A couple of years ago I got a telephone call on Election Day from someone who would one day be among my colleagues in a new job outside newspapers or even journalism. Jon Dooley, now vice president for Student Life at Elon University, rang me up on the day of Burlington’s municipal elections in November of 2015. He had questions about a campaign ad for one of the two mayoral candidates — Ian Baltutis and Jim Butler — and if it signaled a change in policy for the newspaper, which had an unbreakable rule against endorsing political candidates in any local, state or national race.
I understood the question and even concern Jon or other readers might have that particular day. I expected a few telephone calls after looking over the front page of the Times-News in my driveway just before leaving home for the office to start what would be a long day of work. Election Days are always long with lots of hurry up and wait moments. The upside? There’s usually free pizza. Well, it was usually on me, but what the hell, the reporters, copy editors, photographers and sports staffers liked it and that’s what really matters.
The ad in question that morning was one of those front page sticky notes that, in my experience, readers either hate or ignore. I never heard a single one say they liked them and have encountered dozens who express serious distaste for the ads, which started to become fashionable once the technology became easy to facilitate and newspapers became so desperate for money they sold their souls. There was a time when no advertising was allowed on the front page as an ethical statement. Now take what’s there now for what it’s worth.
And I still recall one of the first times I spoke to Elon University President Leo Lambert. One of the things he talked to me about was how much he disliked front page sticky ads not only in the Times-News but other newspapers, too. I agreed with him then and now. Then again, what’s a business that is struggling to survive supposed to do — turn down money and go belly up without a fight?
So on that Election Day Tuesday morning in 2015 the message light on my office phone was blinking. I had a pretty good idea what it was about. The first message was from Jon Dooley, as I mentioned earlier. I called him back after I attended the newspaper’s weekly department head meeting. I waited so I would be able to accurately tell callers that I had voiced objection to the ad to those empowered to actually make those decisions. Indeed, newsroom people never see the sticky ads before they’re placed by an unthinking piece of machinery on each newspaper in the middle of the night.
The problematic ad was worded to make it look like an endorsement had indeed been given to a candidate in the Burlington mayoral race. At the top of the sticky note — placed on our large photo of poll workers getting a local site ready for voting — it said “Our Recommendation for Burlington Mayor.” Underneath it said, “Vote Today!” and then, a ballot box with a check mark was in front of BUTLER Mayor. It doesn’t exactly say who or what might be making the “recommendation” but at the bottom of the ad it states, “Paid for by the Committee to Elect Jim Butler.” That’s a pretty standard kind of signature for any and all political advertising. Trouble is, a lot of people don’t notice it right away.
But it was an ad. There was no editorial intent on our part and in fact, the newsroom had no idea the ad would be published at all. In reality Councilman Jim Butler gained the “recommendation” of his own committee to elect, which is hardly a shocking development. But the positioning and wording made it look like the newspaper was also endorsing him. We took no sides in that contest at all, a race won by the then-newcomer Baltutis, who ran for re-election to a second term on Tuesday.
Jon’s a sharp reader and well aware of the difference between advertising and editorial but his point — and mine to the staff — is that not all readers do. Using the word “Our” did echo something the Times-News might say on its editorial page when it declares an opinion. “We,” “our,” “us” are all standard for most newspaper editorial pages.
Sticky ads often create these kinds of problems. Placement can be an issue, too. More than a few times a sticky ad inappropriate to the situation has made its way onto coverage of some epic tragedy. The newspaper in Charleston, S.C. had this occur following the massacre at a church a couple of years ago.
And in May of 2016 just before a Republican primary in Alamance County for the Board of Commissioners, a sticky ad for one of the candidates was placed on a photo of a smiling and applauding Hillary Clinton in such a way it looked like the Democratic presidential candidate was cheering for the Alamance County GOP candidate. Probably not what the candidate had in mind.
Today I checked the Times-News front page and saw no sticky ad at all for Election Day. On Monday one appeared for City Council candidate Harold Owen and it was carefully worded. The day before election is fair game. I wholeheartedly endorsed Owen for city council, by the way — even if he did buy a sticky ad. The space was for sale by the newspaper and any candidate was free to buy it, or not.
But the newspaper avoided accepting an ad on Election Day itself, which I applaud. It was something we discussed two years ago when the Butler ad was published. I’m glad to see the Times-News followed through.
Among the things I don’t miss after being out of newspapers almost year are the relentlessly dismal political campaigns during election seasons. During my 34 years in newspapers I can say that political advertising often created the most heartburn. It’s a tough job for ad salespeople. And more than a few times extreme political ads had to be cleared by the newspaper’s lawyer prior to publication so a candidate won’t be libeled by an opponent, something the newspaper would also be liable for by printing the offending ad.
Front page sticky ads didn’t fall into this category during my time in the business and haven’t so far — but believe me it could happen easily. Candidates are always looking for an advantage and some are pretty indifferent to how the advantage is gained. How things are worded and presented can make a huge difference.