Creating a lively letters page: how do you sustain a lively exchange with your readers? The Masthead editor collected advice from a number of editorial page veterans.
Sue O'Brien, editorial page editor, The DenverPost
For big and small papers, choosing which letters to publish and how to use them makes the difference between a lively letters section and one that is routine. Establish priorities, O'Brien suggests.
In selecting letters for the Post, people who have grievances with the paper, particularly editorials, are at the top of the list. The next priority goes for the best-written letters, with the goal of having a healthy variety of topics each day.
When batches of letters come in on the same subject, they often are grouped together, she says. The first one or two set the scene and then others are edited, usually to a couple of paragraphs, to represent the range of opinions.
The Post receives 600 letters a week and publishes about 10%. So, it attempts to bring in more reader voices by adding an extra page, with art, on Sundays (for a total of 1 2/3 pages).
Keep readers informed about rules, O'Brien also advises. The Post publishes an abbreviated version of rules regularly. She also writes a yearly column about letters in which she answers the numerous questions that come up during the year.
One interactive step that the Post took was to set up an automatic e-mall response to e-mail letters. When a letter arrives, a notice is sent out to writers advising them of the rules for publication (200-word limit, need name, address and telephone number for verification, etc.).
Barry Rascovar, deputy editorial page editor, The Sun, Baltimore
"Be a judicious editor," Rascovar says. "Edit with a light touch. Let the writers have their own style and way of expressing themselves without imposing a newspaper's style book on them."
He also suggests offering readers a variety of topics from letter writers daily, instead of focusing on a single topic.
On Saturdays, however, The Sun uses a different tactic. It offers a special grouping of letters that are responses to a question posed in a box on that page a week earlier. Sometimes the question generates enough letters for a full page; other times the responses are packaged together, with the page filled out with other letters.
On Sundays, three zoned editions carry letters specific to the areas covered. "That's made more people in suburban communities feel that The Sun is their newspaper," he says.
"Art can make a huge difference if you have the space for it," Rascovar says. "Even used in short letters, it helps draw attention and makes it more appealing to readers."
Last winter, The Sun held an evening reception for about 100 of its most prolific and effective writers. The response was outstanding, he says, and the writers really felt appreciated.
The Sun limits letters to 200 words to get in as many letters as possible, but puts no restraints on how often a writer can have a letter published. Letters are judged on merits.
One significant observation: Every time that The Sun increased the space for letters, the volume received increased dramatically.
Use empathy with writers
Lisa A. Hoff, letters editor, Star-Tribune, Minneapolis
It may have been Governor Jesse Ventura or Bill Clinton, but the volume of letters has increased to 18,000 a year at the Star-Tribune. At election time, though, numbers can skyrocket: Last fall, the paper got 200 to 300 e-mail letters per day.
Since only about 15% are published, priority is given to those who disagree with something in the newspaper. Beyond that, Hoff go es for a nice mix and for views that haven't been expressed much. The paper prints out-of-state letters, but preference is given to local writers.
As with other papers, the convenience of e-mail draws more writers.Yet, while e-mail letters are timely and accessible, Hoff takes extra care to make sure that paper letters are not ignored.
Hoff also has to deal with the many readers whose letters are rejected. In dealing with them, she says she tries to use empathy: "I try to remember that I had a letter published when I was in the 10th grade (over parity in girls' and boys' sports). I think about how I felt, how I went to school the next day, and the history teacher and everybody was talking about the letter."
Play up letters
Dale A. Davenport, editorial page editor, ihe Patriot-News, Harrisburg, Pa.
Letters are akey element of the Patriot-News' editorial pages. When you publish a good variety of letters, that generates more, Davenport says.
Most days, about seven to eight letters are printed. On Mondays, the entire aped page is used, with art used to complement 12 to 15 letters. When the volume of letters is heavy, as during the election seasons, the paper will add a page or two more.
Yearly, the paper publishes just under 3,000 letters, roughly one-third to one-half of the total received.
To sort fact from fiction before letters get into the paper, Davenport relies on the paper's electronic library, the New York Times library, and Internet search engines.
An advantage of 'Net searches is they often reveal form letters, which are not published. "The postings on the NCEW listserv are terrific" for helping to spot form letters, he adds.
And then there are fake signatures. "Sometimes the extent that people go to make a name appear legitimate is amazing," Davenport says.
How to sort them out? Usually these letters are critical of a particular person or institution. Or they're from writers who have a personal ax to grind.
