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A new e-mail tool to solicit letters: e-mail outreach to a database of previous letter writers generates an enthusiastic outpouring of diverse letters from readers. (Symposium).

This spring, the city of Spokane prepared to adopt a comprehensive land-use plan, which had profound changes for our sprawl-weakened community.

As decision day approached, our letters page was receiving a random smattering of letters about the plan. But most of those letters seemed to come from people with an ax to grind, such as developers and battle-hardened activists from the city's zoning controversies.

What about the community at large? In years past, we occasionally printed an announcement on the letters page, requesting letters about a particular subject, but the response was disappointing.

So, I tried a new tool: database-driven email.

On a Tuesday, I sent 345 people an e-mail inviting letters to the editor about the comprehensive plan. My e-mail summarized the issue and provided recipients with Web links to our online news coverage of the plan, as well as a link to the plan's text on the city's Web site.

I selected these 345 people at random, from six different zip codes representing a cross section of our city Their names and e-mail addresses were stored in a database of more than 3,000 people who had sent us letters to the editor during the past nine months.

Within 48 hours, I had received 50 replies to my e-mail. Some writers respectfully declined to comment, saying they didn't know the issue well enough. Thirty-five did comment, and of those, 25 replies were usable.

Four days after I invited these comments, we published an editorial about the plan, a guest column by a local architect, a Neal Peirce column on urban planning and a dozen of the e-mailed replies. Two days later we published another full page of the replies, along with a guest column by a local homebuilder.

The writers based their opinions on a fascinating range of experiences. A 70-year-old who resides in a low-income high-rise wrote about her love for city centers and the services required to make them livable. A woman who grew up in the Netherlands wrote about regulations requiring the efficient use of land. Many argued for the restoration of older neighborhoods. Some galloped to the defense of western sprawl and property rights.

My e-mail invited readers to let us know if they did not wish to be a part of our "Reader Advisory Network' Not one person took me up on the offer. Instead, virtually everyone thanked us for asking their opinion, and many said they hoped to receive similar e-mails from us in the future.

So far, we have tested this tool several times and it continues to evolve. For example, we've solicited brief, quick-turnaround reactions to major news stories, such as the breakup of a neo-Nazi group in Idaho. We've solicited stories about reader experiences with a dangerous stretch of highway that needed repairs. Later this year, we'll solicit opinions about the proposed incorporation of a new city on Spokane's eastern border.

The technology behind this tool has evolved. At first, we used e-mail software to create an electronic address book of letter writers who have e-mail, and built group mailing lists in a few different categories.

Now, we have changed to a more flexible method: A desktop database program (Microsoft Access) stores contact information about all of our letter writers as well as the text of their letters. The database, which I designed over a period of several months, contains names, addresses, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and fields that categorize letters by topic.

We enter the data as part of our routine work flow, because the database is the data-entry portal for publishing all of our letters to the editor. This helps us keep accurate records and analyze trends in our letters. At election time, when we are buried in letters, we can protect ourselves from organized letter-writing campaigns and make sure that all ballot issues are represented in the letters we publish.

Our e-mail software (Microsoft Outlook) can send mass e-mails to lists of names extracted from the database. We extract lists based on criteria we specify -- everyone who lives in a particular city or zip code, for example.

Soliciting by e-mails is not perfect, because not everyone has e-mail. That's why our letters page, most days,prints whatever readers choose to send, by whatever means they prefer. However, the passive, traditional approach also has shortcomings.

A final word of caution: Databases require discretion and security, and access to them should be limited. We mustn't misuse the personal contact information that letter writers entrust to us. Nor do we want to bug readers so often they they start thinking of us as a source of e-mail "spam."

Still, the enthusiastic response from those we've e-mailed is encouraging. People are flattered when we ask them what they think The ease and speed of e-mail makes replies more likely. The database allows us to sample public opinion using objective criteria such as zip codes. Not only does this provide a tool to improve the diversity of our letters, but it may also strengthen our relationship with readers.

If you are interested in giving this a try, here are a few final tips: Take some time to learn about the software tools you have available. I took a class in Microsoft Access, bought a few computer books, and spent weeks tinkering, designing and fine-tuning. Along the way I learned that if you oversimplify a database design at the beginning, you'll have less flexibility later. If you plan ahead, you'll build a good foundation for whatever you might invent later on. Chances are, you'll find that this is fun.

Bible quotes

From the listserv

The policy of The Free Lance-Star has been to reject letters that contain extensive Bible quotes or that we feel are preachy... .We can tell the letter writer that the "editorial page is not the proper place for spreading the Gospel." But is that good enough? Is that unfair discrimination? I'd be interested in hearing about the religious-letter policy of other papers.

--James G. Lakely, assistant editorial page editor, The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va.

We reject extensive quotations in letters, whether the quote is from the Bible, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, or Elmer Fudd.... Very short quotes are OK.

-- Dick Hughes, editorial page editor, Statesman Journal, Salem, Ore.

Our policy falls along the lines of Dick If Hughes' in Salem. If someone is exploiting letters to basicallyquoteendlesslyfrom another source,we say no. However, this most often has to be enforced for biblical quotes.

-- David Kubissa, associate editor, Star-Gazette, Elmira, N.Y.

What I tell writers who inquire is that the paper and its readers are interested in the personal, individual views of other readers, not citations of any authority.

-- D. Michael Heywood, editorial pages editor, The Columbian, Vancouver,Wash.

Long quotations from any source, Bible or any other book, are a bore and may not make the cut even at a small paper like ours.... But far be itfrom meto exclude letters just because they quote Scripture or bring strong religious beliefs to bear on contentious issues.

-- Craig Breisford, editorial page editor, Hickory Daily Record, Hickory, N.C.

NCEW member John Webster is opinion editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. His e-mail address is Johnwe@spokesman.com
COPYRIGHT 2001 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Webster, John
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2001
Words:1200
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