Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

When a small town Minnesota newspaper implements a “pay for” letter policy August 11, 2016

SHOULD A NEWSPAPER charge for publishing a letter to the editor?

My Minnesota State University, Mankato, journalism professor Robert Shipman would likely turn over in his grave if he read that question. He impressed upon me that the editorial page is the heart of a newspaper. A staunch supporter of community journalism, he would not advocate paying for letters to the editor. Neither do I.

I have great respect for this newspaper man who nearly 40 years ago taught me the basics of journalism—instilling in me a strong sense of fairness in writing balanced news stories. Opinion, he emphasized, should be reserved for the editorial page.

 

Gaylord Hub election letters policy - Copy

 

This brings me back to charging a fee for letters to the editor. Interestingly enough, my concern is prompted by a notice published in The Gaylord Hub, a third-generation family newspaper where I accepted a reporting job right out of college.

Decades after I left my two-year stint at this small southern Minnesota weekly, I still get The Gaylord Hub. Unlike most community newspapers, The Hub does not have a strong editorial page. Rare are the editorials. However, locals often voice their opinions in letters to the editor. There’s been significant controversy in Gaylord related to school issues.

But now the publisher/editor has established a new policy for election-themed letters. Policies for letters to the editor are the norm at newspapers. Many publications restrict length; monitor for libelous and offensive content and personal attacks, etc.; and don’t publish election-related letters in the final issue before an election. But, in a quick perusal of the internet, checking out several major dailies across the country and several Minnesota daily and weeklies, I found none with a “pay for” publication fee.

The Little Falls based The Morrison County Record, for example, states that “Letter writers are encouraged to stick to the issues and the positions on issues and qualifications of the candidates.” Letters that lean toward advertising aren’t published.

In Gaylord, though, under the new policy, if you want to write a letter supporting or opposing a candidate or a political party, you’ll have to pay for it. Thirty dollars for up to 300 words for a Paid Election Letter.

I get where the newspaper is coming from with this policy. Some people will abuse the system by viewing the editorial page as a free advertising opportunity. But to blanket apply that to all election-focused letters seems a suppression of opinions. The policies established by The Morrison County Record seem more appropriate, more balanced in curbing potential abuse while maintaining freedom of expression.

That said, there was a time when newspapers printed obituaries and engagement, wedding and birth announcements at no cost to readers. No more, at least in most publications. Would my college professor opine that change. He likely would. Robert Shipman was Old School community journalism. He was all about integrity, unbiased reporting, getting facts right and, above all, always always spelling names correctly. He taught me well. He taught me that the opinion page is the heart of a newspaper.

Thoughts?

Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The new letters to the editor policy published in the August 4 edition of The Gaylord Hub.

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14 Responses to “When a small town Minnesota newspaper implements a “pay for” letter policy”

  1. Dan Traun Says:

    In the simplest of terms; If for print I get it – articles take up page space that costs money to produce. In the digital age you can comment away endlessly. I believe in the free exchanges of ideas and opinions, but some days (myself included) people should just zip it and carry on. I think as a society we’ve become too sensitive and easily offended. Knowing how others think and feel is a hidden currency really; paying dividends in identifying the outliers – those completely outside the range of the norm. Not knowing were people stand is more of a hindrance in my mind.

  2. Carol King Says:

    Interesting. As a financial matter for the newspaper, I understand it, since most are hurting these days with lack of paid subscribers and probably drop in paid advertising, too. So much is digital now, but I enjoy reading an actual newspaper. Did they ever publish the reasoning behind this decision? Maybe it’s as simple as “Put your money where your mouth is!”

  3. pkpm519 Says:

    I don’t like the idea…but I also don’t like the constant barrage of letters (and posts on-line) from people who seem to be able to shout for a point of view…regardless of facts pertaining to it. Emily McNeill
    PS. I’ll be so glad when this election is over!

    • When people share opinions anonymously online, that’s when the problems start. Some people hide behind the veil of anonymity and will write anything.

      I’m with you on being glad when the election is over. That said, I fear for our country and wish we had a third option.

  4. I’m sure that the extra income would help the smaller papers. It might be a good way to weed out some of the junk that is put out too

  5. Don Says:

    I am “old school” and consider myself a “classic” and as such I enjoy reading my paper daily with a good cup of coffee! I don’t care for, and get very little news digitally, I am patient and can wait for news to arrive in my newspaper as I feel no need to know everything instantaneously.

    I enjoy my newspapers editorials and letters to the editor and read them daily. As for charging for that, I strongly disagree with that position! Over the years I have learned a lot from my fellow inhabitants while reading their letters, some I agreed with, some I didn’t and some changed my mind. Is this not a form of news reporting too i.e. all sides of a story! After all opinions do affect how are government works be it local, state, or federal.

    My opinion of the letters to the editor is much like the old saying:

    “Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.”

    It is called a……news….paper….for a reason, NEWS, and opinions are news…………………………..

  6. It’s hard to know from just the notice what their thinking is. I wonder if they were having a problem with a few especially prolific letter writers? If so, another option would have been to limit the number of election-related letters a person could submit a week. I kind of get where they are coming from, as political letters endorsing a candidate could be seen as a form of advertising. At least they aren’t charging for letters on other topics. That would be beyond the pale.

    • There are many facets to this issue. The other paper I cited doesn’t print letters that lean toward advertising, which would be the endorsement type letters. Such a policy would cover what I believe The Hub is hoping to accomplish with the “pay for” policy.

  7. I believe that “Letters to the Editor” is in fact a “Forum” where one may express themselves on the topics of the day. However, I do not believe that the newspaper is under any obligation to print any or all of them and therefore the publication of political opinions, which seem to be at the root of this dilemma, is solely at the discretion of the “editor”. If it is becoming an issue, of volume or of contention, then merely limit the amount of space made available to any one viewpoint, as long as an equal opportunity is afforded to each side of an issue. The Letters to the Editor feature should always be a free voice for the community it serves. I assume that the newspaper itself is not free and a charge for publishing and circulating has been paid for by the consumer and advertisers and therefore an additional charge for publishing anything of interest to its readers is akin to “Double Dipping”..


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