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Most papers receive more letters.

The popularity of the letters to the editor column in our nation's newspapers has been increasingly steadily in the past several years. The public has responded to the availability of the media by writing thousands of letters on a yearly basis.

A recent study was conducted in order to answer questions in several topic areas that past studies have not covered. It was in part a replication and expansion of a previous study conducted by Kapoor and Botan in 1988.

Letters to the editor have been somewhat affected by the agenda-setting function of the press. The numbers of letters that newspapers receive increases annually as illustrated by The New York Times, which reports almost double the number of letters - 30,629 in 1967 to 58,524 in 1973.

Sample and questionnaire

Thirty-three percent of all newspapers listed in the 1993 Editor and Publishers Yearbook were mailed a questionnaire. In all, 514 out of a total number of 1,611 newspapers received the questionnaire.

The sample consisted of three categories of newspapers:

* Large papers, with circulation of 100,001-500,000+.

* Medium papers, circulation 25,001 to 100,000.

* Small papers, 25,000 or less.

For each circulation category, a percentile of the total number of newspapers was calculated. Each category was multiplied by 33% to arrive at the number of surveys sent to members of each circulation category.

Two hundred and ninety-six newspapers (57.6%) responded to the survey, with 4.7% from small papers, 21% from medium papers, 29.1% from large-circulation papers, and four from papers not reporting their circulation.

The same questionnaire used in the 1979 and 1988 Kapoor and Pasternack study was used for two reasons. First, the former questionnaire was considered exhaustively thorough. Second, using the same questionnaire makes possible doing limited comparisons of 1979, 1988, and 1994.


The study produced data regarding the number of letters received and published, publication policies, and staffing.

Numbers of letters received monthly. While 38% of newspapers receive 0-50 letters per month and 17.5% receive 51-100, only a total of 32.8% receive between 101-500, with the remaining 10.8% receiving over 500 letters per month.

Changes in volume of letters received. A large percentage of newspapers reported either a slight increase (32.4%) or a substantial increase (47.0%) in the volume of letters to the editor over the past 10 years. Only 3.7% reported a slight decrease, with 2.4% reporting a substantial decrease in letters to the editors over the past 10 years, while 3.7% reported the volume of letters unchanged.

Readership study conducted. A large percentage - 55.4% or 164 out of 296 - have not conducted a readership survey about the letters to the editor column recently. Large and medium-sized papers that have conducted surveys consider the letters to the editor column to be "one of the best-read items." No newspaper reported the letters column was below-average in readership.

Staff changes in relation to the letters column in the past 10 years. Slightly less than half (49%) of papers reported no significant staff change in relation to the letters column in the past 10 years, while about a quarter (25.3%) report a slight increase of staff, and 4.4% report a substantial change in staff.

Only 11.5% report a slight decrease in staff, and 6.8% report a substantial decrease, with 3.0% not reporting.

The study found a significant difference between papers of various sizes with respect to staff changes in relation to numbers of letters. Small newspapers (76.9%) experienced an overall staff increase with medium papers (23.1%) reporting an increase, and no increase reported in staff at large papers.

Percentage of letters published. Twenty-three percent of the responding papers publish fewer than half of letters received, while 77% publish more than half. Sixty papers publish 90% of letters received. Compared with small newspapers (4.5%), fewer large papers (2.2%) publish more than 85% of the letters they receive.

Change in percentage of letters published. Over the past 10 years, only 17.9% of papers have decreased the percentage of letters published. Slightly more than a third of the papers (117 or 39.5%) experienced no change, and 37.4% have experienced at least some increase.

Word limit. Fewer than half (40.5%) of all papers limit letter length to 251-500 words, with 2.4% allowing 501 to 1,000 words. A total of 15.5% have no word limit, and 35.1% limit letters to 250 words or less.

Automatic rejection of letters. Anonymous letters are very likely to be rejected 93.9% of the time. Letters that attack the newspaper's policies were rejected less than half (42.6%) of the time.

Non-automatic rejection of letters. Again, anonymity is very likely to be reason enough to reject a letter (93.9%), and unfair personal attacks can often be sufficient reason (59.9%) for rejection.

Language and grammar. Most papers (59.1%) do not use grammar as a reason to reject letters, yet 36.5% say good grammar improves the chances of publication.

Frequency of publication of letters. Slightly over one-third (36.2%) of all papers have no limit on how frequently they will publish letters from a particular source, while 4.7% limit publication to one a week, and 37.2% to monthly publication. Different-sized papers vary significantly with respect to limits on frequency of publication, with smaller papers less likely to have a limit on frequency.

Publishing writers' names. Most papers (250, or 84.4%) require that the writer's name is published with the letter while 10, or 3.4%, will withhold a writer's name by request and 32 (10.8%) will withhold it for good cause. No significant difference was seen across sizes of papers.

Editing of letters. Most papers, 96.3%, report some form of editing performed on letters. Editing to shorten, 65.9%, and editing for grammar, 61.8%, were the most frequent forms. Many papers, 34.1%, return letters to the writer for change, and 25.7% edit for libel or taste, with 25% discussing changes with writers before publication. About 90% of larger papers will shorten letters while only 49.4% of small papers shorten letters.


Newspapers have seen a tremendous increase in the number of letters over the past 10 years. Our study indicates that 79% of newspapers report either a slight or substantial increase in the column of letters over the past ton years. The 1979 and 1988 studies reported 88% of the newspapers surveyed had an increase in the number of letters to the editor they received, while only 2.5% reported any type of decrease.

In our study, editors report that more than 55% of them do not conduct any type of readership survey. The 1979 and 1988 study found 61% of the newspapers reporting did not conduct a readership survey.

