When ‘paid’ letter-writers warrant a voice on your editorial page

by | Oct 1, 2013 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

The Inlander/October 2013

A reader denounces the newspaper for shortchanging the “honest comments of a longtime local resident” by publishing a rebuttal from an out-of-state resident – “a professional who has a vested interest, a doubtful local connection to the Red Wing community.”

The complaint crossed my desk as editor of the Red Wing Republican Eagle. The conversation  began wreferenced an exchange of letters on our editorial page.

The conversation began when a local resident advocated banning snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park. The rebuttal, which we published, came from a public relations specialist for a coalition that represented recreationalists who supported access to public lands. The author was also a former executive director of the Yellowstone (Mont.) Chamber of Commerce.

Our local letter-writer had the final say with another letter.

Guidelines for letters to the editor often draw scrutiny, especially when addressing emotional or divisive subjects. Editors often must act as referee to give readers their say and yet keep exchanges on a level playing field. Challenges to and questions about letters policies – to any variety of newspaper policies, for that matter – are excellent fodder for staff meetings and an occasional explanatory column to readers.

Should newspapers give preference to letters from local readers? The short answer is “yes,” which most newspapers do.

Community newspapers best fill their roles by giving priority to local people and events. That’s especially true on the editorial page where editors routinely receive – and likely reject – a steady stream of chain letters on a variety of subjects. But some letters warrant exceptions, and they typically fall under two categories:

  • Letters that address a local issue but are written by individuals from outside the area. It’s good practice to review the letters to see if they offer a perspective that is not otherwise regularly presented on your page.
  • Letters that are written by individuals who have the credentials to respond to an issue with a certain authority.

In this particular instance, we received a handful of letters from across the nation challenging the local call for a ban on snowmobiles in national parks. They were not published for the very reason that we gave preference to local letter writers. The writer from Yellowstone passed our test because her background indicated she had firsthand information on the points raised in the letter.

When that’s done, however, editors should make it a point to let readers know the perspective of the author.

The exchange raises another issue that should be addressed: Set ground rules for rebuttals. A good rule of thumb is to allow each individual two letters. In other words, each has an opportunity for a rebuttal after the initial exchange. Let each side get two shots, and then recommend they continue their exchange privately.

It’s commonplace that readers believe they “own” the letters column, that their constitutional “freedom of speech” precludes any tampering or rejection of their words. That’s a welcome dynamic. Any editor yearns for a vibrant exchange of opinions on the editorial page.

At the same time, don’t be afraid of setting reasonable guidelines; it is in the best interests of your readers and your community.

Don’t shy away from out-of-state op-eds, either

Op-eds from non-locals can be a valuable addition to enhancing the dialogue on editorial pages. There admittedly is a great deal of subjectivity in selection of materials, but some general criteria should guide the process. Among them:

Relevance: Is the topic of local interest? For example, at the Red Wing Republican Eagle, we often reprinted editorials or other commentaries about the vitality of downtowns or the statewide dynamics of rural and urban economies.

Contrary opinion: Does the commentary represent a perspective that might not be regularly presented in a newspaper’s editorials? Given our strong editorial bent in support of nuclear power, we frequently presented the contrary opposing viewpoint – maybe to a fault.

Strength of argument: Does the writer do a good job of stating the facts, then drawing a conclusion? Commentaries lacking substance are often best sent to the recycling bin.

Variety: Does the editorial address a topic not regularly discussed on the editorial page? An off-beat commentary may be just the ingredient to spur new voices and fresh opinions on an otherwise predictable, if not stagnant, editorial page.

Editors have a variety of sources to seek a mix of opinions. The web makes it easy to scan other newspapers. Trade associations, think tanks and other advocacy organizations regularly circulate commentaries. The Associated Press distributes selected editorials from across respective states and the country.

Editors must be careful to not reprint only those commentaries that align with a newspaper’s perspective. Doing so would make for a very stale page, and it would be a disservice to readers by not affording an opportunity for all sides of an issue to be aired.