The Seattle Times Company is getting overtly involved in the debate over marriage equality in its state.
The newspaper company announced it would run ads that act as an in-kind donation worth about $80,000 to Washington United for Marriage, the bipartisan coalition fighting to uphold marriage equality at the ballot box in November when Washington votes on Referendum 74.
On Wednesday, the company simultaneously began publishing a series of self-funded full-page ads supporting Rob McKenna, the Republican candidate for Governor in Washington. According to public filings, the ads appear as part of a Times Co. contribution to the McKenna campaign totaling nearly $80,000, making the Times Co. the third-largest contributor to the McKenna campaign.
Business executives with the Times Co., said all of the ads are an experiment designed to demonstrate the political impact of newspaper advertising, upon which the Times' funding relies heavily.
While the Times' editorial board has endorsed both McKenna and Referendum 74, critics assert that the self-funded nature of the sizable ad buy compromises the Times' journalistic independence. According to Seattle Times Executive Editor David Boardman, members of the editorial staff, including reporters, editors, and graphic designers were "not part of the discussion or the decision to do this."
More than 100 Times staffers signed a letter to the publisher denouncing the partisan politics embodied by the ad.
"We strive to remain independent from the institutions we cover," reads the letter. "We shine a light on the process from the outside. We are not part of the process. This ad threatens to compromise that integrity."
It isn't unprecedented for a media company to take a side in the fight over marriage equality. Earlier this year, Thomson Reuters came out publicly against a ballot campaign to ban same-sex marriage via the constitution of Minnesota, where it is headquartered.
Still, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee said he was shocked by the ad campaign supporting his opponent, and he said the action crossed a "sacred line" between editorial and advertising content in journalism.
"If CBS announced on a national level that they were going to donate hundreds of millions of dollars advertising for Mitt Romney to run an experiment to see whether it would elect him President of the United States, I think everybody would be horrified by that," state Democratic Chairman Dwight Pelz told The Times. "The idea that they're going to run an experiment that says if we donate advertising to Rob McKenna, we want to find out if this elects him governor, I think that's a horrifying precedent and a real poorly designed marketing experiment."