When addressing the issue of staff changes, a much lower percentage (49%) of newspapers reported no staff changes despite an increase in letters. This compares to the two previous studies in 1979 and 1988 in which 80% of newspapers reported no staff changes. However, in the two earlier studies, smaller newspapers (77%) reported a dramatic increase in staff.

These findings indicate that because of the increased volume of letters received by newspapers, combined with the newspapers' concern with credibility of letter contents, editors are having the letters read more carefully than in the past, thereby requiting a need for an increase of staff to accommodate the increased workload.

Because of the increase in the number of letters to the editor over the past 10 years, many newspapers have been forced to increase the size of the column. Seventy-five percent of newspapers surveyed report an increase in the size of the column while only 15% report a slight decrease.

Despite the increase in the number of letters received, over 56% of our respondents report they do not need to change the present size of their column. These data were consistent with data from the two previous studies in which editors at more than half of the newspapers said they did not want to change the amount of space allocated to the column. The attitudes of the editors over the past 15 years (from 1979 to present) have not changed to a great degree.

Publication decisions and editing

More than half of all newspapers surveyed say they publish 80% of the letters they receive while smaller newspapers indicate an even higher rate. However, newspapers indicated a negative correlation between staff time spent on reviewing letters and amount of letters received each week.

Over 21% of newspapers reported a decrease in the letters published over the last 10 years, with over 37% reporting an increase in the amount of letters they now publish. Compared with the 1979 and 1988 studies, in which only 12% of newspapers report a decrease in the percentage of letters published, current data may indicate newspapers in our study may be editing letters more than in previous studies.

Most newspapers surveyed imposed length limits on letters. Specifically, 75% implement a length limit of less than 500 words with only 15.5% of newspapers reporting having no limit on number of words. Previous studies found a larger percentage, 33.3%, of newspapers having no word limit.

Since the column sizes have not been increased over the past ton years, it seems that a much greater percentage of newspapers would limit letter length.

Some significant differences between circulation size emerge for types of automatic rejection. First, in terms of letters without an address, anonymous letters, factual errors, and "thank you" letters, larger newspapers report a high rejection rate when compared to medium or small newspapers.

Second, in cases concerning letters that are incoherent or illegible, form letters, poetry, or essays, larger newspapers reject significantly more than both medium and small newspapers.

Third, large newspapers report a significant difference for rejections based on letters written by inmates seeking pen pals, writers seeking no editing, or letters beating an unverifiable name.

Finally, letters being too long was another statistically significant reason for rejection - although, in this case, medium newspapers use this reason more frequently than large and small papers do. Small newspapers cite personal attacks as a source of rejection more frequently than medium or large newspapers, but in this instance the difference is not that significant.

Because larger newspapers normally receive more letters and have a larger staff as compared to small and medium newspapers, the larger papers are better able to critique and be more selective. However, explaining why medium newspapers reject more letters than the other circulation sizes is difficult.

Approximately half of the newspapers surveyed report they have no limit on how frequently they publish letters from a particular source; however, more than 20% state they limit it to once a month. The differences in this policy are significant across circulation categories - small newspapers are less likely to have a limit on how frequently they will publish a particular writer's letters. This may be because of the fact that smaller newspapers receive fewer letters than the other two sizes of newspapers. Thus, small newspapers may publish more letters by the same writers in order to fill space.

More than 84% of newspapers require a writer's name publishing with the letter, while only 11% are willing to waive this policy for a good reason. No significant difference was seen among the circulation categories.

In terms of providing writers with reasons for rejections, over 53% of the newspapers notify the writer, with small newspapers doing so more frequently than either large or medium newspapers. This clearly indicates that small newspapers are hesitant to disappoint letter writers, whereas large newspapers are not as concerned.

In comparison to the 1979 and 1988 studies, this study found a marked decrease - by almost 25% - of newspapers that notify writers their letters have been rejected. This decrease in notification can be attributed to the increase in the volume of letters received.

More than 75% of newspapers contend their letters column strives to achieve balance. The size of the circulation category is statistically significant, with large newspapers less likely to strongly agree. Once again, large newspapers have the option to use pro and con letters because of their larger supply of letters to choose from, while medium and small newspapers sometimes do not have an opportunity to achieve this balance.

Over 60% of the newspapers indicate their letters column reflects public opinion. However, less than 40% either are not sure or concede their column may not have an adequate representation.

The results of our study clearly indicate a dramatic increase in the number of citizens who use the letters to the editor column as a means of expressing their views and concerns.

Our study shows that newspaper editors and their staff are editing letters more. It looked at the time staff spends on the letters column per week and found that over 65% spend at least ten hours with 25% spending between 21 and 30 hours per week.

Our study also examined the age of the editors and found 58% are between the ages of 22 and 45.

Concerning the gender variable, we found an overwhelming 76% to be male editors, with fewer than 21% of the editors being females.

Because of the increasing growth of population of the United States, future studies need to examine the issue of age and gender of who writes and edits letters to the editor.

RELATED ARTICLE: About the survey

This study qualifies as follow-up research but does not qualify as a longitudinal study because only the results (not the data) of the 1979 and 1988 studies are available and were used in this study.


Using statistical program SPSS, several procedures including correlation's analysis of variance and F-tests were performed.


Kapoor, S. & Pasternack, S. (1980). The Masthead, vol. 32, no. 3, p. 23.

Kapoor, S. & Botan, C. & Urbancik, L. (1989, May). State of letters to the editor column. A paper presented at ICA Convention, San Francisco, CA.

Nagel, G. (1974). Letters to the editor: a public bid for fame. Columbia Journalism Review, p. 48.

NCEW associate member Suraj Kapoor is an associate professor in the communication department of Illinois State University in Normal. Janet Blue, a research associate of Kapoor, also contributed to this article.
COPYRIGHT 1995 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:letters to the editor
Author:Kapoor, Suraj
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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