Candidates jockeying to win a position on Hawaii’s 2018 general election ballot say at least one Big Island newspaper is requiring them to buy an ad if they want to be included in the newspaper’s primary voter’s guide.

West Hawaii Today told candidates to buy a display ad or they wouldn’t be allowed to respond to questions on issues that will also be included in the Kona newspaper’s “Election 2018” special section, a number of candidates interviewed by Civil Beat say. The election guide is scheduled to be published Sunday.

Newspapers, including the Honolulu Star-Advertiser — Oahu Publication’s flagship paper — often publish special election sections and sell advertising to candidates to support it. The Star-Advertiser’s section came out this past Sunday and included numerous candidate ads.

But candidates contacted by Civil Beat said while the Star-Advertiser encouraged them to buy an ad, it did not ask them to respond to questions. The editorial content in this year’s special section consisted of news articles written by staff writers.

Requiring the purchase of an ad as a condition of editorial content — including answering questions put to candidates by the paper — is unusual and ethically questionable, journalism experts said.

“While each of our local news companies make their own decisions on advertising strategy, as a matter of editorial policy, we do not tie editorial coverage of any kind to the purchases of an advertisement,” Jeanne Segal, spokeswoman for the McClatchy company of 29 daily newspapers nationwide, told Civil Beat.

West Hawaii Today, the daily newspaper in Kona, is requiring candidates to buy an ad if they want editorial content in the paper’s voter’s guide, candidates say. Andrew Perala/Civil Beat

No one from West Hawaii Today or Oahu Publications responded to requests for comment for this story despite repeated phone calls and emails left with them over the past week.

Requiring candidates to pay for an ad before being included in a voter’s guide has been going on since at least the 2016 election, says David Tarnas, a former lawmaker from North Kona and South Kohala. Tarnas, who represented the area from 1994 to 1998, says he first encountered the policy when he ran for the same seat two years ago.

“I was so upset with them I didn’t want to pay to play,” Tarnas told Civil Beat recently.

Tarnas did not pay and did not appear in the newspaper’s election special section, a decision that may have hurt his chances of winning, he thinks.

Running again this year against incumbent Rep. Cindy Evans, Tarnas did pay for an ad in the “Election 2018” special section. This year, “if I didn’t buy an ad, I wouldn’t get in,” Tarnas said.

“You sometimes have to spend the money to get exposure in print,” he said. “It’s a disadvantage for anyone with little money.”

Exposure – and getting your message across to voters – is key to challengers campaigning against incumbents, said Sherry Alu Campagna, running for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District seat against incumbent Tulsi Gabbard.

“Why pays the money? Because there’s no other opportunity to stand up and speak out,” she said.

An email from West Hawaii Today to the Campagna campaign laid out the deal.

“The 1/4 page size ad for the Political Guide will be 4.7 inch x 5 inch. Cost including tax will be $687.50,” Joseph Tustison of the newspaper wrote to Yvette Kay of the campaign. “Also, You get to answer 3 of the six questions total of 250 words which are attached.”

These are the questions as shared with Civil Beat by the campaign:

U.S. Congress, which is two seats. U.S. Senate and 2nd Congressional District.

  1. What platform would you champion most in Washington to better Hawaii and what action would you take implementing it?
  1. What are the most pressing issues facing our state?
  1. Washington politics have a reputation as polarized and dysfunctional. What examples can you point to show where you’ve best worked across aisles and what can you tell voters about the future of D.C. politics during seemingly acrimonious times?
  1. Why should people vote for you over your competition?
  1. What can be done in Washington to help diversify Hawaii’s economy?
  1. Hawaii has had high profile state issues reach the national level, the Kilauea eruption and disaster preparedness or lack thereof in light of the false missile alert. How much control should the federal government have in both building and regulating building in high risk areas like lava zone 1 and controlling disaster warnings?

Campaign staffers said the size of the ad determined how long their response could be: the larger the ad, the more space they got for their answers.

Candidate responses this year were set in several instances at 250 or 350 words depending on the size of the ads purchased, according to statements and documents provided by several campaigns.

The lists of questions were provided to candidates by the advertising department, several candidates and campaign staff separately told Civil Beat.

Requiring candidates to pay for voter guide inclusion is especially unusual if editorial content is linked to payment for an ad, said media business analyst Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute, a national journalism think tank.

“Times change and revenue is tight,” Edmonds told Civil Beat. “Obits, which used to be free, now are treated as advertising and constitute the biggest category of classified advertising.”

“Still I am dubious that charging for election guide coverage is a standard or ethical practice,” Edmonds said.

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