Looking to invigorate your editorial page? Focus on letters
The Inlander/April 2012
Newspapers frequently ask how they can promote a lively exchange of ideas in their communities.
There’s no silver bullet, but one premise is fundamental: Letters are the lifeblood of an editorial page. Take steps to ensure substantive letters, and you’re well on your way to making your editorial page a must-read. My apologies in advance to anyone who takes offense, but thank-you letters should be at the bottom of the pile – if they ever are published.
Consider this string of thank-you letters during a two-week span at one newspaper.
The retiring director of a youth camp thanks the community for its unwavering support. Teachers thank school board members for their service in observance of School Board Recognition Week. Two fundraiser organizers thank the community for its support, one specifically thanking a local hotel for hosting the event. A mayor thanks community members for the opportunity to serve them, then expresses his appreciation to all appointed and elective officials. Another public official thanks his constituents for the opportunity to serve them as he announces his decision not to seek re-election.
These letters may be great for scrapbooks, but they do little to boost the editorial page as a place for substantive exchange on important community issues.
Following are additional dos and don’ts to keep the letters column relevant:
Limit length: Readers have limited attention span for lengthy stories. The same is true for letters. Editors are doing the writers a favor by imposing limits; 300 words is a good starting point.
Limit frequency of authors: Individuals generally should be limited to one letter per month, except in the case of rebuttals (see next item).
Restrict rebuttals: Exchanges among writers should be limited to two letters from each individual on a particular subject – in other words, a letter and a rebuttal, plus a counter-rebuttal from each writer. After that, the readers can carry on their conversations privately. Writers will complain that the other person “had the last word,” but that will always be the case.
Avoid orchestrated campaigns: Letters distributed in mass distribution should be held to a higher standard. If you publish one, you likely open the floodgates to a variety of special interests that may not necessarily have a presence in your community. At minimum, editors should require that these letters are authored by a local resident.
Give priority to local opinions: In general, letters should be accepted from local readers only. An exception might be a letter on a local topic from a recognized expert who lives outside the area.
Verify letters: All letters should be verified prior to publication, preferably by a phone call. Editors should require name, full address and telephone number on all submissions – especially if letters are submitted via e-mail.
Letters are no substitute for news stories: Only in special circumstances should editors accept letters promoting an event or program. Once you say “yes” to one, it’s difficult to say “no” to another.
Be conscious of display: Be sensitive to the prominence letters receive – especially those that present opposing views on the same issue.
Edit aggressively: Make readers aware that letters are edited aggressively, especially those that repeat themes.
Stick to public issues: Letters should address public issues or issues that come before public bodies. Commentary, (positive or negative) on private organizations and businesses are not regular subjects for letters.
Identify authors where appropriate: Letters should carry a note identifying the writer if it’s germane to the subject. For example, a writer might be identified as a nuclear engineer if the letter addresses nuclear energy.
Possibly most important, newspapers should resist the temptation to add a postscript to letters. Editors’ notes might be appropriate to correct an error in fact or a statement that grossly mischaracterizes a position. But they should not be tacked on to defend or restate the newspaper’s position.
Editors should keep in mind that every action prompts a reaction. The obsession of many newspapers to have the “last word” sends a clear message to readers and is a sure-fire way to squelch the exchange of opinions.