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If the managing editor of the Alton Telegraph had gotten back to me with his explanation a day before he did, my post Tuesday about his newspaper and the Illinois Policy Institute would have been less critical. In fact, it would have been what this one will be—sympathetic.

I faulted the Telegraph for carrying an op-ed by IPI’s Austin Berg without identifying his affiliation. I based that lapse on the paper’s website, which identified Berg only as a “contributing columnist.” 

But the managing editor, Nathan Woodside, wrote me Tuesday afternoon to let me know Berg was “clearly identified in our print edition.” He attached a PDF proving it. 

He said his paper’s web design had just been overhauled—and obviously there’d been a glitch that kept the “shirttail” identifying Berg as an IPI writer from appearing. “Thank you for letting me know that by blasting my name to your readers,” Woodside wrote. “We’ll get it fixed.”

Fortunately, his e-mail didn’t end there.  

“I hope you are aware that newspapers of a certain financial status rarely pay for columns, syndicated or exclusive,” Woodside went on. “In return of a cogent, thoughtful opinion the columnist gets to use the ol’ soapbox, and they’re normally paid by an agenda. It’s a pretty common practice in the newspaper industry, I’m told.”

Yes, I was aware. But not as smartly aware as the Illinois Policy Institute, which has sized up the needy state of struggling newspapers as an opportunity to exploit. I wrote back acknowledging that things are tough all over but wondering if even the shirttail carried by the print Telegraph (it was typical of what other papers said that ran Berg’s column) was adequate.

“Most readers aren’t likely to know what IPI is or what it does or what its agenda is,” I told Woodside. “And I think many readers would be troubled, and the Telegraph would be embarrassed, by an identification that acknowledged that the principal reason Berg’s column was published was that it was free.”

Woodside took my point. “I think it’s a natural, unfortunate shift that’s happening on opinion pages,” he wrote back, “but I more fear a continued decline in actual opinion from editorial pages, so I maybe am likely to err on flawed, strong opinion rather than safe and weak. It’s something I’ll consider more.”

He’d put his finger on something important. Berg might be carrying water for IPI, but he writes a good column. Woodside, with no budget to spend on either, was right to choose “flawed, strong” over “safe and weak.” Maybe IPI’s ideological and political opponents should fight fire with fire and add freebie columnists to their own payrolls. There’s a market for them.