The owner of a local publication that promises "fair reporting and fair representation" told Key West City Commission candidates they must buy advertising if they want campaign coverage.
Tom Oosterhoudt, publisher of the weekly "Conch Color," acknowledged his policy, which alarmed journalism experts at an internationally renowned institute and troubled two national civic elections and election reform groups.
"As far as candidate forums and debates, we'll cover those when we can, but if candidates want their campaign covered, they have to pay to play," Oosterhoudt told The Citizen Thursday. "I gotta pay the bills."
District 6 candidate James Marquardt, who is challenging incumbent Clayton Lopez, said he became concerned when both received an e-mail from Oosterhoudt on Tuesday. Lopez said he had no problem with the policy.
"From this point on, I will be treating you both like the other candidates in order to sustain a level playing field and ask that you both advertise in order for me to be able to afford any campaign coverage that you may ask for," Oosterhoudt wrote. He went on to state that mayoral candidates Craig Cates and incumbent Morgan McPherson had purchased advertising, which is why Oosterhoudt had covered their campaign parties.
The Poynter Institute's ethics group leader called his policy "horrific" and "appalling."
"That is an absolute breach of the editorial independence of a newsroom," Kelly McBride said, emphasizing that editorial content should be completely separate from advertising content. "Otherwise it has no value to the audience. The publication is putting its loyalty to their bottom line ahead of their responsibility to their readers."
The St. Petersburg-based journalism organization "promotes excellence and integrity in the practice of [journalism] and in the practical leadership of successful businesses. It stands for a journalism that informs citizens and enlightens public discourse," according to its mission statement.
The policy also troubled Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.
"A pay-to-play approach, which leaves out some candidates, will typically benefit the better-funded candidates and will not be in the best interests of citizens having full information on the best candidate for the job," Macnab said Wednesday. "Realizing that economic times being what they are, the league urges a basic level of information and coverage to be provided on all candidates qualified for a race, while recognizing some candidates may have the funds to purchase ads and expanded coverage."
A spokeswoman for Common Cause, which lists as one of its goals "to advance campaign reforms that make people and ideas more important than money," said she never had heard of a newspaper openly admitting to such a policy.
"Your ability to run for office shouldn't be based on how much money you have," Mary Boyle said. "The hallmark of any newspaper is to report on all candidates in a race, and certainly the losers here are the people of Key West, who aren't getting the full picture."
Marquardt told Oosterhoudt he was disappointed with the policy and asked him to reconsider, saying he had hoped the publisher would be a "troubadour of free speech and cover all events equally."
"Freedom of the press is a guaranteed right under the Constitution. It is not a sword to be delivered as, 'If you advertise, I will cover,' " Marquardt wrote.
Oosterhoudt, who said Marquardt is the first candidate in four years to object, refused to reconsider, saying, "It's all about economics."
"Freedom of the press does not ensure campaign coverage, just a level playing field. And you have to pay to play," Oosterhoudt wrote.
Oosterhoudt told The Citizen that when he covers forums and debates, he generally publishes a photo that shows all the candidates in a given race, without giving preference to those who advertise. But parties and fundraisers are a different story.
"The reality is that the better-funded candidates probably do have an advantage," he said, adding he often is the only publication that covers those events. "It's one of the perks of advertising with us. This is a capitalist system, and as my drag queen friend says, "A girl's gotta eat."