Monday, August 6, 2012

I love letters to the editor

This is the boilerplate we print every day in the paper 
My mother always told me I’d never receive letters if I didn’t send out some myself.
Mom was wise and almost always right, but not about this.
Of course she never knew I’d end up editor of a newspaper. I receive lots of letters from lots of people, yet I send few.
We were talking in the office the other day about letters to the editor and realized not everyone has a clear idea of what we publish and what we don’t; we print the guidelines every day, but a fuller explanation will make things clearer. Here goes:
Length: We allow 500 words. It’s a space issue. But it’s also good for the writer; people are more likely to read a letter that gets to the point.
Election letters: The Saturday before the election is the last day we’ll run them. And then it’s only “positive” letters that endorse your candidate. If you want to write a letter saying people should vote for your candidate because the other one’s no good, that’s OK (within reason), but you’ll have to submit it (and have it verified) by the Wednesday before the election to give the other side time to refute it. In other words, no last-minute sandbagging.
Guest columns: Public officials, political candidates and representatives of groups are invited to submit guest columns with prior arrangement. With all the invitations I’ve extended, it seems public officials are only interested around election time. Isn’t it always important to keep constituents in the loop? Guess not. There is no hard and fast word limit, but again shorter is usually better and it has to fit on the page. This is not a refuge for people who simply can’t limit themselves to 500 words.
Name-calling: There may be a fine line between saying a person is an idiot and saying the person is doing something idiotic, but I’ve got to find that line. We won’t publish statements we deem as racist, hateful or compare someone to Hitler or other Nazis. If you submit such a letter, expect to get a call from me suggesting another wording that can be printed to make your point.
Local: We welcome letters from local people or about local topics. If you’re in Montana or Madrid and you want to send a letter about the euro, abortion or global warming, we probably won’t print it.
Facts: This is a tough one. When I receive a letter with an obvious fact error, I’ll usually call the writer or just correct it. But that doesn’t mean I’ll have the reporters drop everything to research a letter’s claims. The saying goes, “You have a right to your own opinion, but not your own facts,” but in our polarized society, we often see each side using a different set of facts that are accurate if you look at it their way. Bottom line, letters aren’t held to the same standard as news stories. Take everything you see there with a large grain of salt.
Thank you: We won’t print letters from individuals that are just a polite bread-and-butter thank-you. We offer “card of thanks” ads for that purpose, and we’ve recently reduced their price. If you aren’t willing to spend a couple of dollars, really, how grateful are you? Just send a note directly to the nurses on the third floor. We will, however, print thank-you letters from charities or civic organizations.
Frequency: One letter published per calendar month. This sometimes means someone will have two letters a week apart, but it’s the only way we can keep track of it. And if you send your letter in on the few days of the month, you risk it not being published until next month. Sorry; please send it in earlier next time.
Names: Except in the rarest of occasions, we always print the name and town of the author. There’s about one exception every five years (a mom who lived across the street from a park where drug dealing was going on, a woman who was taking refuge in a battered women’s shelter, a rape survivor and a bullied teen come to mind). We won’t print an anonymous letter simply because someone’s uneasy about having his or her name in the paper.
A few more guidelines:
• When we receive a bunch of letters from a boilerplate letter-writing campaign, we’ll rarely print them all.
• We’ll fix spelling, grammar and style errors we catch.
• Letters aren’t first-come, first served. We’ll generally publish letters on current local controversies faster than national topics or thank-yous. Length and how they fit on the page is always a factor.
• While we’re strict on the 500-word limit, we’re liberal in the way we count the words. “To The Editor” and your name don’t count. If you write “Oneida Indian Nation” or “Madison County,” I’ll count each of them as one word, since they’re each one thing.
• If your letter is way too long, you may cut it or you can have me cut it. What I won’t do is go back and forth cutting it together. I’ve done that and it can take the whole afternoon.
These are all guidelines, not rules. I’ve been known to step outside them when it’s in the interest of the readers as a whole -- rare but it happens. It’s folly to think anyone can write rules to cover every case.
I will admit to one prejudice. I’m partial to having lots of letters; I want readers to see The Dispatch as a forum where people hash out decisions in which we all have a stake. This is accomplished by publishing letters I do and don’t agree with. Letters draw more letters.
Keep those cards and letters (and emails) coming; it’s one of my favorite parts of the job.

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