The Patriot-News acknowledges all letters. Writers of letters to be published are called. For those rejected, the paper sends an information form that includes all the criteria for not publishing: no poetry, no letters to other people, no complaints about business, no commentary on matters currently in adjudication, no personal attacks or name-calling.
The envelope, please
Susan Nielsen, editorial writer, The Oregonian, Portland
Nielsen suggests this creative practice, which is used by The Seattle Times, where she worked until recently: Each month, the editorial staff members vote on their favorite letter. The paper then features the writer with a mug shot and a short explanation of who the writer is and what motivated the letter.
At the end of the year, all featured letter writers and their families are invited to a special dinner honoring them.
"It is a simple way to do community outreach, and it also brings together a very diverse group of people," she says.
A paper with fewer resources could adopt the practice by having a reception, or even just doing a "letter of the month."
Such features humanize the page, she says, and the result is much more spontaneous and natural than many other attempts to get more community voices on the pages.
Go the extra mile
Irene Portnoy, editorial page editor, The Bay City Times, Bay City, Mich.
Portnoy looks for letters of general interest to readers. As a smaller paper (40,000 circulation), she receives about five to 10 letters a day and publishes between three and seven daily.
She credits an increase in the volume of letters received (it used to be 10 per week) to loosening up restrictive letter-writing policies. The letters had been too heavily edited, and too many rules excluded letters from being published.
"People don't want their letters butchered." Portnoy says. "You have to be willing to work with them."
Often, she'll send a letter back and ask the writer to shorten it or rewrite it. But there are times when she goes beyond the call of duty.
In one instance, the news side was doing stories on a person with schizophrenia who had hurt a child. A brother sent a letter on behalf of the family about the difficulties of dealing with those who have schizophrenia. It would have taken some work to edit it for publication, but Portnoy had a better idea. She sent it to the metro editor, and a reporter interviewed the brother.
The brother then sent another letter regarding the coverage. The steps Portnoy took the first time around made it easier to edit the letter significantly and e-mail it back to him for review. "He was thrilled." she said.
From the listserv
Our paper (40,000 circ) receives an average of about 12 letters per day. ...We try to publish as many of those letters as we can. We now have a length limit of 250 words. We have discussed reducing that length limit to allow more letters to be printed.
Jeff Brady, opinion page editor, The Sun, Bremerton, Wash.
We print about 2,000 letters a year at the Press Journal, circulation average 35,000.
Larry Reisman, editor, Press Journal, Vero Beach, Fla.
We're a 50K daily in southwest Fla. And get about 15 letters a day on all subjects.
David Klement, opinion editor, Bradenton Herald
Charge and counter-charge
I just received an inquiry: Do we ever take a letter, show it to the target of critidsm, invite him/her to reply?
I replied that our policy is.. .that we would let both letters stand on their own, unsolicited, on separate days... .The practice of running the letter and response side by side seems like heresy....
-- Fred Fiske, senior editorial writer, The Syracuse Newspapers
The lawyer in me wants to make an argument in favor of heresy. The "self-correcting" aspect of a letters column, on which we rely so heavily, has always struck me as a slender reed. There's no assurance that the same readers who read Letter A will read Letter B... .Wouldn't the more equitable treatment be to run the charge and reply side by side?
-- David DuBuisson, associate editor, News & Record, Greensboro, NC.
Good advice from the past
Irene Portnoy also uses an article she clipped from The Masthead years ago. Written by David Jarmul, it offered guidelines on how to get op-ed pieces published. Some of Jarmul's advice is revised slightly here for letter writers:
* Put your main point on top. You have no more than 10 seconds to hook a reader. One of the most common mistakes is using too much wind-up before throwing the pitch.
* Make a single point -- well. You cannot expect to solve all the world's problems in 200 to 300 words. Be as specific as possible.
* Avoid jargon. Simple language does not mean simple thinking. It means you are being considerate of readers who lack your expertise and are sitting half-awake at the breakfast table.
* Use the active voice. Don't write: "lt is believed..." or "it is shown by studies ..."Write instead: "I believe..." or "Studies show...."
* Tell readers why they should care. Ask you rself: "So what? Who cares?" Explain why readers should care; appeal to their self-interest.
* Relax and have fun. Newspaper editors despair of weighty articles, called thumbsuckers, and yearn for letters filled with spirit, grace, and humor. Readers seek to be entertained and learn something in the bargain.
* Avoid tedious rebuttals. In writing in response to an earlier piece that made your blood boil, mention the earlier letter or article once and then argue your own case. A point-by-point rebuttal makes you look petty, and it's a safe bet many readers didn't see the first piece.