Paul Ryan has a media platform that any politician would envy.
Nearly every week, the Republican U.S. representative from Janesville gets his own column on the Racine Journal Times Web site, where his analysis may include attacks on congressional Democrats and the Obama administration while promoting his own views.
It’s the sort of thing you might find in small-town weeklies or shoppers. Bigger urban papers may offer a politician only an op-ed or two a year – and even then usually balanced by a contrary opinion. But the Journal Times has made no such effort: Neither of Wisconsin’s two Democratic senators – Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold, the only other members of Congress whose districts include Racine – have been offered a similar slot. Why the special deal for Ryan?
“We have not seen Kohl or Feingold in our offices,” says Journal Times Editor Steve Lovejoy. “I guess we’re more familiar with Ryan. He stops by more frequently.”
The column began shortly after the 2008 election at the invitation of the paper’s then-publisher, Rick Parrish. Lovejoy calls it “a way for readers to get a look at some of the action going on in Washington and what our representative’s position is.” Occasional columns are even republished in the paper’s print editions. No politician gets better or more frequent access to Journal Times readers than Ryan.
One critic is the paper’s online-only rival, the Racine Post (racinepost.com), whose writer and co-founder Pete Selkowe is a retired Journal Times publisher. A frustrated Selkowe notes his publication was actually forbidden from running one of Ryan’s columns – and it was Ryan’s office that turned him down.
“I was told, no, it was exclusive to the Journal Times,” Selkowe fumes. “I didn’t want to link to the Journal Times Web site” to get the column.
Just who pushed for the exclusive arrangement? Lovejoy says the paper never specifically demanded it: “I think the understanding is he writes it for us first. Whether he wants to submit it somewhere else … I assume he can do that.”
It appears that Ryan’s press aide, Conor Sweeney, took the initiative to define the deal as exclusive. “My understanding is, when a newspaper reaches out looking for input, that is exclusive to that newspaper,” he says. Ryan’s official Web site promotes the columns as “exclusive to the Racine Journal Times.”
Sweeney has authorized some of them to be republished – including one at the Racine Post and another at BizTimes.com, operated by BizTimes Milwaukee. But Sweeney says he cleared that with Journal Times management. “I love the idea of a congressman (or even his aide) asking a publisher for permission to do anything,” Selkowe needles.
Selkowe adds that in the Internet age, later publication of a column usually has less impact. “First is the new exclusivity,” he notes.
Others in the Racine community have questioned the cozy setup for Ryan. In August, the paper rejected an op-ed article from Kelly Gallaher, a local organizer for the 2008 Obama campaign and its successor, Community for Change, critiquing Ryan’s health care claims.
In October, after the paper covered a protest at Ryan’s office by the immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera, Ryan wrote a column on the paper’s opinion page that defended himself and actually criticized the paper’s story. The paper declined to publish a rebuttal from Voces. (Lovejoy said the group declined his request to trim it for space.) “I just wonder if the deal with Ryan clouds the newspaper’s judgment,” says the Post’s Dustin Block.
Arguably, Voces de la Frontera had already gotten its side of the story in print with the coverage of its protest, while Ryan had not. And Lovejoy says he rejected Gallaher’s health care column in part because the Racine Post had already put it up on its site. But such explanations look less persuasive precisely because of the newspaper’s close relationship with Ryan.
In late October, Gallaher sent the JT another column criticizing Ryan – and this time, it was published. Gallaher says she made sure to give it only to the paper and use a “respectful” tone in her piece. But she also submitted it with shrewd timing. “The Journal Times had just been criticized [by the Post] for allowing the congressman to write his column with virtually no rebuttal,” Gallaher says.
Adding to the air of protectiveness surrounding Ryan’s columns is that the Journal Times doesn’t allow reader comments, which are nearly ubiquitous throughout its Web site. “We had some internal discussions, and we decided just to let Ryan have his communication,” says Lovejoy. The paper, for a time, ran an online column by then-Milwaukee Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan, and also didn’t let readers comment on it.
In an era of shrinking newspaper resources and an ever- expanding Web demanding ever more content, it’s possible other outlets may consider such arrangements. As a way to show readers “the action going on in Washington,” it’s certainly a lot cheaper than hiring more reporters. It’s also a lot more one-sided.