Letters to the Editor are Fading Away


One of my first jobs at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was editing Letters to the Editor. In those days (’70s and ’80s) the P-I was the city’s only morning daily and the letters ranked as one of the paper’s most popular features — better read than the editorials, only surpassed by sports and comics.

Each day we would print five or six LTEs (letters to the editor). I had to balance my time between selecting and editing those letters and other duties including writing headlines for opinion columns, laying out the op-ed page and reading page proofs. But I loved the letters despite having to condense the longer ones. I still recall the newspaper’s irascible editor walking past my desk and yelling, “More letters, more letters! Keep ‘em shorter!”

Yet for all their value, letters to the editor may be endangered. A recent edition of Cascadia Daily News, the year-old Bellingham paper, took aim at the move to abolish LTEs. Writing in his weekly column, Cascadia editor Ron Judd, noted that a rival paper (the hedge-fund-owned Bellingham Herald) was jettisoning letters to the editor as “a thing of the past” and as “too difficult to verify and generally rife with misinformation.”

Judd contrasted his rival’s high-handed views with the wealth of letters Cascadia was running. Those letters (I counted 11) identified each writer by name and city. They covered a wide mix of topics: one urged support for a bill before the state legislature, another decried the amount of plastic in the waste stream, another was a plea to Congress to reauthorize the Farm Bill, and one was alarmed over postal service failures.

Along with Cascadia, the Seattle Times is among the news sources that still solicit and print LTEs. Although the Times’ editorial page runs only two or three letters on weekdays, it publishes more on weekends. The Seattle Times limits letters to 200 words and requires the writer’s full name, address and phone number “for verification only.”

Newspapers in most major cities also continue the tradition. Papers like The New York Times, Washington Post, Philadelphia Enquirer and Minneapolis Star Tribune run letters to the editor, and they actively encourage readers to write. New York Times readers can choose to submit letters to specific sections: Sports, Style, Travel, and Books. California papers like the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Fresno Bee maintain a website advising how to submit letters.

At the Boston Globe, Matthew Bernstein, who edits the papers’ letters, confides that his worst nightmare is to wake up one morning and “find no letters in the queue.” So far he’s never wakened to that bad dream. Los Angeles Times letters editor Paul Thornton once worried because the number of letters seemed declining. “But then along came 2016 and the Trump years and I found I was totally wrong.”

In “The Masthead,” the newsletter of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, Ronald D. Clark of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, wrote, “Consider letters as a barometer of how well you are engaging your readers. The more you receive, the more you’re connecting, the fewer you receive, the stronger sign you’re putting the masses to sleep.”

Letters to the editor, although now endangered, have been a staple of American newspapers since the 18thCentury. In fact, many of the earliest newspaper reports were delivered in the form of letters. The famed 1735 trial against early-day publisher John Peter Zenger for seditious libel was the result of Zenger printing an anonymous letter criticizing William Cosby, the Crown-appointed governor of New York. Andrew Hamilton, Zenger’s lawyer, persuaded the jury to acquit Zenger and find that truth is a defense against libel. That case inserted press freedom into this country’s laws, leading to First Amendment protections.

One concern over LTEs is the reality that most letters today are written by readers who skew towards the over-fifty generation. Younger readers are more apt to resort to the shorter comments that appear beneath articles on digital websites. Yet some publications have eliminated even those brief reader comments.

Most Gannett papers have abolished comments. They’re citing “changes in staffing,” which probably means the chain is undergoing even further layoffs. Gannett blames the decision on the “time required to moderate reader comments.” However, a good many other news sources still allow comments, while barring personal attacks and profanity. The Stranger, a Seattle alternative website, is the exception, allowing language that would make a sailor blush.

In addition to publishing letters to the editor, the Seattle Times also allows digital comments on most articles. The comments appear under a warning that asks commenters to remain respectful, criticize ideas, not people, keep comments “politically correct” and report bad behavior. This website, Postalley.org, encourages digital comments, and they are “curated,” and need to avoid personal attacks and stay on the topic; some comments are anonymous. Other digital news sources have eliminated comments. Crosscut.com, a regional news source, once allowed freewheeling comments, but no longer permits them, much to the dismay of some readers.

