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Good writing? Get 'em while they're young.

It seems logical that young readers would become young letter-to-the-editor writers. However, when marketing surveys report that the stream of high school and college newspaper readers is dwindling, it's clear we're going to have to do something special to attract a younger crowd to the opinion page.

At the Argus Leader, the opinion page team decided we would turn the tables on teens. If we can lure them to write letters, they're going to read the newspaper at least long enough to see if their letter or the letters of their peers get published.

You can't sell letter writing to teen-agers while sitting in the office.

It's important to go where the kids are to introduce the concept of letting the whole world know what you think in the form of a letter to the editor.

At the beginning of our campaign, I began ambushing the end of school field trip groups touring the newspaper. As they stream through the newsroom, looking at the computers and AP Leafdesk, I stop the group and introduce myself.

I tell them teens are welcome on the opinion page. What issues are you interested in? You could write a letter on that and get it published.

Then I suggest to the teacher that perhaps the students could receive extra credit for submitting. The eyes turn toward the teacher and eyebrows raise. The teacher usually seems receptive.

And in a few days I get a letter or two from the tour group.

Associate editorial page editor Cindy Uken and I have volunteered to go to high school journalism and English classes to teach "How to write a letter to the editor" classes. We make it simple. Suggest that the effort be no longer than five paragraphs. It's easy, we say. Tell readers what you're writing about. Tell them why it's important to you. Support your opinion with some statistics or facts. Tell them what you would like to see done about the issue. And sum it all up in the last paragraph.

Because there is a big push in the local schools to improve writing scores in state and local testing, we expect to be busy visiting the schools this fall.

Editorial board on the road

In September, we're taking the editorial board on the road to smaller communities in the region. We will issue a special invitation to teenagers to attend. We will have letter-writer guidelines available at these townhall type meetings.

We include teens on the citizen editorial board advisory panel that meets monthly to discuss coverage and issues they believe should be addressed by the Argus Leader editorial board. We've been pleased with the contributions the younger readers have made to all the discussions. And during these exchanges, you can see the adults' admiration for the teens grow.

We regularly solicit short letters from readers on issues we've addressed in editorials. When appropriate, we specifically ask for responses from teenagers or children. And we get them. Sometimes it is a large envelope containing letters from an entire class. More often, it is a thoughtful response from a youngster who has participated in a family discussion about something that has happened in the community.

There were a flood of letters from young people following the Littleton, Colo., tragedy. Teens were deeply affected by the shootings. And they brought an important point of view to the opinion page. Some of those who wrote about the issues raised by violence in the schools have since submitted letters on other issues.

Once a writer, always a writer is our belief. We keep a list of teen writers, their ages, addresses, and phone numbers (required for verification purposes) and call on them to write 400-word Reader's Forum essays on appropriate topics.

The good thing about young writers is they see things clearly, cast in absolutes. They are fearless, writing frankly about their views. Some of their letters aren't well framed, use poor spelling and grammar, and are off the wall. But don't we get letters from adults that aren't all that wonderful? We do our best to get them all on the opinion page.

The bad thing is that they are kids and may be shocked when adult writers take them to task. So we always publish their age to alert those who may respond that they're taking on a youngster. Those who disagree often temper criticism and use a more gentle tone when attempting to set them straight.

We don't know for sure if more young people are reading the Argus Leader. But we do know we are getting more letters from them, addressing this or that they've read in the newspaper. We consider that a good foundation to build on.

NCEW member Shirley Ragsdale is opinion page editor for the Argus Leader of Sioux Falls, S.D. Write her at P.O. Box 5034, Sioux Falls SD 57117-5034.
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Author:Ragsdale, Shirley
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 1999
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