My former publisher at The Carthage Press, Jim Farley, took a strong stance against the use of columns written by elected officials...he didn't use them.
As far as he saw it, these columns were free publicity for officials who most likely would not spend their advertising money with the newspaper anyway when election time came around. He has no problem with reporters interviewing the officials and getting quotes on state issues, but he drew the line at giving them free space on the newspaper's editorial page.
He said the only way he would see fit to run a politician's column was if it was dropped the second that politician had opposition, or if the opposing candidates received an equal amount of space.
The use of these columns on the pages of area newspapers, especially the Joplin Daily and Neosho Daily News, is an outrage, especially when nearly all of the elected officials who are submitting the columns have opposition this year.
It can be argued that these columns are a way for the politicians to keep in touch with the constituents, but in some cases, as I have demonstrated in this blog, some of our elected officials have been submitting columns that are plagiarized from other sources. This happened numerous times with Rep. Marilyn Ruestman, whose columns are still running in various newspapers even though she, too, faces opposition.
It is tempting for newspapers with small staffs to accept free columns that make up for the lack of having a reporter in the state capital, but there are ways to provide that coverage without having to sacrifice credibility:
-This is the age of the Internet. Candidates' votes, descriptions of bills, coverage by metropolitan newspapers, all of these things are available for research purposes. Use them.
-Pick up the phone and conduct interviews with our elected officials over issues that are of concern to your readers.
-GateHouse Media, owner of the Joplin Daily, Neosho Daily News, Carthage Press and numerous other Missouri newspapers, could hire a statehouse reporter, with each newspaper kicking in a portion of the expense, at least when the legislature is in session.
If these columns are going to continue, and apparently, they are, our local newspapers need to seek out opposing candidates and offer them an equal amount of space. Incumbency already has too much of an advantage without newspapers adding to the problem.