Newspaper political endorsements are made by the editorial board, not anyone in the newsroom, in order to maintain the integrity of the reporting process. But what happens to newspaper credibility if the company itself takes out an ad for a candidate or initiative?
It happened Wednesday, and only in the printed version of The Seattle Times. But the controversy and conversation have played out on Facebook, Twitter and blogs — both mainstream media and organizational.
“It” was an unprecedented act.
The Seattle Times Co. placed a full-page ad on page B6 asking voters to support Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna. It’s an independent expenditure (meaning not coordinated with the campaign) valued at almost $80,000.
And the ad donation makes the Seattle Times the third largest independent contributor to the McKenna campaign, after Our Washington and Stand for the Children WA PAC.
In defending its actions, the company set up a new Twitter account, @SeattleTimesCo:
We hear the concern out there & really appreciate what you have to say. More information on the rationale seattletimescompany.com/communication/…
— Seattle Times Co. (@SeattleTimesCo) October 18, 2012
There has been exactly one tweet, and no response to the three readers who replied.
The ad, according to the public statement, was designed to prove to political campaigns that newspaper ads are just as effective as local TV ads. So the company decided to offer support to two campaigns: Yes on Marriage Equality (Referendum 74) and Rod McKenna for governor.
These campaigns were chosen in part because they are consistent with Seattle Times’ editorial positions, as well as the fact that these two campaigns cover a range of political and social perspectives. Being for marriage equality and for McKenna for Governor provides some balance given the constituencies of these two statewide elections.
Neither the newsroom nor editorial board was consulted.
Company spokesmen emphasized that the decision to run the ad was made from the corporate (business) side of the house. It was “completely separate from the journalism functions of the newspaper,” according to Alan Fisco, Seattle Times executive vice president, revenue and new products.
Seattle Times Executive Editor David Boardman echoed that explanation: “The News Department was not part of the discussion or the decision to do this.”
In the Sunday paper, Boardman vowed to “continue impartial reporting” and elaborated on the decision:
Independence is a core value of The Seattle Times, a concept driven home to me since I began here as a cub journalist 29 years ago. Although we know that business excellence is an essential symbiotic partner of journalistic excellence — it costs money to operate a large newsroom of trained professionals, and it takes quality journalism to have a successful news-media company — the line between our advertising and journalism functions is bright and inviolate.
So is the line between the editorial-page staff who issue candidate endorsements and the news reporters and editors who cover campaigns.
More than 100 reporters have objected because the ad threatens the perception of an independent newsroom.
The publication of the first ad came one day after The Seattle Times showed its commitment to old-fashioned independent journalism by sponsoring a debate between the two candidates, moderated by one of our political reporters. During that debate, both candidates pointed to stories or editorials written by our staff to support their points. To the candidates and the viewing public, we weren’t part of one campaign or another. We were the arbiters, a trusted, third-party source of information. That is core to our identity.
Tweets like this one from the state Democratic party reflect that concern:
— washdems (@washdems) October 19, 2012
Other media outlets have weighed in. From the Sky Valley Chronicle:
In the news business, staying out of partisan politics in terms of supporting any candidate or issue has long been considered a sacred “firewall” that should never be breached.
The fact that this move was undertaken by a heritage, well known Pulitzer prize winning newspaper makes it all the more stunning.
Finally, in the Sunday Spokesman Review, political reporter Jim Camden called the Seattle Times ad the week’s “biggest news in the state’s political campaigns.” He continued:
[The Seattle Times campaign] seems bad on a couple levels. First, newspapers are struggling through declining staffs and shrinking news holes, so tossing around more than $150,000 is not chump change.
The other is, McKenna currently is behind in the polls. If he doesn’t win, what, if anything, does that say about the effectiveness of campaign ads in the Times?
Referendum 74 is an even bigger gamble. It’s slightly ahead in the polls, and if it wins there’s no way to measure the impact of the ads. If it goes down, the supporters of same-sex marriage are going to look for someone to blame. They might draw a bull’s-eye on the Times.
[updated 4:50 pm; addition of David Boardman’s column in the October 21 issue of the newspaper]