The importance of a daily newspaper’s role in local politics is undeniable. Ideally, it reports the issues impartially, then makes informed endorsements on its editorial page. Media companies should also be upstanding members of their communities and lend their resources to good causes. But what happens when these roles and responsibilities come into conflict? What happens when a donation to a cause, paired with a strong editorial position, blurs an important line between the business office and the editorial page? Those questions are at the center of this issue’s DART.

Last November, voters in Portland, Maine, amended the city charter to establish a popularly elected mayor. Previously, the nine-member city council had authority over policy and budget decisions, and chose a largely ceremonial, part-time mayor each year. Advocates of the change said it would bring stronger leadership and increased accountability. Opponents said the existing structure worked best and saved money.

There’s no doubt that readers of the largest newspaper in Maine, the Portland Press Herald, knew which side the paper took. “Portland voters should say ‘yes’ to providing leadership that the city has lacked,” read an unsigned October 18 editorial.

If the paper’s support did not surprise, something else might have: a series of full-page ads that appeared in the Press Herald every day for a week before the election. Small-type disclosures at the bottom of some ads indicated they were paid for by the PAC backing the amendment; others gave the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce credit.

In fact, though, no one had paid for the ads; they were a gift from the newspaper to the Chamber. That was revealed on December 14, when, in accordance with Maine campaign finance law, the PAC, “Elect our Mayor, YES on 1!,” filed a report listing the cash and in-kind contributions it had received. One entry: a donation from the Chamber of $46,507.74 worth of ads in the Press Herald. “Note: The Portland Press Herald did not charge the Portland Regional Chamber for the ad space,” the committee’s treasurer wrote.

The vote on November 2 was close: about 13,000 voting yes on the referendum, about 12,000 voting no. City council member Cheryl Leeman, who opposed the referendum, believes the paper knowingly donated the space to back the measure, and that the ads tipped the balance of the vote.

“Never, ever on a local issue, where you have a local newspaper that editorializes on an issue, have you seen them back it financially,” she said. “It’s a credibility and an integrity issue, for both the Chamber and the paper.”

Randy Billings of The Forecaster, another Maine paper, was among the first to write about this story.* He interviewed Godfrey Wood, the Chamber’s CEO, who told him there was an existing agreement with the paper for a free weekly quarter-page advertisement. “Wood said the chamber requested additional advertising space to promote the elected mayor position and the paper agreed,” Billings wrote.

Wood declined to comment further to CJR. In a letter to the Maine Ethics Commission, which investigated whether the Press Herald’s donation violated campaign finance law, Wood reiterated that Richard L. Connor, the paper’s publisher, editor, and part owner, knew the purpose of the additional ad space.

Connor asked executive editor Scott Wasser to speak for his paper. Wasser told CJR that he considered complaints from the losing side to be “sour grapes.” Despite the dramatic increase in—and timing of—the free ads, Wasser insists the paper gave the space to the Chamber with the assumption that they would use it to promote the local economy.

“We give away a ton of ad space to all kinds of civic and public organizations and nonprofits,” Wasser said. “We don’t ask them what they’re going to do with it, and we don’t tell them what to do with it.”

Wasser said management was discussing a requirement that, in the future, donated ad space not be used for political purposes. But he does not think the Press Herald did anything wrong. “We donate space in print newspapers, which is protected by freedom of speech,” he said. “If there was any wrongdoing, it was by the Chamber, who used the space inappropriately.”

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