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.”