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All sorts mingle at 'Letter Writers Ball.' (meeting of writers of letters to the editor staged by Anchorage Daily News)

* Hard-core correspondents keep passions in check at this successful affair. (The no-booze policy might help.)

I stole the idea in 1990 but can't remember if The Orlando Sentinel or The Miami Herald was the larceny victim.

One of the large Florida papers, I remember, had an annual dinner or reception for folks who wrote letters to the editor, and I figured Alaska's letter writers would love an event thrown in their honor. I also figured an evening with letter writers would play favorably for the Anchorage Daily News in its battle for readers with the Anchorage Times.

As Alaska's largest newspaper (circulation 73,000 weekdays), the Daily News receives letters to the editor from all over Alaska and for that matter, all over the world. The letters arrive on everything from embossed stationery to cardboard.

In 1990, we printed more than 3,000 of the 5,000 letters we received. Today, five years after the Anchorage Times closed, we print about 4,000 of 8,000.

We allow letter writers to have their say once a month. The hard-core writers who send us something every 30 days include anarchists, atheists, prisoners, pro-lifers, gun toters, environmentalists, libertarians, Gingrich Republicans, animal fights activists, and fathers at war with child-custody laws. They share little except a passionate attachment to the Daily News letters page.

While putting together an advertisement for the first Anchorage Daily News Letter Writers Reception, I realized a "come one, come all" invitation to Alaska better be structured or all those strong opinions we were courting might become nitroglycerine.

As a precaution, we offered coffee, pop, and punch to accompany the finger food - no booze.

My alarm was irrational. About 75 well-behaved letter writers turned up at a neighborhood recreation center on February 21, 1990, and we quickly established a routine that we have followed every year.

After mingling with the crowd, I make a few opening remarks, take questions about the newspaper for 45 minutes to an hour, then open the microphone to anyone who wants to talk on any subject - two minutes max - for another 45 minutes. The evening usually ends with door prizes: books, mugs, tote bags, and an occasional parchment replica of the Constitution for someone demanding his "rights."

The publisher, the top editor, and the rest of the editorial page staff usually attend to meet the writers and answer questions.

In the Q&A segment, most of "Qs" are for information. How do you decide what letters get printed? Why do you put letters about the Bible in the religion section? How do you choose the opinion columnists?

Inevitably some people complain about the paper, denounce the editorial policy, and accuse the staff of failing to cover important issues. I have been told I'm in the pay of the oil companies, the military, the Republican Party, and President Bill Clinton.

This year, the Letter Writers Ball - as the staff now calls it - drew about 110 people. It was a polite, even fastidious affair. A favorite moment: During the open mike, a well-known exotic dancer (fully clothed) explained that some of her gentlemen "clients" grumble that they only read the Daily News election endorsements to find candidates to vote against. This was enlightening. I never knew conservative Republicans salivate about editorials when they see naked women.

Early in the winter of the year 2000, the paper will host a millennial letter writers' ball. The Hale-Bopp comet, plainly visible from my house, told me to expect a revelation.

Please drop in. The Anchorage Daily News and its letter writers will provide you with a lively evening and a tasty glass of millennial punch.

NCEW member Michael Carey is editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News.
COPYRIGHT 1997 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Carey, Michael
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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