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Getting Their 2 Cents In : Political Letter Writers Are Charged to Express Themselves in Newspaper

Times Staff Writer

The latest controversy to rage through Coronado--where the height of hedges has been known to dominate public debate--is whether the pine trees on picturesque Orange Avenue should be wrapped in white or colored lights at Christmas.

The white lights won, but only after a vote of the City Council, buttressed with the results of a citizens survey, and front-page coverage of the issue by the local newspaper, the weekly Coronado Journal.

“My God, the world’s going to pot and we’re arguing about the lights on the Christmas trees,” said Doris Pray, community gadfly.

But that’s insular Coronado, the beachside burg where busybodies, sophisticated “concerned citizens” and small-town politics join to create a fertile civic landscape dominated by high-spirited debate.

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So much so, in fact, that this political season--and we’re not talking George Bush or Michael Dukakis here--the newspaper has instituted a most unusual policy: It is deciding which letters to the editor are political commentary and charging the writers 10 cents a word.

One would think such a policy, apparently the only one of its kind in Southern California, would stifle comment. On the contrary, it seems more people are writing more letters.

That doesn’t mean, though, that people like it.

“I think it stinks,” said John A. McQuilkin, whose recent 300-plus-word discourse about the state of local affairs, which also plugged two City Council candidates, cost him about $32. He understands how a newspaper can “get deluged by this kind of stuff,” but McQuilkin also can’t help thinking that the dime-a-word policy also translates into more advertising money for the newspaper.

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But not enough to make a difference, responds Patricia Walsh, editor of the paper, which has a circulation of about 6,300 in the affluent town of 19,000. It was Walsh, along with the former publisher, who instituted the practice about a month or so ago, based, she said, on a similar policy used by a sister publication in the state of Washington. The papers are owned by Worrell Enterprises, a Charlottesville, Va., company that publishes a chain of small papers.

Separate Section

Given the level of community interest in local affairs, there has never been a shortage in the “letters to the editor” section of the paper, even now when there is a separate section for the paid letters.

“We get swamped with letters to the editor,” Walsh explained. “Coronado is a small town and the factions here are widely divided, . . . and everyone has their own support group,” she added, sounding like every weary editor who has ever had to contend with complaints lodged by one group angered by perceived favoritism for their opponents.

“People come storming into your office screaming about what you gave the other side. . . . It’s difficult to keep this even-score game going.”

So this year, with six people running for two seats on the City Council, two running for mayor, three local ballot propositions and campaigns for the school board, Walsh thought it was time for a change from tradition.

The paper let its readers know that it was no longer printing political letters on the editorial page. Instead, it was starting something called “Paid Political Commentary,” a separate section in which all political letters, so judged by the newspaper and edited only for libel, would be printed at a cost of 10 cents a word, prepaid.

“You can write what you want about who you want and it’s cheap,” Walsh said, adding that the average cost of a letter is from $5 to $30, though one letter writer, Carol Cahill, has written a tome that left her with a bill of about $106.

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Letter writers pay up front, and their opinions are guaranteed a spot on the page, unlike normal policy, in which some letters are not published.

So far, few have complained about the new policy, and Walsh and others indicate that the practice seems to have attracted more political letters, not fewer. A possible explanation, they say, is that it is a cheap form of political advertising and carries a punch because most town residents, such as Richard W. Parker, voraciously read the paper cover to cover.

“They don’t give a damn about editorial policy,” said Parker, a former council member and mayor almost 20 years ago. He is now retired. “All they want is money. . . . That’s the bottom line.”

But even Parker, who last week was charged $37 for his letter, acknowledged that, “I feel I can say a little stronger stuff, if I’m paying for it.”

The only other paper in California known to have a similar paid-political-letters-to-the-editor section is the Union in Grass Valley-Nevada City in Northern California. Jack Moorhead, publisher and editor of the small daily paper, says his paper instituted its policy several years ago. It then cost 15 cents a word; it’s up to 30 cents today. The paper runs the letters once a week, but it typically only has about a fourth or fewer such letters than the more expansive writers in Coronado.

“Others have questioned” the policy, he said, but “I always felt, if someone is going to write to endorse or oppose a candidate, it should run as an advertisement.”

Terry Francke, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., says the practice of charging letter writers “maybe is the wave of the future.”

“God knows, newspapers charge for birth announcements, death notices . . . all kinds of things newspapers used to do gratis,” he said.

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“To succeed at all, it probably does take a community that really views getting a letter in the paper as a significant and interesting achievement,” Francke said. “But I can think of communities where that (charging for political letters) would shut down correspondence rather quickly, where there is not a tradition of letter writing.”

Not so in Coronado, where Pray, the former planning commissioner who has attended City Council meetings regularly for 18 years, and her counterparts are seemingly forever poised with their pens at the ready.

“There is a strong sense of community here,” Pray said. “In this community, we have very strong feelings. Just mention something, and we have strong feelings about it.”

Pray, by the way, is a write-in candidate for City Council. She announced her candidacy last week. In a windy letter that cost her $66.50.


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