Greg Kesich, who backed the referendum as one of the paper’s editorial writers and in his signed column, said that he was unaware of the ad donation until it became a matter of public controversy. While companies have a right to use their resources in public affairs, he said, “what’s unusual is that this is a news organization, and this seems to be a break with the practice that I’m used to.” He paused. “And I think there are good reasons for the traditional practice.”

Tom Bell, a political reporter at the Press Herald who leads the paper’s union, thinks management donated the space to win favor with the local business community, not because it felt strongly about the vote.

“Nevertheless, I think it’s easy to forget that the Chamber is a political organization,” he said. And a political organization that receives free ads necessarily has an enormous advantage over those that don’t. More importantly, he worries the paper’s lack of disclosure about the donation may challenge readers’ faith in the newsroom’s impartiality.

“This makes our jobs, as journalists, harder,” said Bell. “We understand that our credibility is our bread and butter, so we’re very protective of it.”

*[Update: The print version of this column stated that Randy Billings of The Forecaster broke the story first; in fact, Al Diamon of DownEast.com and Jeff Inglis of The Portland Phoenix both wrote about it several days earlier on their respective blogs. This section has been corrected to reflect that.]

 

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner