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E-mail: Is it a blessing or curse?

For editorial page editors, e-mail has been a blessing, though not an unqualified one. E-mail has increased the number of letters to the editor newspapers receive, but the quality of letters has declined somewhat.

The informality; ease and convenience of e-mail often result in letters that are more emotional -- less reasonable -- in tone and argument.

E-mail writers also seem more careless with their grammar and they often indulge in fanciful punctuation!!! (?)

That's my assessment. But I was curious about what others at NCEW papers thought. Here's what some have to say:

Carroll Wilson, editor

Wichita Falls Times in Texas

We now receive far more letters via e-mail and digitally through a form on our Web site than we receive in the regular mail. The letters we receive by snail mail are generally from older readers, while the e-mail letters are generally from younger ones.

We have come to the conclusion that many of the e-mail letters were shot off in the heat of the moment and, had the authors taken more time to reflect or cool off, would have never been sent in the first place. I don't have numbers for this, but that's a general impression.

Too many readers are now prone to pop off via e-mail, and their letters show they are in a hurry -- grammar spelling, typing, and capitalization errors abound in them. That means they require much more careful editing than letters sent regular mail.

While the e-mailed letters are always short, some of them are strident in tone. They are a little like long bum-per stickers. Few have real depth to them or thought behind them. Of course, there are exceptions.

I also notice that quite a few e-mail letters were composed and/or sent in the middle of the night. I don't know what that means.

John Gates, editorial page editor

Winston-Salem Journal in North Carolina

Our experience has been generally positive. E-mail has increased our volume of letters substantially without reducing the quality. E-mail senders seem to make a distinction between communicating among friends with e-mail and using it as a convenient and quick way to submit letters to the editor.

We get the occasional foaming-at-the-mouth lunatic, but we get those by snail mail, too. Our biggest concern is verification, but so far, our insistence on daytime phone numbers seems to work as well with e-mail as snail mail. And e-mail addresses can be tracked. E-mail has made our life easier. When we get a new front-end system that is PC-based (this fail, we hope),it'll be even easier.

Richard Doak, editorial page editor

The Des Moines Register

Our experience, in general, is that e-mail letters tend to be more concise and to the point. It's the nature of the medium. The e-mail letter is more like a computer message than a formal letter.

We've had no particular trouble with trendy punctuations, bad spelling, etc. In fact, our impression is that e-mail writers are thoughtful and intelligent. (Again, that's in general. There's always the occasional e-mailer who submits a long dissertation with multiple attachments.)

Of course, e-mail is also much easier to handle, since it does not need to be scanned or re-typed into the system. And verification or questions can be handled just be hitting the "reply" button and e-mailing the writer back.

Brad Warthen, editorial page editor

The State in Columbia, S.C.

I think the quality of letters to the editor has gone up since we've started taking a lot of e-mail. I haven't really studied to see whether that's because of the influx of e-mail or in spite of it. If it is indeed because of it, that would be because there are quite a few thoughtful people out there who don't have time to sit down and write a letter, but will write a nice e-mail.

And we keep the flaming nuts out by having the same rules on identification as with snail mail letters -- we have to have your full address and a daytime phone number.

Jerry Ausband, editorial page editor

The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

The quality is sometimes as emotional as a telephone answering device is, but e-mail has greatly increased the numbers and the quickness of responses to issues. We also tend to get campaigns, such as the Confederate flag issue in South Carolina, but we can zap 'em, too, when necessary.

I wouldn't do without e-mail. And I am getting fewer letters from the answering machine that I have to transcribe; that's one advantage.

John Hughes, letters editor

The Sacramento Bee

First, I do not believe that e-mail has produced more letters. People who send e-mail today would have used fax three years ago.

On the quality of letters, I believe e-mail letters are equal to mail delivered by the U.S. mail. In fact, I would suggest that given the socioeconomic divide over basic Internet access, one could expect better letters from e-mail. People who can't write well aren't likely to be able to afford the equipment necessary for subscription Internet access or the motivation to wait at the library for free access.

The value in e-mail comes in the ability of the editor to communicate with the writer. When a two-page, single-spaced letter arrives via U.S. mail, it goes immediately into the pile to be filed. But when a 600-word e-mail letter arrives a form-letter response can be fired back in the time it takes to move regular mail from one pile to another. The e-mail letter writer then has the opportunity to decide whether a 200-word (or less) letter can be salvaged.

Betty Anderson, letters editor

The Seattle Times

It's still a mixed bag for me on e-mailed letters. I find some of my best letters -- thoughtful, satirical, reasonable -- on our daily screening of mail. I also find that e-mails yield some immediate reaction to the news. And since we are on the a.m. cycle now, it's refreshing to be able to reflect readership views on a pretty quick turnaround.

I believe there are some more emotions found in the e-mails because of the ability to read an editorial, column, or story online and click on the writer's e-mail address and respond. I still find the gamut of writing ability and the overuse of the exclamation point and capital letters for emphasis.

NCEW member Paul Hyde is an editorial writer and columnist for The Greenville News in South Carolina.
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Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2000
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