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Media Question: Why Do Newspapers Continue To Print Letters To The Editor?

02 Nov 2009
Posted by Stan Collender

My media-related question of the week:  At a time when whole sections of some newspapers are disappearing, why is any space devoted to publishing letters to the editor?

I used to at least glance at the LTEs, and I have written them for clients.  But when they started to be nothing more than uninformed angry rants about the stupidest subjects -- "I hate the new font you're using," "What were you thinking when you ran that story on the front page," "Why didn't you devote more coverage to this team," "How dare you use that picture" -- I quickly and painlessly gave up the practice.

Even if the sentiments being expressed in the letters are heartfelt and sincere, are they really so important that they need to be shared with everyone?

I supposed one reason is that letters to the editor are free content a newspaper can use to fill the space.  Papers generally pay for op-eds, but they don't typically compensate those who write the LTEs.  That may make this section one of the most profitable parts of the paper.

Or maybe the editors feel that publishing LTEs shows they're willing to take criticism from their readers, or that by giving their readers a chance to vent they won't use the ultimate sanction of not buying the paper because they're not happy with something. (How's that working out?)

Or perhaps few advertisers are willing to put ads opposite editorials in fear of being associated with them and the newspapers need to find something, anything next to them.

Why not relegate all letters to editors to the online version and leave the shrinking real estate on the print pages to something that's actually valuable?

Sounds like your argument is

Sounds like your argument is that the quality of LTEs -- or more precisely, the printed LTEs -- is too low to justify the space. But first, as far as justifying the space, what is the cost (explicit or opportunity cost)? You you say that the LTE section "one of the most profitable parts of the paper", which would mean that it funds other sections you consider worthwhile (or more broadly, helps sustain the entire newspaper). The only "cost", then, would seem to be that people like you who don't consider LTEs worth reading have to endure whatever discomfort comes from catching that section in your peripheral vision as you read op-eds. That doesn't seem like much of a cost.

Second, it's possible that the problem is not (or not entirely or mostly) the quality of LTEs, but rather (1) the very restrictive word-count restriction -- sometimes preempting more substantive argumentation in the original, sometimes resulting in editing down by the letters editor (with or without approval by the letter writer), and possibly also (2) the choices by the newspaper of which letters to publish (perhaps, for example, favoring the provocative/aggressive/sensational for its own sake). For major publications, my assumption (although I haven't tested it via any personal efforts) is that to get an op-ed published, one generally needs to be credentialed on the related matter, and usually one has to be "a somebody", leaving the typical reader with no means of expressing anything that requires much more length than a tweet. It's hard to make a quality, substantive argument with such a restrictive limitation, and the result tends to end up with either some empty rant, crude hyperbole and/or assertions devoid of supporting argument.

As you acknowledge, getting rid of LTEs would mean getting rid of a forum for criticizing the paper. Whatever "keeping 'em honest" contribution LTEs provide -- even if the criticisms are often "invalid" (in one's eyes), poorly expressed, etc. -- is sufficient justification for maintaining an LTE section, particularly if it doesn't come at the expense of other content and, as you suggest, may subsidize other content and the paper as a whole.

Of course, if you think (not saying you do, but IF you do think) the problem is simply that comments from nobodies/laypeople these days are just not even worth the discomfort of knowing that those comments are there, I suppose you could get rid of the comments section on this blog.

letters to the editor

For one thing, people like to read the letters to the editor to get a sense of what people think about the issues. Back when I read newspapers offline, I always opened to the letters section first, then the op-eds. I'd skip the editorials and move next the front page. If you want to cut something, cut the editorials. You could probably quintuple the quality of the Wall Street Journal overall simply by trashing its editorials.

Our local paper publishes lots of letters. They're great for figuring out where to stand on the various local issues like school board elections, library hours, and port management. Yes, the newspaper covers the issues fairly well, but there is nothing like reading a couple of pro and con letters to decide which way to vote or which faction to back. The reporters tend to stick to the facts. Remember, they live around here.

Hell, our local paper even publishes a rants and raves section to let people bitch about or applaud local actions. We sent in a rave to the local Indian tribe that cut the Gordian knot and got a dead whale off the beach near our property. No one else could do a thing with the stinking carcass without a federal court order or risking a serious fine, but the tribe had historical treaty rights and was willing to exercise them. They deserved a good word.

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