Editorial: Open Letter to Elected Officials and Candidates

Editorial: Open Letter to Elected Officials and Candidates

Spend some of your campaign dollars in newspapers.

Here at the Connection, our email boxes are filling up with messages from people running for office. It’s not surprising, since in November, virtually every state and local office in the commonwealth is on the ballot.

It’s a good predictor for what will happen next in brick and mortar mailboxes of voters around the region.

What do candidates want from local newspapers?

Candidates, many of them incumbents, want to be quoted. They would like a reporter to come to their campaign announcements, to their kickoffs, to their forums. Candidates would like us to cover and print their statements on a variety of interesting and important issues. They would like to have their photos appear on the print and web pages of our newspapers

And for the most part, we will. We will cover the issues, the campaigns, the opinions, the fundraising, the political record.

While competition in local races is limited, money is not.

Current campaigns are on track to top the money spent in 2011 State Senate races. In 2011, Virginia State Senate candidates spent more than $42.5 million. They have already spent more than $20 million in 2015.

In Virginia state house races, in 2013 (members of the Virginia House of Delegate, like U.S. Congress, run for reelection every two years) candidates spent $35.9 million.

In an example of the money these races can attract, here is an extreme example from two years ago. In the 2013 race for House of Delegates District 34, Barbara Comstock raised $1.4 million, narrowly defeating Kathleen Murphy (50.64 percent to 49.21 percent) who raised nearly $700,000. Comstock went on to win the U.S. House seat vacated by longtime Rep. Frank Wolf, and Murphy went on to win the District 34 seat in a special election.

Comstock to her credit spent more than $5,000 (about one-third of one percent) on newspaper ads (most in Korean publications), but more than $87,000 on mailers. More surprising in a race for Virginia House of Delegates was that Comstock spent more than $500,000 on TV and radio ads.

Murphy spent $29,570 on mailers, $950 on newspaper advertising and $161,200 on TV and radio ads. (SOURCE: VPAP.org)

In other contested House races in 2013, it was more common to see expenditures between $100,000 and $300,000 per candidate. Most candidates spent zero dollars in community newspapers. Nearly every candidate spent tens of thousands of dollars on filling up voters’ mailboxes with glossy mailers.

Of course it makes sense for candidates to target individual voters by mailing directly to their homes. But does it really make sense to do that to the exclusion of other methods of reaching voters? Consider that 91 percent of voters who contribute to campaigns read newspapers in print or online, according to an independent study in 2012.

The Connection will not be endorsing candidates in the November elections. We’ll be covering the local races to the best of our ability no matter who spends money on advertising. Other local newspapers will also cover the races without regard to advertising dollars. That’s not why we do what we do.

But to put on my publisher’s hat (and not my editor’s hat) for a minute, if you have a big marketing budget, and you value coverage of local newspapers (not just ours), why wouldn’t you spend a portion of that budget (any portion) supporting that platform? There is a cautionary tale in the recent and abrupt closure of the chain of local papers that served Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland, as a recent and extreme example.

One California community in Los Angeles proposed legislation to let residents opt out of receiving election-related mail during a hotly contested mayoral election “where both campaigns and their supporters had flooded the mailboxes of registered voters with dozens of direct mail pieces,” according to The Argonaut, a weekly newspaper there. Sound familiar?

But it’s more than a charitable effort.

For the same reasons that the campaigns know they want local newspaper coverage, newspaper advertising is an effective way to reach voters.

According to an independent study during the last presidential campaign, cited by the National Newspaper Association: 86 percent of voters who cast ballots in the last local election read newspapers in print or online; 79 percent of voters ages 18 to 34 read newspapers in print or online; newspapers and their websites consistently outscore other media for being “reliable,” “accurate” and “in-depth” about local civic and political issues; newspaper political advertising is the least “annoying” of any medium; 91 percent of voters who contribute to campaigns read newspapers in print or online.

Just a suggestion …