Rantz: Seattle Times cancels $18k ad buy because it promoted church, pastor says

Apr 8, 2024, 6:15 PM

Photo: Pastor Russell Johnson said the Seattle Times canceled an $18,500 Easter Sunday ad campaign ...

Pastor Russell Johnson said the Seattle Times canceled an $18,500 Easter Sunday ad campaign two days before it was supposed to run. (Photo courtesy of The Pursuit)

(Photo courtesy of The Pursuit)

The Seattle Times canceled an $18,500 Easter Sunday ad buy after the publisher learned it promoted a church, according to a local pastor.

Pastor Russell Johnson of The Pursuit NW church has campuses in Seattle, Snohomish and Kirkland. He planned an Easter Sunday Spadea advertising spread in the Seattle Times to help support the church’s growth. The ads were to appear on the front flap and back page, along with an ad on the interior of the newspaper, according to an advertising agreement the paper shared with The Jason Rantz Show on KTTH.

The agreement was executed on March 19, 2024, and the ads were approved. But two days before the ad was to be published, Johnson said the Seattle Times canceled out of nowhere.

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Why did Seattle Times cancel Easter Sunday ad?

Johnson reached out to the Seattle Times on February 9 to inquire about an ad “commemorating the start of Passion Week.”

“I am interested in the largest and most prominent ad space that the Seattle Times offers. I believe that would be the double-sided flap that folds over the front,” Johnson wrote in an email shared with The Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “This ad would feature Passion Week related graphics (cross, crown of thorns, empty tomb, etc.) and an invite to church for the following Sunday. Please advise on cost, availability and if the Times is willing to run a religiously-themed advertisement.”

A Seattle Times marketing specialist replied three days later to express interest in “exploring this further with you.” He offered the $18,500 price tag, guidelines around religious advertising and asked for a rough draft of the messaging.

“If you have a very rough draft of the text and a general description of imagery you want to use, we can get some initial approval on our side as the creative is refined,” the marketing specialist said according to the email.

Pursuit NW made edits before ad was greenlit

The advertisement’s final message underwent some edits. Johnson said it was originally rejected because it said “War on hell” and “Revival or we die.” He said he changed the language so that the ad could appear.

The ad copy was eventually given the green light and paid for. Johnson shared the copy and images with The Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. It asked readers to join the Pursuit NW for Easter Sunday. “Grave is empty: Jesus is Risen,” “Jesus still saves, heals, and delivers” and “Hope for every sinner” were included in the copy.

In an email to his attorney, Johnson said he heard from the marketing department on March 20, informing him that “the owner personally stepped in today and canceled your ad.” Johnson is referencing Frank Blethen.

Pastor explains why he thinks the ad was cut

In an exclusive interview with The Jason Rantz Show on KTTH, Johnson said the marketing team made it pretty clear who was responsible for what happened.

“We were told that it was essentially a reputational risk for the Seattle Times to allow a church to advertise in this manner, on the front page, even though the ad was rather innocuous, again, just advertising things like service times and available child care,” Johnson alleged. “They said, ‘You know, it didn’t really fit with the ethic of the paper.’ However, the marketing team told me in all of their years of doing advertising for the Seattle Times, this has never once happened, where the owner and the CEO personally stepped in at the last minute to cancel a signed contract.”

Neither the Seattle Times spokespeople nor Blethen responded to a request for comment.

“Look, I’m a free market guy. And Seattle Times is a privately owned entity. And I support business owners being able to make decisions about how their businesses are run, but the reality is, is that their decision to cancel our multi-thousand dollar signed contract at the last minute is borderline very close to viewpoint discrimination,” Johnson said.

This isn’t the first time Seattle Times rejected Pursuit NW

Johnson said the $18,500 was refunded after cancelation (according to an email, it appears they may not have been charged yet). But he also said he was offered a less prominent ad as a consolation, including digital ads the Seattle Times would pay for and a $3,500 discount. Johnson politely declined.

This is not the first time a Pursuit NW ad was canceled by the Seattle Times, the pastor said. Johnson showed The Jason Rantz Show on KTTH emails from June 2023 where an ad celebrating the one-year anniversary of overturning Roe v. Wade was rejected. Johnson said if the ad was deemed too political, “I’m willing to work with you guys on editing it to fit within your comfort zone so long as the central message isn’t compromised.”

“Following up on your ad inquiry from last week: management has chosen to decline publishing the message because it’s not consistent with our brand,” a Seattle Times marketing account email said in response.

There may be a lawsuit

Johnson said he’s considering legal action because, he argues, they spent thousands of dollars working on and designing the ads.

“I think at a bare minimum, the Seattle Times owes us for the amount of time, energy and effort that we put into creating an ad that had already been approved by virtue of a signed contract. So for us, I mean, I think all things being fair the Times does owe us that. Whether or not they would ever be willing to admit that and pay up is probably a long shot,” Johnson said.

The pastor is disappointed, but can’t say he’s too shocked. This area is not hospitable to religion.

“I mean, I think it’s the unfortunate reality of the market that we live in, which is dominated by people who are more or less militantly opposed to any type of ideology that does not fit neatly within the progressive framework,” he said.

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Rantz: Seattle Times cancels $18k ad buy because it promoted church, pastor says