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 AJR  The Beat

From AJR,   November 1998  issue

Newspaper or Ad Agency?   

A group of weeklies runs anti-negative campaigning ads.


By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      


Bob Branen , publisher of Southern Lakes Media in southeastern Wisconsin, was sick of negative political campaigns. He was particularly peeved at the tactics of Democratic congressional candidate Lydia Spottswood .
``We've had editors called up and badgered to run [Spottswood's] press releases--that didn't have much content," Branen says.
So, 15 weeklies in the state's 1st Congressional District, including nine owned by Branen, ran a 1/8-page ad the week of September 28 calling on Spottswood to tone down her ``mud-slinging" campaign. Its headline: ``OK, Lydia, clean it up!"
Spottswood's office charged Branen with having an ax to grind; he says the intent, stated in the ad, was to make it clear the papers would not accept negative press releases.
Does running the ad raise questions about whether the papers can cover the race fairly? Says Branen, ``There's always that question of integrity--. When I go to bed at night, I want to go to sleep knowing I did a good journalistic job as well." He allows that the papers are situated in a heavily Republican part of the district, ``so the newsroom is going to cater more to Republican candidates just because of the readers' numbers."
Not all papers in the district were enthusiastic about the ad campaign. Doug Welch , managing editor of the Milton Courier , declined to participate when asked by Southern Lakes. He says the same company ``basically ran" an advertising campaign during the last two elections for U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann (R-Wis.), who is vacating the position Spottswood seeks.
``I really felt they were trying to take a jab at Spottswood," Welch says. ``As someone who wanted to remain neutral," he didn't want to be affiliated with Southern Lakes.
Branen says his company does act as an advertising agency for various clients, including Neumann and Spottwood's primary election rival, Jeff Thomas . Southern Lakes designs ads and tries to place them throughout the district. ``We do it for a variety of local races," Branen says. ``We do that for any candidate or any party, just as if a grocery store wanted to buy ad space."
The 15 newspapers also launched a three-week program in October to encourage clean campaigning. They offered free space to all federal and statewide candidates in the 1st District to talk about issues in positive language.
Branen says his goal of decreasing dirt-dishing seems to be working. ``I know the news releases that are coming to our offices are much cleaner," he says. ``They focus on real issues now."