Publishing your letters is not so simple
It has become clear to me that one byproduct of an active, opinionated community such as ours is a flood of letters to the editor. Every editor loves that, for several reasons: It makes people want to pick up the paper every day to see what their neighbors think; it is a continuing way for the newspaper to interact with its readers; and it serves the community as a meeting ground to debate ideas. If it brings some problems, it is far better than publishing in an atmosphere of apathy.
On the other hand, a newspaper wants to be a positive force in its community, a forum for all ideas. To highlight the views at the extreme ends of the spectrum is to paint an inaccurate picture of civic opinion, and maybe even to foment unproductive conflict.
So our goal is to get in as many and as wide a variety of letters as we can that are civil, well-reasoned and to the point. Currently, we have rules (in effect long before my arrival) limiting letters to the editor to 350 words. During political season, because of the sheer volume (upwards of 30 letters a day), opinions about candidates are limited to 100 words. Those who feel they have more to say can submit an “Other Voices” column, which can be up to 750 words. The bar for acceptance of these is higher. We primarily look for analyses of local issues that make people think, or provide new insight into a familiar problem.
Since last week, in order to get more letters in, I have been trimming them for length as well as appropriate language. However, some folks understand length rules to mean that all letters within that length will be published. This may have been the case in the past, I don’t know.
A few letter-writers have been upset. One said editing letters is a “very bad idea,” adding that “changing the format of the most popular page in the newspaper is probably not going to increase readership.” The argument is a valid one, although another hypothesis is that it could increase readership by making the page more welcoming to those who currently fear being personally attacked.
Newspapers generally deal with letters in two ways: They set strict length guidelines and deep-six letters that are too long, or they set few guidelines and select and edit to create the best mix.
The Des Moines Register is one of the latter. It has a tradition of publishing tons of letters from all over the state of Iowa, and here is what they tell readers: “Write a brief letter on any subject, the shorter the better. Make your point quickly. Remember – ALL letters are subject to editing. MOST letters are edited for clarification and length. (Emphasis theirs.) Choose your words carefully. Letters that contain libelous or slanderous statements will likely either be edited or rejected.”
The policy printed on the Sacramento Bee editorial page says “letters may be edited and republished in any format. All letters become the property of the Sacramento Bee.” A look at the expanded policy on their Web site says letters are limited to 200 words. Only about a third are used, averaging150 words a letter.
The San Francisco Chronicle gets 100 to 200 letters a day and uses about six to 10 of them, limited to 200 words. Writes Editorial Page Editor John Diaz: “We tighten them by editing out rambling sentences or redundant points. One of our objectives is to maintain civility and raise the level of discourse in public debate. Save the screaming for talk radio. Spare the crassness, too.”
Just for comparison, I checked smaller area newspapers for a typical day in the past week. The Auburn Journal, Chico Enterprise-Record and Tahoe Daily Tribune all averaged four letters a day. Yesterday, The Union published 14.
So here is your turn to comment. Choose one of these options, or create one of your own, and write or e-mail me why:
1. Continue length rules. Run all letters that meet the requirement, scurrilous content and all. Dump the ones that don’t.
2. Continue length rules, but select and judiciously edit them for variety, clarity and civility, and run as many as possible.
3. Waive length rules, with letters subject to editing for length and clarity if necessary to use as many as possible.
4. Waive all rules, but be highly selective and only publish the most well-written and relevant letters.
Richard Somerville is the editor at The Union. His column appears on Saturdays.
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