The letter seemed pretty straightforward. It was on Reno Gazette-Journal letterhead, and it appeared to be saying something explicitly that people have said behind cupped hands for years: The Reno Gazette-Journal’s Best of Reno contest is worthless because the winners are simply the businesses that spend the most money with the RG-J. The letter read like this:
Dear Business Owner,
The Reno Gazette-Journal is proud to announce our 24th Annual Readers Choice Contest! Get ready to cast your vote for the best: restaurant, bar, golf course and lunch specials in town.
Ballots will be in the Sunday Edition of the Reno Gazette-Journal during the month of February with the final results to be posted by the end of March.
To help get those votes started, the Reno Gazette-Journal is offering businesses through the month of February 10 copies per Sunday of the Reno Gazette-Journal for $7.50 and or additional copies for .75¢ to be delivered to your business for clients to use for distribution to your customers for voting purposes.
To order additional copies of the Reno Gazette-Journal for the Best of 2004 Readers Choice Contest, please contact Jeff Jackins [direct-sales supervisor in the circulation department] at 327-6715 or by email at email@example.com.
Since ballots must come from the newspaper, it would be easier for a business that bought lots of ballots to win—and just as hard for businesses who couldn’t buy ballots to win. Many folks might think that would invalidate the “polling” process.
“That’s one way to look at it,” said Fred Hamilton, publisher of the Reno Gazette-Journal. He said he hadn’t seen the letter. “The reason we do that is because every time we run that contest, the first thing store owners do is go to the nearest Reno Gazette-Journal newsstand and help themselves to as many copies as they want.
“This way they can purchase them and hand them out to their customers.”
The publisher of the largest daily newspaper in northern Nevada seemed to have no misgivings about the ethics of selling the “readers’ poll” entry forms to businesses.
“It’s no different than just putting out 10,000 entry blanks for voting. We could just simply print them off on our copy machine and send them out that way. The purpose is, we want the people who vote to buy a newspaper, absolutely. That’s why we don’t allow facsimiles. You need to enter with the newspaper entry blank.”
Doesn’t this letter bring into question whether the RG-J’s Best of 2004 Readers’ Choice Contest is actually a poll of readers?
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think everyone has the ability to purchase newspapers if they want to supply the entry blank to their customers for the simplicity of filling it out. We’re not forcing anyone to buy, and we’re offering it to everybody.”
Media analyst Peter Hart, of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a New York City-based media watchdog group, says equality isn’t as simple as offering the deal to everyone.
“It sounds like what they’re doing is rigging the game a little bit for people who want to pony up and buy the additional copies to enhance their standing, which then they will use to further promote their businesses and perhaps buy more advertising in the paper,” Hart said. “It’s a trick that probably other papers do in their readers’ polls and their year-end reviews, but it makes you think the poll itself is just an elaborate marketing and advertising scheme.”
Hart said the “Best of” readers’ polls are not unusual; most newspapers do some version of them. Still, the Reno Gazette-Journal’s business department is known for innovation.
“You see [Best of contests] all the time, but I’m not familiar with papers advertising the bulk rate for companies that want to be sure the voting goes well for themselves,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do that. You’d think they’d want to hide that.”