The disappearance of much reader content from publications seems a shame in an era when it doesn’t require a great deal of effort to include comments on electronic publications, only the time to check for libel and obscenities. Using letters and comments is a service to readers, one of the few ways for regular citizens to have their voices heard.

As Phil Hands of the Wisconsin State Journal, says, “Letters to the editor are a good way to get your voice out, more than commenting on a Facebook page. Letters to the Journal are read by decision makers, city councilmembers, and midlevel bureaucrats.” That view was echoed by the Eugene Register Guard’s Jack Wilson, who says, “There’s value in providing readers with a notion of what people in the city are saying and thinking. We do our best to maintain a coarse filter but err on the side of publishing rather than not.”

Jean Godden
Jean Godden
Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and late for the Seattle Times. In 2002, she quit to run for City Council where she served for 12 years. Since then she published a book of city stories titled “Citizen Jean.” She is now co-host of The Bridge aired on community station KMGP at 101.1 FM. You can email tips and comments to Jean at jgodden@blarg.net.


  1. This article makes excellent points. One further.

    Letters to the editor become searchable historical documents, essentially community touchstones in history’s rough draft, unlike the transient ephemera of comments lost in a digital ocean of vitriol. Publications can elevate discourse by driving opinion back to letters which require more than a drive-by snipe for successful publication.

  2. I stopped reading online CrossCut when it dropped comments, (which are digital letters-to-the-editor.) I’m sometimes (especially if I know the subject area wall) as interested in readers’ comments as in the author’s.

    I find it sad that I’ll see an otherwise excellent article in PostAlley with NO — ZERO!!! — comments.

    I urge Post Alley to improve its comment system.

  3. Ivan, thanks so much for your wise correction; as always you are the gold standard. Having a good copy editor to look over one’s shoulder is beyond priceless.

  4. I agree with Tom Hyde about the historical importance of letters, but I would extend that to comments online. The comments on The Stranger are a revelation in terms of watching the shift of public opinion over the last three years. In 2019 90% of letters would be in full agreement with the Stranger. Now there is full revolt and the percentages are flipped. The NYT comments are where I learn what an article is missing and it’s context, with commenters who are often erudite and authoritative, as well as hilarious. The comment community often feels more engaged and intellectually challenging than my daily conversations. If the NYT ended comments I dare say it would lose tens of thousands of subscribers.

    I too have stopped reading Crosscut since it moved comments to Facebook. There is virtually no activity on their Facebook, possibly because Facebook does not allow the commenter anonymity and conversations (cough, arguments) have been so brutal.

    I believe elections can be swung by aggregate comments over a length of time. It is there that language is tested and changed and shapes the framing of issues. Witness more people referring to “up-zoning” for “equity” as “deregulation of the housing market,” a sea change in perception.

    • Interesting, someone besides me talking about industry deregulation? I will have to keep an eye out for that.

      I’d like to know 1) how many Seattle Times readers read the comments, and 2) how many keep on reading until they’ve read all the comments. My guess would be something like 3% and <0.1%. The material is often too much, and usually too low quality in several ways – repetitive, mean, witless. At times they've pulled selected items out for special recognition, but that kind of curation is apparently not worth the trouble, and any attempt to improve quality there is going to look like a sort of censorship.

  5. I, too, encourage Post Alley (and local papers like the Seattle Times) to invest in better commenting systems. That is, IF they want to offer subscribers:
    decision-making information which they can’t get anyplace else, together with a
    newspaper format which encourages critical thinking.

    What would a better commenting system look like? I propose the following:

    1) Offer readers an alternative to a forum-based, first-in, first-out commenting system: use more surveys to elicit comments.
    2) Offer readers a reporting tool which they can use to sort and filter comments. For example, I’d like to see a report which lists the comments readers liked most – first. I’d also like to see a report which groups comments by the article’s subheading and the comment date.
    3) Persist comments about policing, taxation, judicial decisions, zoning rules, licensing rules, political contributions, legislation and appropriations for at least 10-15 years. Then, in the leadup to an election, publish a list of citizen questions and concerns which were repeatedly ignored by elected officials.
    4) Invite readers to comment on reprints of articles which were published by other (national) papers. (See https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/changes-coming-to-seattletimes-com-comments/).
    5) Use AI to flag gratuitous comments which have nothing to do with a news story – then offer readers the option of displaying AI-censored comments at the bottom of the comments on display.
    6) Survey readers who wonder why their paper isn’t: a) covering a particular story, b) naming the source of the statistics it cites, or c) using AI which inappropriately censored their comments. Invite them to critique the newspaper’s editorial policies and propose improvements, for example, requiring a reporter who cites a statistic to ALSO include the sample size and source of the statistic.
    7) Develop an in-depth story series in response to a particularly popular comment – and make it clear that readers’ comments inspired the story-series.

    Of course, I’m offering these suggestions with the following caveats:
    1) It’s much easier to offer a brief outline of wished-for commenting system changes than it is to pay for them, then implement them.
    2) I’m not sure that I believe my own argument. Do YOU believe that the commenting system changes I’m proposing could actually grow newspaper subscriptions and CONTRIBUTE to a newspaper’s bottom line?

    Having said that, does anyone know of a newspaper (or software manufacturer which publishes “online help”) which HAS invested in a more sophisticated commenting system? If so, I’d love to see a follow-up story on this subject.

    • Comments that people will want to read? It isn’t an impossible dream, but there are some awkward facts of life standing in the way. I haven’t seen it happen myself. (Well maybe I have – the comments here are pretty good, a credit to the moderator(s) I’m sure but also the somewhat narrower readership. I don’t think anything is transferable to say the Seattle Times.)

      In a readership group like the Seattle Times’, there will be a large majority who can’t contribute much on that level, and the small minority who can will be buried in the drivel. I don’t see any way to lift it up without selecting and promoting an elite minority – either comment by comment with moderation, or per individual – and that’s bound to run into all kinds of problems. The benefit, though, is that you’re getting free content, and if it’s good quality, that’s a real asset.

      Or there’s Letters to the Editor.

      • When I’ve taken online classes, it was often the case that one or two comments got me thinking about questions which I hadn’t considered. Frequently, a relatively small number of comments opened my eyes to the useful observations which were possible to make. They put the content I was asked to comment on into perspective.

        That’s what useful comments (and a good commenting system – or letters to the editor) CAN accomplish. One problem with most commenting systems is the inability to sort and filter them. Another problem is that most commenting systems merely invite the reader to “say something”. The instructions don’t tell commenters how their feedback will (or can) be used to make decisions. Nor do they help show the types of sample comments which, historically, have been most appreciated by readers. Surveys (with specific questions) can, in theory, elicit higher quality comments.

    • Victoria: Excellent points all, and your comment is an example of the real value of a good comments/letters section. One of the great promises of the early web was supposed to be this new age of interaction between writers (now content producers) and audiences. And certainly to a degree, this has transformed the relationships between audience and community and artists and community over the past 20 years.

      But as we have all seen, un-tended comments sections can quickly turn into a cesspool of a lowest-common-denominator Wild West. Most publications don’t have the resources to cultivate and treat comments sections as serious forums of discussion and clarification as you propose. Nor do they even think of comments sections in this way.

      There have been attempts over the years to develop cross-site commenting systems like Intense Debate and Disqus that try to use reputational scores to elevate discourse, but so far most systems have neither solved the problems they try to address or have been widely adopted.

      In recent years, particularly as journalism resources have shrunk, more and more publications have abandoned their comments sections as too much work yielding too little benefit. And there is a feeling at some publications that cesspool comment sections devalue the work of journalism. Such toxic comment sections can be very nasty and even dangerous.

      And besides, goes one rationale, social media is where anyone can share their opinions, so why not offload reader interaction to Facebook? (a really unsatisfactory solution IMHO)

      One place that has somewhat (arguably) been successful at reader communities is Reddit, which has forums on just about any topic you can imagine. Some of these are terrific in surfacing the “wisdom of crowds” as the old saying put it. But there are also Reddit neo-Nazi forums and misogynist communities as well, so you have to be really aware where you hang out.

