accountable, that tends to make you more accurate. Jock calls those the Three As of community journalism. It’s one of the many community-journalism principles that work in all kinds of journalism; you’ve got to be engaged with your audience, for journalistic reasons and, increasingly, for business reasons.

The Capital Gazette shooting, in a town of 40,000, shows how vulnerable journalists can be – not just in newsrooms in small towns, but on the street in big towns. Journalists and their news outlets deal with just about everything and every walk of life, and that makes them targets for people like the Capital Gazette shooter.

In the wake of the shooting, one of the largest owners of community papers, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., asked their papers to have local law enforcement come in and give a training seminar for employees on what to do in such a situation. One police officer told one newsroom in Kentucky, “You’ve got to have it ingrained in your head what’s best for you at all times. Know your doors and exits. You have to know when to run, hide and fight.”

The American Society of News Editors and the Associated Press Managing Editors has a list of best newsroom safety practices, from planning to prevention to response to the aftermath. To download it, go to

There are some basics, like situational awareness. If you’re going to an unfamiliar place, take someone with you or have someone meet you there. Or make a friend as soon as you can. My students and I cover a very nice and calm town of 1,800 people, Midway, Kentucky, and my policy is that I always accompany every student on his or her first visit to Midway. I want to introduce them around, and I want them to feel comfortable – and start introducing themselves.

Journalism educators should reassure students about the work of journalism. Take a lesson from Leonard Pitts, the Miami Herald columnist who accepted an award from AEJMC’s Critical and Cultural Studies Division. He wore his L.A. Lakers hat and talked about how the Lakers and the news media are hated, and then made his point: “Nobody hates you unless you’re having an impact.”

He reminded us what journalists do: “You upset the status quo, you cause things to change . . . Maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world if you’re in the business of news.” Later, he said, “Our mission statement requires us to find the truth and tell it. But we operate in a nation where increasingly, lies not just tolerated, but embraced. And ask yourself, why shouldn’t such people hate us? If lies are your meat, if lies are your business, then people whose business is truth are by definition your natural enemies.”

And what do we tell them about President Trump? That he’s a politician running a daily campaign to win the news cycle, and he thinks he has to keep saying “fake news.” And we need to say anyone who uses that term as a habit is saying the news is fake, and that is a falsehood. Then we also need to remind them that these circumstances make it all the more important that what we report is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.