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Korrie Wenzel: Change in policy for political letters

An email sent to this office some time ago touted one campaign or another. Naturally, it asked for contributions and volunteers. At the end, there was a form that asked if readers would consider participating in a drive to write letters to the ed...

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An email sent to this office some time ago touted one campaign or another. Naturally, it asked for contributions and volunteers. At the end, there was a form that asked if readers would consider participating in a drive to write letters to the editor.

Over time, it also has been obvious that letter-writing campaigns to endorse candidates and causes have been organized, and not necessarily originating at the grassroots like they want us to believe. The clues are in the wording, since many letters echo the same message and style.

Even if it's not a form letter written by a campaign and then signed by a local reader - which actually happens - it's obvious some campaigns believe letters are a great workaround to actually having to pay for high-impact advertising.

And as the 2018 election looms, it appears this will be one of the busiest, most contentious election seasons in state history. Newspapers literally will be inundated with political letters.

With that in mind, the Herald and other North Dakota newspapers owned by Forum Communications Co. will begin charging for letters to the editor that endorse politicians, campaigns, political parties and measures. Starting April 1 - and this is no April Fool's joke - political letters will cost $25 for the first seven inches, which equates to approximately 250 words, and $10 per inch thereafter.

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We know the knee-jerk reaction of many will be that we're simply trying to make another buck off of our readers. As newspapers adapt to contemporary realities, some will assume it's a desperate attempt to keep the lights on a bit longer.

It's just not true. Newspapers, and the Herald, still have great reach and campaigns know it. Whereas circulation numbers are down here and nationwide, the Herald still has approximately 19,000 subscribers several days per week, and more than 20,000 on Sundays. Campaign managers also know newspaper readers vote.

Meanwhile, we traditionally have provided free space for campaigns that no other advertising medium would consider.

Ever see a free 300-word endorsement on a billboard? Or on TV? Or in a high-gloss piece mailed to your home?

Go ahead - send a letter to one of those places and see what happens.

Yet our industry has allowed this practice for years and at our own great expense, even as we have known all along that in some cases, letters may have been ghost-written or formed from talking points provided by campaigns.

It costs us money not just because it creates an environment in which wealthy campaigns can sidestep our advertising options, but also in newsprint costs, which have gone up 26 percent since 2016. It also costs us in staff time, and we just don't have as many people working here as we used to.

We're making concessions, too. This year, the Herald greatly dropped its political advertising rates, and Forum Communications Co. newspapers in the state followed suit. In turn, that effort led numerous other North Dakota newspapers to do the same.

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We traditionally had high rates because, frankly, campaigns in the past didn't have many other places to turn. Of course, those days are gone. Now, after we decreased advertising prices, politicians no longer pay exorbitant rates to reach our valuable audience.

The newspaper industry was built on the premise that readership - and therefore revenue and life-giving profit - would be achieved by publishing nearly anything and everything that could entice a wide audience. That included not just news, sports and opinions, but also obituaries, announcements and letters to the editor. We could do that because reliable dollars were flowing in from high subscriber numbers and large - often national - advertisers.

That business model no longer completely supports the industry, and it's making all newspapers reconsider what, exactly, we should be giving away for free. The bright side is that $25 isn't a bad price for a seven-inch endorsement letter. Comparing it on the scale of our advertising rates, it's the lowest we have. That shows we don't expect this to be windfall; it's simply to thwart a practice we know exists and one that takes advantage of our traditional policies.

Meanwhile, we're not the first newspaper or company to do this.

This change will keep us from being flooded with letters that essentially repeat the same message and crowd out other letters and news of importance. On the days we have numerous paid endorsement letters, it conceivably could allow us to increase our page count and thereby provide more general news to our readers.

And it probably should have happened some time ago.

Korrie Wenzel has been publisher of the Herald since 2014.

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