      Another aspect of the comments debate is that some stories are made for community input and amplification. Others with complicated arguments or nuanced opinion often are not. Some of the most thoughtful stories, appreciated by many, elicit little comment because readers might not necessarily have anything to add. An argument well-articulated by an expert on a topic a reader might not have familiarity with or previously thought about much might not rouse much response because it might not be obvious what to add. That’s just fine. Volume of comments doesn’t identify the best stories.

      Post Alley is a free site with no advertising and no budget whose writers and editors work for free because they have something they want to say. Many of our contributors have deep experience and knowledge of their topics, and story selection is based not on what will sell but what people want to write about. This accounts for the unconventional mix of stories you see here.

      Our comments sections are powered by WordPress, with just a little tweaking (as is the rest of the site), and it is astonishing how much is possible in design and copy/image flow with software that is largely free and easy to use. Our comments sections run with only a short guideline:

      “Please be respectful. No personal attacks. Your comment should add something to the topic discussion or it will not be published. All comments are reviewed before being published. Comments are the opinions of their contributors and not those of Post Alley or its editors.”

      That has been enough to elicit thousands of comments, many of them thoughtful and informative. Only about ten percent of submitted comments don’t make it through to the site. Every comment is reviewed by an editor, but we use a very coarse filter based on our stated guidelines.

      Victoria – I wish we had the resources to implement some of your suggestions. Your model suggests a free-flow of ideas and reporting that could get us closer to a better model of journalism that taps into more complete storytelling – reporting more as a conversation rather than a single-vantage perspective. But there’s still work to be done in making it happen. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      • So, Douglas, are you saying that PostAlley has (by your standards) a successful comments section & don’t want to improve it?
        That’s what your own detailed and lengthy comment sounds like.

        But let’s be positive and evolve conservatively.

        What about allowing commenters to edit their comment AFTER it has been published? WordPress has that functionality & I know that I personally would like to edit (even delete!!) some of my comments. Here ya go:

        • David. It’s not that I think that Post Alley’s comments section is ideal or can’t be improved. Far from it. But it works for the amount of resources we can put into it. As for editing comments, I’m not in favor of it at all. You can’t have a coherent conversation if the comment you’re responding to is changed. Same policy for articles. We don’t change anything substantive in a story unless we note it in the text. We will correct spellings or typos without noting but nothing that changes meaning or fact unless clearly indicated in the story.

          • Douglas,
            Some comment systems allow edits only within 5-10 minutes of publication. I haven’t checked about the particulars of WordPress for obvious reasons.

          • Yes – I think that’s possible. And as a writer who has frequently anguished about whether I’ve got some detail wrong as an article goes to publish, I empathize. But with a 5-10 minute takeback window, are you thinking that a commentor might have changed their mind in that time? Or is it essentially to correct typos? I have to confess that I sometimes find typos instructive. Someone who dashes off a stream of consciousness with grammatical and other mistakes can tell you something about how much (or with what intensity) they’ve considered the subject. It’s actually for that reason that we (editors) don’t edit comments as they come in on Post Alley. Traditional letters-to-the-editor are often heavily edited, both for length and for grammar. I’ve been of the opinion that comments on articles are a different animal and ought to be left in their authentic unedited form.

  6. Letters to the editor can name things the publication itself doesn’t. An example is the Japanese internment of 1942. As I’ve written in Post Alley previously, the Seattle Times was doubtful of the federal government’s rationale for the internment, but under the pressure to support the war effort, the paper went along. None of its columnists offered a strong voice against the internment, and one of its outside columnists, Henry McLemore, was rabidly against the Japanese Americans. The Times’ one strong voice against all this was from a letter to the editor it printed on Feb. 3, 1942. In that letter, Mary Farquharson, a Democratic state senator representing Northeast Seattle, denounced McLemore’s “anti-American venom” that “could only give aid and comfort to those enemies whose aim is to infect us with distrust of each other.” Farquharson’s letter didn’t stop the internment, but it made a noise. It registered an objection to what the government was doing. And that’s important.

    • Yes, letters to the editor (and comments) can be used to point out facts which the publication, itself doesn’t address. They can draw readers’ attention to “inconvenient truths” which are hidden in plain sight (for example, suppose that a reporter “buries the lede”. Why? So that the average reader fails to notice that “new news” contradicts the gist of other articles which a writer or paper has authored). Last but not least, letters to the editor (and comments) may use different terminology than a reporter does. Readers who want to know more about a particular subject can use a commenter’s terminology as search criteria to find additional coverage about that subject.

