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Keep the spotlight on readers.

E-mail has increased the volume of letters to the editor received by newspapers across the country. The speed and ease with which writers can respond to news coverage and opinions that appear in the publications they read also opens the door to new opportunities for newspapers to become more current in their daily dialog with readers.

The three panelists who addressed the Saturday workshop on letters -- Nan Alexander, Barbara Curtin, and Betty Anderson -- demonstrated how best to capitalize on the quick turnaround time that e-letters permit without abandoning the traditional franchise of handwritten or typed missives sent by fax or snail mail.

Alexander, editorial writer for The Oregonian in Portland, admitted that while she really "doesn't like letters," they do give the reader a voice -- a forum in which to criticize the news coverage and opinions of the paper. Alexander runs synopses of letters on the opinion pages and the full text on the newspaper's Web site. This form of journalistic cross-fertilization is an increasingly popular way to appeal to the interests of nerds and day-to-day news hounds.

The Oregonian also publishes an "In my opinion" feature, which is a longer treatment of a single topic that runs with the writer's photo. The newspaper offers "tips and guidelines" for readers who aspire to this expanded feature. It usually runs in an op-ed column format directly above the letters.

Alexander says she receives 250 to 300 letters a week and runs seven to nine each day. She strives for balance by running like numbers of letters on each side of a political issue or candidacy. The Oregonian also runs a "box score" comparing the numbers of letters responding to the "hot topics" of the day. Political letters that take shots are not published unless sufficient time remains for the target of the letter to return fire.

Curtin, opinion editor of the 60,000-circulation Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore., says she attempts to treat each letter writer with respect. The newspaper, which receives about 4,000 letters annually, limits writers to 150 words and one published submission every 30 days. Curtin does her best to make the letters page user-friendly by offering detailed guidelines on the Web page.

Writers whose letters are not initially accepted for publication receive one of three form letters that give a general or specific reason for rejection and, in other cases, offer an explanation of how a letter could be improved and resubmitted. The Statesman Journal verifies each letter by asking for a brief summary of its contents and refusing to accept the word of anyone but the actual writer.

Curtin says a clerk logs every letter into a word processor to create a quick reference for callers who inquire about whether their letters were received or would be run.

Anderson, letters editor of The Seattle Times, receives up to 200 letters a day, including e-mails. A veteran copy editor, she provides the closest thing to TLC for the letters and their creators. Somewhat reluctantly, she admits occasionally "taking dictation," including one time when an epileptic and Parkinson's disease sufferer implored her to help him get out a message would otherwise have been incapable of expressing.

The Times publishes six to eight letters a day. All are heavily edited for style, grammar, and a sincere effort "to avoid embarrassing the writer." "Succinct and reasoned letters" receive preference, but Anderson admits she is always on the lookout for the "unusual, clever and (especially) satiric" letters.

Once or twice a year, the Times publishes a full-page Guide To Times Opinions that explains the people, placements, and policies that govern the submission -- and likely publication -- of op-ed pieces and letters as well as the source of editorials and opinion columns. The "ours," "theirs," and "yours" diagramming of sample pages helps readers to understand who is saying what on behalf of whom and may cut down some on assumptions that newspapers must somehow agree with anything and everything they publish.

Panelists differed somewhat as to their willingness to publish letters from prison inmates or those that contain poetry. They agreed that a "standard of civility" should be sought in the tone and tenor of the letters.

Once a month, the Times designates a "best letter" award winner and also publishes a box score of the hot topics locally, nationally, and internationally. At the end of the year, the 12 monthly winners are honored at a banquet where they are presented with a token of the newspaper's appreciation and an opportunity to mix with their fellow scribes.

All letters editors share the same vigilance for letters that contain potentially libelous references or are the result of organized campaigns in which an identical letter is sent to papers around the country with different signatures, some real and some contrived. These plagiarized viewpoints are an embarrassment to the newspaper and a disservice to the reader, but tracking them can be time-consuming and expensive, depending upon the paper's database access and its cost.

NCEW's listserve contributors have begun sending out bogus letter reports. It's unfortunate to have to spend time playing gotcha games with people content to misrepresent themselves or the source of their words, but the workshop panelists agreed that letters to the editor are one playing field where it's best to keep everything on the level.

NCEW member Richard Carson is editorial page editor of The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio.
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Publication:The Masthead
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2000
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