Robert Hale is publisher of the Juneau Empire.
It didn't take Empire subscribers long Tuesday morning to weigh in on our decision to deliver our newspapers that morning in a Lisa Murkowski campaign bag. Those who called or came by our office to comment on the bags were furious, at least initially.
Because I'm the guy who ultimately shoulders the blame and/or the responsibility for such decisions, I thought it proper to let our readers know what happened on Tuesday - election day - and why it won't happen again.
The bags in which our subscribers' newspapers were delivered were printed by the National Rifle Association (NRA) as part of the organization's political endorsement of incumbent U.S. Sen. Murkowski. A national advertising agency representing the NRA asked if we would allow the bags to be used as an external advertisement for which we would be paid as if each bag had been inserted into the newspaper, and we agreed to let them.
We saw no problem with the bags for a couple of reasons. The first was that the bag did constitute a paid political ad, and the second was that in many newspaper markets (Seattle and Anchorage, for example) it is quite common for newspapers to be delivered in similar advertising bags provided - and paid for - by national advertisers such as Kmart and the Home Depot.
The flaw in our thinking was to not see beyond the advertising message to the political implications. The reactions of our readers were varied, but the common thread with almost all of them was that our use of the NRA bags was seen as a blatant endorsement of Murkowski by the newspaper. That perception was reinforced by the fact that the bags were used on election day.
Some readers with whom I spoke Tuesday said we simply crossed the line in allowing our papers to be delivered by way of a political message. No one seemed angry about the bags being for a Republican or a Democratic candidate, but about the message itself. A few readers thought we were unaware that our papers had been delivered in the NRA bags, thinking the NRA or the Murkowski campaign had somehow pulled a fast one on us.
Some other readers saw the bags as an intrusion just as they had the televised political ads that aired nonstop during October, and the automated telephone calls they received from various campaigns in the final days before the election. "The political intrusions have been endless this season," one woman told me, "and then you guys did this to my newspaper."
A couple of readers were incensed by the fact that the NRA had funded the bags, but that went more to their beliefs about the NRA than it did the political campaign.
What we learned Tuesday is this: Our readers would have cared far less if we'd delivered their paper in a Home Depot bag. That, they said, is fair game because a Home Depot bag carries a consumer-marketing message. They also said that an NRA ad endorsing a candidate is equally acceptable as long as it runs on a page of the paper or is included as an insert.
Hindsight being as clear as it is, we would turn away the NRA/Murkowski ad if it came to us today, and we would do so mostly because of the impression it created that it was the Juneau Empire's endorsement of the candidate rather than the NRA's.
Our decision to use the NRA bag was a fairly easy one to make in one regard: The marketing messages we deliver these days come in the form of print ads, inserts, printed wrappers, online ads and delivery bags. We saw the bags as but another advertising medium, but it was seen as much more than that by our readers.
The subscribers who shared their thoughts with me Tuesday were ultimately reasonable and helpful. And even though they took issue with us, I'm glad they took the time to call to let us know how they felt.
Robert Hale is publisher of the Juneau Empire and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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