Best practices for op-ed letters
If you are reading this, you are probably a reader of letters to the editor. Letters are consistently one of the most-read items in any newspaper. In an era of chat rooms, Twitter and Facebook, letters remain an important way for community members to share criticism, praise, knowledge(!) and observations about Spokane, the Inland Northwest, Washington and Idaho civic matters, and national and international affairs.
The upcoming state and national elections will surely generate a surge in commentaries. During last year’s local elections The Spokesman-Review received well upward of 100 letters each week. Of these, we can run only 40-45 per week, although we do try to open up space to accommodate as many letters as possible as the elections get down to the final weeks.
Managing that much mail can be a problem. Many letters do not include street addresses or telephone numbers. Many are longer than the permitted length of 200 words. A few inadvertently do not include a full name. Some writers deliberately do not identify themselves. Their letters are discarded.
If the letters are submitted electronically, we can bounce them back to the writers for addresses, etc. We use that information only for verification purposes. Every writer is called to confirm they are indeed the author so others do not put words in their mouths.
We cannot do this with snail mail. A letter that does not include a telephone number – and many do not – is set aside until a frustrated writer calls us. Few do, which is too bad.
To simplify the letter-writing process for writer and editor, The Spokesman-Review has adopted a new form for submitting letters.
Would-be writers who click on the “Submit a letter” icon at the bottom of the newspaper’s website, www.spokesman.com, will find a form asking for a name, address and telephone number – information that we have always required – and spaces where they can identify the subject matter. If responding to a story, editorial or other letter, they should input the date and headline.
Finally, writers get to the space on the form where they can input their 200-word letters. And we mean 200, not 201. Our system will not accept letters that exceed the word limit.
We introduced the form two months ago, and it has greatly increased the ease and speed of moving letters along for publication. This column is written, in part, to encourage more would-be writers to use the form. We will still process letters sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, but letters submitted using the form can be processed faster, and so will be published sooner.
We will also continue to accept handwritten letters, but please write as legibly as possible. And remember that phone number.
The limit of one letter per 30 days remains in place.
A few other points:
1) Be civil, even when passionate. It is appropriate to identify the reporter, editor or letter writer to whom you are responding (preferably with the publication date), but avoid personal attacks. Discuss your problem with their facts or opinions, but not them. People will not write twice if they are ridiculed the first time, often by individuals obviously less well-informed.
2) Be accurate. We cannot fact check every letter. When we do find errors, the letters are returned to the writer for correction or clarification. Also, we do not referee consumer complaints. One-sided anecdotes and hearsay are out.
3) Be timely. The more current the topic, the better the odds of publication.
4) No form letters. Particularly during political campaigns, we receive many canned endorsements. Give us your thoughts, not those from the campaign committee. We cannot run them all, so the more original, the better. We balance as best we can letters for and against each candidate and initiative.
5) You are allowed to be positive. After all, a no-hitter is a no-hitter, even if it does take six Seattle Mariners to pitch just one. But thank-yous and praise for your teachers should be personal unless there is a public interest involved.
Don’t put your pens or word-processors down for the summer. Write from the porch. Write from the beach. Write from Dick’s (no extra ketchup!).
Bert Caldwell is the editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.