In addition to the usual activities of sifting through inflammatory letters to the editor and meeting with local politicians seeking the paper’s endorsement, he had to contend with a minor controversy over whether U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman plagiarized material used in an OpEd.
Now that the election has passed, Hubbard agreed to answer some questions about the plagiarism accusations, as well as a few other issues relevant to the public relations industry.
Q: As a result of the issue with Rep. Coffman’s opinion column, you have implemented new policies to ensure that material The Denver Post publishes is “original work.” What are those new policies, and how do they differ from previous policies?
A: As I told (The Denver Post reporter) Kurtis Lee for his story, we’ve always operated with the understanding that the work people submit is their own. There was a similar issue with Rep. Scott McInnis and op-eds he penned for The Denver Post under previous editors, so I decided that we would spell it to eliminate any confusion. We have posted the policy online and are in the process of creating a form in which contributors acknowledge that, to the best of their knowledge, the work they are submitting is their own (if that sounds a lot like the Honor Code at Colorado College, it’s probably because two brothers and my best friend went there).
Q: Lee reported that, “Ethics experts contacted by The Post said the duplicative writings fall short of their definition of plagiarism. But they said Coffman’s use of material by other writers failed to reach accepted standards for attribution.” What conclusion did you reach as the editorial page editor?
A: The “cut” and “paste” functions on computers and political “messaging” operations can be dangerous.
Q: What, if any, conversations did you have with Rep. Coffman or his office once it was determined that the material had appeared other places under the bylines of other individuals?
A: I haven’t had any conversations with him. I expect we will the next time he offers a piece. We’ve always had a a cordial professional relationship, and I don’t expect this episode to change that fact.
Q: It is a common practice in public relations to ghostwrite material for clients. What is your opinion about that practice?
A: It is an interesting point for discussion as the publishing landscape — and the number of paid communication experts — expands in the information age. Initially I bounced around the idea of whether we should ask if submissions should be attributed to an individual — By Sen. Joe Blow, for example — or the office — From the office of Sen. Joe Blow. Ultimately I decided that was unnecessary. That’s because there’s a difference between ghostwriting and using others’ work without giving them proper credit. Do I believe that Congressman X or CEO Y actually sits down and writes every word in their guest commentary? No. But their staffs — or ghostwriters — put it together with their approval. They own it. So long as people are not ripping off other people’s published material and ignoring accepted standards for attribution, I don’t have a problem with it.
Q: Rep. Coffman dismissed concerns about the issue as “absurd,” but you felt strongly enough about it to implement changes. Are you concerned that an ethical divide exists between the business and political communities and The Denver Post?
A: I was concerned enough about it to spell it out so there is no question as to our expectations moving forward. But I also realize that this came to light as part of a hard-fought political campaign, and I viewed the allegations through that lens.
Q: Given how politicians on both sides of the aisle have become ruthlessly efficient at simply parroting party lines, are you considering giving fewer column inches to them and instead opening up room for other “outside” voices on political topics?
A: We try to limit politicians to two guest commentaries per year. Generally speaking, I think they do a pretty good job of keeping them Colorado-specific. Providing a forum for elected officials to communicate with a broad audience is one of our most important functions. I’m actually thinking about ways in which we can engage them for their opinion more often (targeting our website as the best arena).
Q: Securing an OpEd for a client in The Denver Post is a valuable win for a public relations firm. What do you look for when you are considering contributions?
A: First and foremost, we want something that is interesting and engaging. A close second is some sort of a local connection that appeals to a general-interest audience. And timeliness can’t be overstated. Because we have limited space to present op-eds in the print edition, we’ve tried to create a more robust online platform where they can also be shared with a larger audience. The first phase of that effort is our blog, The Idea Log, which I think holds great promise.
Q: You took some heat this election cycle for endorsing all seven incumbents in their U.S. House of Representatives races despite polls that showed that fewer than 10 percent of voters thought Congress was doing a good job. Voters agreed with you, sending all seven representatives back to Washington, D.C. Do you feel vindicated?
A: No. But I hope the incumbents realize they’ve been given another shot to find areas where they can work together on behalf of Coloradans/the American people.
Q: You took over editorial page editor duties from Dan Haley about 18 months ago. Did Dan give you any advice that has been particularly helpful in your current position?
A: Yes. He impressed upon me the valuable role The Post editorial pages play in bringing together diverse opinions. That’s a rarity in what’s been dubbed the “choose your own adventure” era of news and opinion. I know it’s a vocal minority, but I’m somewhat surprised at the number of people I hear from who A) are unaware of pieces we run that match their ideology and B) would prefer that I fire or muzzle people whose opinions they disagree with. I try to remind people that our pages are intended to be a marketplace of ideas and not simply the purveyor of a single viewpoint.
Q: The Denver Post’s publisher, MediaNews Group, has pursued an aggressive digital strategy, including “pay walls” for some of its newspaper properties. What impact will that have, if any, on how you manage the Post’s editorial section?
A: To the best of my understanding, pay walls aren’t in the plans here. I generally leave the financial decisions to more capable parties, but it’s clear that this is a time of profound change in our industry. That also makes it a time of great opportunity. My goal is to use our print and digital platforms to engage as many people as possible in sharing, commenting and considering the important issues of the day.