For decades, the opinion pages of the Duluth News Tribune have been a free political megaphone.
Anybody with strong opinions about a candidate could have their letter under the noses of every reader in the paper’s 26,000 square-mile circulation. That all changed this year.
In May, opinions page editor Chuck Frederick announced to his readers that from now on, anyone who wanted to submit a political endorsement for publication would have to pay for it. The price is $15 for the first 125 words or so, and $10 for each additional 25 words.
The Tribune is far from alone. Frederick’s newsroom was pretty much the last hold-out in Forum Communications’ armada of newspapers -- among them the Grand Forks Herald, the Hastings Star Gazette, and the Red Wing Republican Eagle.
Frederick’s not going to lie: He was dragging his feet on this one.
“The initial blush is that everyone deserves to have their opinion in the paper,” he says. And for the most part, everyone still can. Letters about recent articles or goings-on about town are still totally free. But this policy pretty much ensures that anyone with strong feelings about a political candidate has to have $15 to $25 lying around, too.
The problem the Tribune and countless other community papers face is that concerned citizens aren’t the only people using their opinion pages to express themselves. Around election time, Frederick and his fellow opinion editors get showered in generic campaign letters. Many of them are signed by residents, but look, to put it kindly, strangely similar.
“They’re the same exact letters,” Echo Press opinion page editor Al Edenloff says. Campaigns mass-produce them and have supporters send them in, sometimes, he says, with a monetary incentive. It basically amounts to taking out an ad without paying the newspaper for one.
Edenloff’s paper has been running paid political endorsements since the ‘80s. Decades ago, somewhere in the crush of generic campaign letters, the Press’ staff came to a tipping point: they couldn’t run them all. They had three options: choose letters at random, try to pick and choose the best ones while still being as fair as possible, and the option they eventually chose-- a price tag.
“We realize it’s not a perfect policy,” he says. “There could be people out there who might have a hard time scraping together $20 for a letter.” But he prefers that outcome to not being able to publish the letter at all.
The Press was an early adaptor of this policy, but now, Edenloff says they sometimes get calls from other papers asking for pointers.
“More and more papers are doing this now,” he says.
In a way, it makes perfect sense. But once you zoom out, it’s kind of a self-defeating policy. Sure, you can use money to rein in political letter-writing machines, but that will also ensure that those are the only endorsement letters you’ll ever receive. Either way, the readers lose.
And the readers are taking notice. A Tribune reader named Richard Hudelson wrote these words in response to the policy change:
“For reasons that are not clear to me, the new policy would substitute for the democratic principle of equal say the commercial principle of say proportional to pay.”