A new policy regarding political endorsement letters on Planet Princeton

Letters to the editor are meant to offer the community a forum to express views and fuel community dialogue. They were never meant as a tool for political campaigns, yet we’ve witnessed an increasing trend of political groups and candidates abusing the letters to the editor “opinionator” section on Planet Princeton. Too often, candidates use them to try to flood opinion pages with their own messages.

Our opinion section is a forum for residents to raise community issues. It is not for free political endorsements, or letters publicly declaring support for a candidate or politician designed solely to influence people to vote for their preferred candidate. Letters to the editor are meant to offer the community a forum to express their views and foster community dialogue.

Most of the time, endorsement letters are not even written by the people signing them. They have been written by the candidate, the leader of a political group, or the campaign communications manager for a campaign, and the signer has simply been asked to sign on.

We often receive such letters from a candidate or campaign manager, and not directly from the signer, or the candidate has asked us to change a sentence in a letter and then explained that the signer did not write the letter. Often when we have contacted signers of such endorsement letters asking them for clarification on a sentence or telling them something in their letter is factually incorrect and must be omitted from the published letter, the person tells us that they in fact did not write the letter themselves.

This past summer, candidates tried to figure out a way to work around buying advertising in a local print paper by trying to fill a letter to the editor with signatures up to the newspaper’s word limit. When the paper’s editor would not print the letter, a local politician suggested on Facebook that people boycott businesses that advertise in the paper.

Many political campaigns have formed “letters to the editor” committees, which are coordinated campaign committees tasked with sending a timed wave of endorsement letters to the editor. One resident who has been part of local campaigns told us recently, “One of the first things a campaign team does is map out a whole letter to the editor strategy.”

In some cases, a campaign has blanketed us with letters from a few dozen people within the span of a few hours, clearly an orchestrated effort. The waves of letters have become so orchestrated that most newspapers and online media outlets around the country now are treating them as advertisements. We will too from this point on, and such letters will be labeled properly as “paid election endorsement letters.”

Letters in support of or opposing a candidate or particular political party as well as letters from candidates on the ballot will be published as paid election letters. Paid election letters will cost $30 for a letter up to 250 words and $60 for a letter up to 500 words. Letters longer than 500 words will be treated as display advertising and charged as display ad rates. Submissions and a payment portal will be available on the website shortly.

We do not allow more than three people to sign a paid election letter. Paid endorsement display advertising can be signed by up to 10 people. We don’t allow endorsement display ads with dozens of signatures because these ads are divisive when it comes to community building, and residents are often pressured to sign them whether they want to or not. Residents have told us they are often put in an awkward position when asked to sign such ads. They sometimes sign them even though they don’t want to because they fear upsetting someone or not being reappointed to a town committee. We believe such ads promote groupthink and cause division in our community. Few newspapers in the country run such display ads with dozens of signatures.

We’d like to thank readers who provided us with insights and feedback on developing this new policy. We spoke to more than two dozen people about this policy change before deciding to move forward.