  7. I remember the responses to my first letter to the editor, better than the letter itself. One nasty, one nice. In the mail – they’d publish your name and address.

    But of course that’s the down side of letters to the editor – at best you could rush a rebuttal off to the paper and perhaps they’d publish it, but not soon enough to make it a very satisfactory conversation. Might as well poison pen the author.

    As for edits – I would sometimes like to be able to edit my comment, if not precluded by the moderation system – if the interface were more of a bulletin board nature, the to-be-reviewed comment could perhaps be editable. After publication, though, it’s too late. (Same goes for articles — if something really, really needs to be updated, tag the change with a conspicuous explanatory note, but don’t be like the online Seattle Times and keep making unexplained updates articles.)

  8. I frequently wrote actual email letters (not online comments) to the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin until I was banned. Not banned for anything I actually wrote. The paper generally ignored its own guidelines regarding frequency and content and published hateful screeds full of made-up paranoid nonsense from a handful of indefatigable trolls. They continued, while I was banned because I had been writing a monthly wine column for the Lifestyles magazine. This was a contribution on my part because there was no other coverage of the 130+ wineries in the Walla Walla Valley. I wrote the column for free. Then, out of the blue, I was told I could no longer write letters to the editor! So I stopped writing the wine column (which has never been replaced). And I was still banned from the letters page for the better part of a year until my banishment was finally revoked. I have no idea what all this accomplished other than to eliminate a wine column and a frequent contributor to a genuine dialogue on the editorial pages.

  9. I had missed reading Jean’s excellent and informative column until this morning, and so am late commenting on this very interesting comments thread, but I’d like to drop my stone in the voting jar in favor of the local papers printing more LTEs allowing comments sections for Op-Eds.

    Some of the previous comments here are obviously from “content producers” (i.e., writers) who may be journalists/editors themselves. I am just an interested reader; just a retired guy who devotes far too much of his day to reading newspapers (ST and the late, lamented print edition of the P-I) and online sources of news, analysis and commentary. And every so often I post a comment or write a letter to the editor.

    If I am in a hurry and don’t have time to more than scan headlines in the Seattle Times, I still will turn to the editorial page to take a look at the editorial topic of the day (and read it if of sufficient interest) and read the one or two letters that the ST sees fit to publish (though the Rant and Rave section gives some insight into what is bugging people or making them glad to be part of humanity). I wish they published a few more letters daily, like the Sunday edition.

    Besides the enjoyment one gets from reading the comments of fellow citizens, writing letters to the editor is, or should be, an exercise in democracy — an avenue open to all to express oneself in public, to be heard (for better or worse), and perhaps change the way other readers look at the situation.

    Thanks to Jean and all the contributors to this conversation.

  10. This article hit a hot button. So Thanks, Jean! There were more comments than usual, and I really appreciated the positive feedback I received from Douglas McClennan. I hope that local papers (and TV stations or radio which also publish the text version of a story) take note.

  11. If sorting and filtering forum comments is harder than it sounds, I’d like to propose another tactic which newspapers can use to showcase different sides of an issue.

    Why not:
    1) Encourage readers to write letters to the editor which critique an article, even if that article was published a month ago or a year ago? or
    2) Encourage reporters to take a pro or con position and debate each other in a series of articles?

    I would enjoy a reprieve from a large number of short news stories without citations which raise (and fail to answer) so many important questions, then disappear from view the minute the next popular story is published.

    What do you think? Would a debate-style article series help newspapers:
    1) Provide better coverage of complex issues;
    2) Counter misinformation or disinformation campaigns; and
    3) Keep important stories alive: stories which are different (or, at least more detailed) than the 7-8 stories which are ALSO covered by our local television station AND our local radio station?

    • Victoria: Great ideas. We have thought about offering a “letters to the editor” option. But actually, we solicit stories from people in the community on an ongoing basis. There’s a link on the website (under “about” which asks “want to Write for Post Alley?”) Post Alley has published more than 160 bylines since we started. Most are contributions from people who have something to say and expertise to back it up, but aren’t going to be regular contributors. These solicitations are presented alongside our regular writers, on equal footing.

