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October 17, 2012 at 11:58 AM

Seattle Times Co. launches ad campaigns for McKenna and gay marriage, draws criticism

Post updated at 1:20 p.m. with comments from journalism and political experts.

The Seattle Times Co. jumped directly into two of the state’s hottest political contests Wednesday, launching an $80,000 independent-expenditure campaign promoting Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna and announcing a similar effort in support of the referendum to legalize gay marriage.

The company’s move — which drew quick criticism from some journalism and political experts — began with a full-page newspaper ad in support of McKenna’s campaign for governor. The ad, on page B6 of Wednesday’s editions of The Seattle Times, touts McKenna as “an easy way to end the gridlock that threatens to cripple state government,” and promotes the two-term attorney general’s talking points on funding education and creation of private sector jobs.

The decision to run the ad was made by the corporate side of the newspaper and was “completely separate from the journalism functions of the newspaper,” said Alan Fisco, executive vice president, revenue and new products, for The Seattle Times.

The company intends to run a similar campaign in support of Referendum 74, to legalize same-sex marriage, Fisco said in a news release.

Fisco described both efforts as a Seattle Times pilot project to show the power of newspaper political advertising and to attract new revenue for the newspaper. “We decided to try to tap into this important source of advertising revenue by demonstrating how effective advertising with The Times can be,” he said.

Fisco added that the company will analyze the effectiveness of the ad campaigns and present the results to political consultants and campaigns to convince them to advertise more in the newspaper.

“The News Department was not part of the discussion or the decision to do this,” Seattle Times Executive Editor David Boardman said in an email.

But the ad campaign was criticized by some journalism and political experts who said it threatened to damage the credibility of the newspaper’s reporting.

“It’s not the newspaper’s problem, it’s not the publisher’s problem, it’s not even the readers’ problem, it’s the problem of the reporters who are covering these issues and these candidates,” said Roy Peter Clark, vice-president and senior scholar with the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in Florida. “Their credibility is at stake.”

“Regular people have trouble believing there is a wall between the editorial side of news, and the reporting side.  This would seem to make that even more difficult.  However the Times rationalizes this, they are using the resources of the paper to promote a candidate and cause preferred by the editorial side (and, it would seem, ownership).  Fair or not to you folks on the reporting side, my sense is the public perception of the Times’ credibility and objectivity takes a big hit here,” said Todd Donovan, political science professor at Western Washington University.

Donovan said The Times characterizing the campaigns as a business decision “strains credibility… It’s a big money contribution by the Times to a candidate, and a big money (in kind) contribution to a ballot measure campaign,” he said in an email.

The Seattle Times editorial board has endorsed both McKenna and R-74, but the ad campaign takes that support to another level.

The contributions in support of the campaigns will amount to between $75,000 and $80,000 each and will be reported to the state, said Jill Mackie, a Times spokeswoman.

The McKenna ad costs will have to be reported as an independent expenditure within 24 hours to the Public Disclosure Commission, said Lori Anderson, a commission spokeswoman. The pro-gay-marriage ads will be reported later as an in-kind contribution to the Washington United for Marriage campaign.

This isn’t the first time the Seattle Times Co. has become directly involved in political campaigns. For example, during the 1990s, the company opposed Initiative 200, which ended affirmative action programs in the state. But it may be the first time, at least in recent memory, that the company has sponsored ads in support of a candidate in a statewide partisan political race.

Seattle Times Olympia reporter Andrew Garber contributed to this report.

Comments | More in Governor, homepage, Politics Northwest | Topics: 2012 gubernatorial race, political advertising, referendum 74


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