Seattle Times staffers protest free political ads in letter to publisher

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Journalists at the Seattle Times sent a letter to publisher Frank Blethen Thursday protesting the company's decision to run free political ads supporting a Republican candidate for governor and a referendum on gay marriage. More than 100 people in the newsroom signed, Jim Brunner reports.

"By sponsoring an ad for one gubernatorial candidate, The Seattle Times -- the entire company -- has become one of the top contributors in support of that candidate's campaign," the letter reads. "We are now part of a campaign's machinery, creating a perception that we are not an independent watchdog." The letter continues:

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.

Company spokesperson Jill Mackie described the initiative to Associated Press reporter Manuel Valdes as an experiment in attracting political advertising in future elections:

"When one is financially responsible for paying for the journalism we produce every day, one has to give serious thought to all legitimate ideas," Mackie said Thursday.

The company says this "proof of concept for the effectiveness of a print newspaper campaign" will demonstrate the power of an ad to deliver a message to voters.

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.

In a form filed with Washington's Public Disclosure Commission, the Seattle Times Company estimates the ad for Rob McKenna is worth $75,750, Brunner and Andrew Garber report. The ad is estimated to run from Oct. 17-Nov. 6. They quote Poynter's Roy Peter Clark:

"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."

An unnamed source in the Times newsroom agrees, telling Stranger reporter Eli Sanders the ads "will not make our reporting any easier." Times Executive Editor David Boardman, a member of Poynter's National Advisory Board, tells Sanders in an email: "All I’ll say for publication is that I was not informed about this initiative until after the decision to do it had been made."

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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