      As for debates – we actually do this fairly often – after presidential debates, for example, six or seven of our writers will weigh in with commentary. We’ll do it around topics too – writer back-and-forths about how to boost the arts in Seattle or ideas for downtown or how the mayor’s speech went. We’re currently working on one about the implications of artificial intelligence. These roundtable discussions are a different way to approach a story from different angles and plumb for context. We also will publish stories that respond to stories we previously published, often presenting counter arguments. Another format we have tried is Zoom conversations both between our writers and sometimes with invited guests.

      So yes – we’re very open to trying new formats and drawing in other points of view. I love your suggestions.

  12. The name and town of the letter writer / commenter should be required. The problem is verification. A simple process to pre-approve commenters might work. Agree to some rules and your comment is automatically posted. One strike and you’re out.

  13. Douglas
    A small example of why Post Alley might benefit from commenting reform.

    I left a comment on Kevin Schofield’s post on homelessness and inadvertently put under Barb Oliver’s comment.

    There’s no way for me to delete the original and repost it correctly.

  14. Here is the URL which explains the Seattle Times’ decision to drop the comic strip Dilbert. https://www.seattletimes.com/inside-the-times/why-the-seattle-times-is-dropping-dilbert/. If you aren’t a subscriber, the introductory paragraphs read:

    “Cartoonist Scott Adams has excused his bigotry for years by claiming comedian’s privilege, the right to skewer societal norms even if that angers people. With a racist rant on his YouTube show “Real Coffee with Scott Adams,” the Dilbert creator dropped the facade and revealed his true self — a bitter and hate-filled man who has no business sharing his views in our publication. That is why we are pulling the Dilbert comic strip from our newspaper and website.”

    The announcement tells would-be commenters that they cannot use the public-facing commenting system. They may only share their opinions directly with Executive Editor Michele Matassa Flores – by email. Moreover, Flores warns subscribers that “…posting comments about this article under other stories may result in a warning or suspension of your commenting privileges.”

    Would you characterize this statement as “an effort to chill dissent?”

    What criticism of Flores’ decision would I offer if I COULD use the Seattle Times’ public-facing commenting system?

    I would say that:

    1) “Flores supplies A SINGLE EXAMPLE of what she thinks Scott Adams did/said wrong, then mentions that other papers dropped his column too – without saying why.”

    2) Flores does not supply a link to the YouTube episode(s) which she found offensive. Nor does she flag Dilbert cartoons which the Seattle Times ACTUALLY PUBLISHED which were, according to her, racist.

    Thus, I’m left to wonder:

    1) “Did Flores drop Dilbert, not because Dilbert is racist, but because she is offended by some of some the content on Scott Adams’ YouTube channel?”

    2) “If that’s true, is Flores obstructing free speech, according to: the US Constitution, the Washington State Constitution, and judicial decisions at the State and Federal level?”

    3) “What percentage of the Seattle Times subscribers who saw this announcement disagree with Flores’ decision?” “Why?”

    Am I the only Seattle Times subscriber who hopes that other local newspapers, television stations, and radio stations will weigh in on this story?

    Am I the only voter who thinks that a privately owned paper which forbids public facing comments about it’s own publishing (and censorship) policies is out of line?

    I would characterize public-facing comments and letters to the editor as “quick response mechanisms to bad policy”. Ordinary people can use them to question bad policies BEFORE those policies become entrenched: policies which will, otherwise, can take YEARS to change using our court system.

    Here is a link to a recent editorial by the Publisher of the Seattle Times, where he argues in favor of tax breaks and other newspaper subsidies. See https://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/to-save-democracy-and-its-wingmen-local-newspapers-congress-must-act-by-years-end/.

    Don’t get me wrong: I DO NOT want newspapers to fade away. On the other hand, I’m not convinced that the Seattle Times’ current publishing policies should be rewarded with voter-funded subsidies. If any of my legislators agree with me about this, I hope they will revise the “newspaper saving” legislation they have proposed – to address this scenario.


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