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Star meetings unusual, not necessarily ethical breach: Political candidates invited to informational meeting

April 17, 2006

An Indianapolis Star program for political candidates that mixes information about advertising and news policies is raising eyebrows among some area politicos and media specialists.

As part of their Campaign Connections program, Star officials hold cocktail receptions for Republican and Democratic candidates to discuss advertising possibilities and to explain news processes, including candidate endorsements on the editorial page. Star officials said the program dates back to the 2002 election.

Star Editor Dennis Ryerson said it is made clear that buying advertising at the newspaper does nothing to curry favor with the Star's news staff and does not affect the newspaper's decisions about which candidates to endorse.

But journalism experts said such meetings are unusual.

"I've not heard of anything like this before," said David Boeyink, who teaches journalism ethics at Indiana University. "It does raise a little bit of a red flag when you bring up [news] coverage and advertising at the same meeting."

Star officials said they've had strong response to the Campaign Connections program. About 45 Republicans attended a meeting last month and more than 50 Democrats were set to meet with Star staffers at a downtown restaurant April 13.

The 2006 ballot will be filled with state House of Representative candidates, a number of judges, and other county and local office seekers.

"When I first got this notice, my response was, 'What are they doing?'" said Jennifer Wagner, spokeswoman for the state Democratic party and a former Star political reporter. "There's a lot of opportunity to see this as a pay-for-play message. I still don't know why they're doing this."

But she said there's interest in the program among candidates.

"For some of these candidates, it's the only opportunity they'd have to meet the editor of the Indianapolis Star," Wagner said.

Though unusual, the meeting itself doesn't necessarily represent an ethics breach, said Kelly McBride, ethics expert for Floridabased Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

"It would have to be set up right," McBride said. "They'd have to take concrete steps to separate the advertising and [news] messages."

Using high-profile editors to lure candidates to an advertising pitch meeting for political candidates could be a "slippery slope," said Tobe Berkovitz, an associate professor in Boston University's College of Communications and a longtime political media consultant. Discussing news coverage, endorsement possibilities and advertising at the same get-together "is probably not a good idea," he said.

Newspapers are under increasing pressure as their political advertising revenue-which can easily reach into the seven figures during an election year-is eaten away by cable television, radio and, more recently, the Internet, Berkovitz said.

Bill Platt, a Star sales supervisor and one of the organizers of this year's Campaign Connections, said the program is set up "to introduce candidates to The Indianapolis Star."

"It's a changing world, and not many [candidates] realize the diversified offerings we have," Platt said.

Connections is an efficient way to get candidates all the information they need, Ryerson added.

"It didn't make sense to have two separate meetings [to discuss news and advertising]," he said. "One of the points I always make clear is the advertising department doesn't tell us what stories to write or what candidates to endorse."

A letter sent to candidates said those who attend can expect to learn "how [candidates] can leverage the power of the Indianapolis Star and IndyStar.com to advance [their] political agenda."

Then, Ryerson will discuss how the Star's news department handles political issues and the paper's process in endorsing political candidates, the letter added.

Sandwiching information about the paper's news policy between marketing and advertising messages is troubling, said media analysts
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