CHARLESTON, SC — Conservative politicians tend to have a lot of complaints about the “mainstream liberal media.” But just before Thanksgiving, Tim Moffitt, a Republican state representative from western North Carolina, hit on a new approach: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Or to be more precise: Put together your own publication, and then pay the MSM to deliver it for you.

Moffitt is behind the Raleigh Digest, a 48-page tabloid that became the subject of local controversy after it appeared along with the glossy advertising inserts inside more than 10,000 copies of the Asheville Citizen-Times on Nov. 27, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Digest was no ad for holiday sales, though. It offered a detailed look back at the 2013 legislative session in the state capital, which saw the rise of an assertive new Republican majority. And though the tone wasn’t polemical, the Digest was clearly an attempt to, as one unsigned item put it, rebut “mischaracterizations in the media” about the course charted by the GOP.

The Digest wasn’t labeled as a paid placement. And other than the copyright holder—In TouchNC, LLC—and an editor’s name, it wasn’t clear where the tabloid had come from. But that morning Jake Frankel, a staff writer at the Asheville alt-weekly Mountain Xpress, put out a tweet noting that InTouchNC is owned by Moffitt. The company had been covered by Carolina journalists last spring, as its services were becoming popular among Moffitt’s Republican colleagues.

Frankel had gotten a call from a bemused reader, and he wasn’t the only one hearing complaints. Before long, the Citizen-Times had clarifications on its website and Facebook page. The notice began:

The “Raleigh Digest” in the Wednesday, Nov. 27, print edition of the Asheville Citizen-Times is a PAID ADVERTISING insert. It was NOT clearly labeled PAID ADVERTISEMENT. We at the Citizen-Times apologize for any confusion this has created.

It seems straightforward—paper gets paid to distribute something that could be taken for editorial content; paper neglects to disclose the material as a paid placement; paper apologizes.

But that’s not quite how Moffitt sees it. Speaking the same day to reporter Frank Kracher of the ABC affiliate WLSO News 13 in Asheville, Moffitt explained the mission of his publication and why he chose to place it in the Citizen-Times.

“It’s not paid political advertising. This is a new competitor in the news market,” Moffitt said. “…The frustrating part of being an elected official is the only avenue to get that information out is the mainstream media. And after serving in an elected position I see how slanted that news media is.”

Asheville is a Democratic-leaning mountain city in the largely conservative western part of the state. And in the lawmaker’s view, the paper was catering to a core of local liberals when it issued the apology.

“There are a handful of rabble-rousers in the city of Asheville that object to anything that conservatives do, or that Republicans do, and I think that the Citizen-Times is really reacting to that small group of folks,” Moffitt told Kracher.

I spoke last week with Dave Neill, publisher and president of the Citizen-Times, and asked what he thought about Moffitt’s take—that the lawmaker was essentially using the newspaper to distribute a competing editorial product. Neill said he didn’t have an opinion on it. He wasn’t much interested in discussing the situation beyond the paper’s apology for a lack of disclosure.

“It’s advocacy advertising,” Neill told me about the insert placement. “If someone has a viewpoint that either isn’t offensive, threatening or totally we find inaccurate, we welcome people to use our product as a vehicle.”

“The piece that was sent to us was not reviewed prior to being inserted, and that’s it,” he said. “That was the issue.”

Neill went a bit further when speaking to his paper’s own John Boyle, who addressed the issue in a column in the Citizen-Times today:

“We would not have stopped that from running, if it had been clearly marked as ‘paid advertising,’ and as long as the message was not offensive or totally wrong,” Neill said. “That’s what we allow advertisers to do every single day. Advertisers pay us to get their message out.”

The paper is rewriting its policy on what constitutes political advertising and political advocacy, and it is revamping its system to make sure more scrutiny occurs.

Boyle’s column also noted that Moffitt, a local politician, had been behind the Raleigh Digest. That’s a disclosure that might have been part of the paper’s earlier apology, given the circumstances.

Moving forward, the most crucial thing is transparency—by both the Citizen-Times and the Raleigh Digest, said Lois Boynton, a University of North Carolina journalism professor and a fellow at the school’s Parr Center for Ethics.

Partisan political publications have a long history, Boynton noted. American media began with patrons who would pay the costs to publish newspapers and pamphlets; part of the payment included having the patron’s point of view included. “Readers understood that and knew that there were a variety of media outlets available to them to collect the various viewpoints on issues of the day,” she said. “The whole idea of objectivity didn’t take hold until the late 1800s and early 1900s.”

And when the Raleigh Digest is distributed on its own, Boyton said, there’s clearly no need to call it “advertising”:

But since Tim Moffitt wants the Citizen-Times to insert the publication in its paper, then it appears that it falls in the category of paid advertisement and should be identified as such. The publication does include who publishes it, which is helpful, although there isn’t a lot of info about who InTouchNC is. That may be something that the Asheville-Citizen Times can ask about as they revisit their policies: What information should be included to identify advertising/promotional/partisan inserts?

Whether the Digest appears in the Citizen-Times again, Beth Grace, director of the state press association, sees an irony in the situation.

“I’m interested that they would use a newspaper ad when many legislators spent a lot of time telling us this year that newspapers were dead,” she told me. “They claimed that in their failed effort to pass a bill that would hide public notices—ads required by law to alert the public to major issues, upcoming elections and things like that—on obscure government-owned and run websites.”

But when Moffitt’s company wanted to get its message out, it paid the Citizen-Times to deliver it. Said Grace: “I guess newspapers are a little more alive than they thought.”

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's correspondent for Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia. A former alt-weekly staffer, he has twice been named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the S.C. Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity, and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, and Medium, among others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.