'Seattle Times' Under Fire For Free Political Ads

Staffers at The Seattle Times are protesting the newspaper's decision to run free political ads for Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna and for the state's referendum that would legalize same-sex marriage. The company says the ads are part of a pilot project to prove that political advertising in newspapers can work. But journalists at the paper say giving away the space diminishes their journalistic integrity.

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The Seattle Times is running political ads this campaign season, but they're not being paid for by the candidates or the causes they're advocating. The Times is basically giving away free ad space, and that's raising concerns among readers, as well as the paper's own journalists. Sara Lerner of member station KUOW reports.

SARA LERNER, BYLINE: The ads are in support of one Washington state gubernatorial candidate, Republican Rob McKenna, and a state referendum that would legalize same-sex marriage. Seattle Times spokesperson Jill Mackie says the paper is running the ads to prove a point: That political advertising in newspapers can make a difference, at a time when the bulk of campaign money goes to broadcast television.

JILL MACKIE: This is a sector of advertisers that we are not a part of, and so this is really a pilot project to determine whether or not we can gain a piece of the spending in political advertising to support journalism.

LERNER: The paper is giving up about $150,000 total worth of ad space for both ad campaigns. That's money The Seattle Times had to report as actual campaign contributions. The day after the first political ad ran, 100 of the paper's journalists sent the publisher a letter of protest. None of them would speak on tape, but here's a portion of the letter, read by an actor.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We strive to remain independent from the institutions we cover. We shine a light on the process from the outside. We are not part of the process. This ad campaign threatens to compromise that integrity.

LERNER: The reporters went on to say these ads threaten their independence and credibility.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We are now part of a campaign's machinery, creating a perception that we are not an independent watchdog.

LERNER: In fact, The Seattle Times recently published a story which fact-checks some of the claims made in the political ads: ads in its own paper. And the reporters find mistakes. Roy Peter Clark is an ethicist with the media organization the Poynter Institute. He shares some of the concerns expressed by The Times' staff in its protest letter.

ROY PETER CLARK: You have to pay special attention to the most vulnerable stakeholders. It's not the readers or the business side or the newspaper in general. It's not the politicians who, I think, are the most vulnerable here. It's the rank-and-file reporter and editor who has the burden of trying to cover these issues and these candidates impartially.

LERNER: Clark says print newspapers do need to find creative ways to make money, and that's perfectly evident here in Seattle, where news consumers are still feeling the sting from the loss of the Post-Intelligencer newspaper three years ago. It ended its print edition and dramatically downsized. But Clark says this isn't the way to generate revenue. Many Seattle Times readers are also upset about the political ads. Retired county judge Michael Fox has read the paper for decades.

MICHAEL FOX: The lines have already been blurred.

LERNER: In his mind, this goes well beyond the paper taking a stance in its opinion section.

FOX: The editorial page is labeled as the editorial page, and editorials are different than advertisements. Editorials are saying that this is our position. We backed this ballot initiative for these reasons.

LERNER: And Fox appreciates the editorial page's role in helping readers choose county judges. The ads, he says, go too far. But Seattle Times spokesperson Jill Mackie says readers can figure out the difference.

MACKIE: The ads are clearly marked as ads, and readers have been seeing ads on the pages of Seattle Times since time began. I think readers are smart enough to distinguish between an advertisement clearly marked as an ad and the reporting of journalists that they have known and trusted and read for many years. There's no interface between the two whatsoever.

LERNER: Seattle Times management says both ad campaigns are scheduled to run through Election Day. For NPR News, I'm Sara Lerner in Seattle.

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