At a recent public forum on journalism, a local newsie spent considerable time and energy defending his hedge-fund publication’s decision, now years-old, to ditch a regular editorial page, tossing to the curb along with it reader letters to the editor, a staple of American discourse since before the Revolution.
They’re kind of a pain, he said. And in an era of disinformation, it’s basically impossible to verify letter-writers’ identities and fact-check their work.
There’s a word for that sort of skinflint-budget-cut justification: Abrogation. As in, abandoning a core journalistic responsibility to ensure a publication keeps a door open to two-way communications.
Public discourse is a large part of why Cascadia Daily News exists. We embrace this responsibility, opening our pages to reader letters and a broad range of guest commentaries, on a regular basis.
Our readers have responded to this invitation — big time. If an active letters section is, as is often said, a sign of a healthy publication, then ours qualifies as robust.
CDN had letters to the editor awaiting before we ever printed our first edition. We’ve run hundreds since. There’s an ebb-and-flow, but numbers overall continue to increase. The past two weeks have seen unprecedented numbers of opinions, small and large, fill our inbox at email@example.com.
This is a wonderful credit, I believe, to the engaged, smart, literate community we serve. I suspect letters are one of our most-read features in coffee shops and homes around town, and that makes me proud.
It is not a free-for-all, of course. We reserve the right to edit letters for brevity, clarity, civility and other factors. It’s our space we’re sharing, and part of our mission here is to prevent demonstrably false information from entering the news stream.
In our 16 months of existence, I’ve only rejected a small handful of letters. A couple were simply incomprehensible; others contained what I considered a fact-averse attack on a person or people, usually echoing some Land-of-Fanciful-Falsehood talking points. (One of the rejectees called that “censorship,” demonstrating a keen lack of knowledge of the meaning of the term. It’s simply responsible editing.)
More commonly, an ad-hominem approach or phrase — or just too many phrases in general, i.e., a letter that’s far too long — will step on the point of the writer. In those cases, I'll often suggest trims or an edit. (The same philosophy applies to guest commentaries, longer pieces of up to 800 words we accept as standalone opinion pieces submitted directly to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
In other cases, writers of long letters are convinced to take the extra step to turn their work into a guest commentary.
We also realize that providing a relatively open forum comes with an additional responsibility: Ensuring to the best of our ability that a letter with a person’s name on it is actually written by that person. This is not, as my lead subject above limply insisted, an impossible task.
It is a small chore, of course — one performed by yours truly.
A few of our prolific letter writers — you all know who they are, or at least their names — laugh about being “repeat offenders:” I know they’re real people, so don’t need to verify their letters each time they write in.
New or first-time writers, however, may very well get a call from me, just saying hello and verifying their name and city of residence. That’s all we need for publication. Letter writers can smooth the process greatly by remembering to include an address and phone number with their letters. We will never publish that personal information — just name and place of residence.
But yes, it needs to be a real name and place.
All of this is a long windup to a practical point — one of which all prospective letter writers should take note: We love letters so much that we would dearly like to publish even more of them. But we don’t have unlimited print space, and our readers don’t have unlimited attention spans.
So I’m making a big ask: Can letter writers please, please, please try to make their point in 250 words or less, rather than the inaugural 300? (Note: Grief counselors are standing by for Bob Morton and others.)
Seriously: We want to spread our space around, so 250 — a maximum employed by many other newspapers — is the new upper limit. (Additional note: No, you cannot bank “credit” for future letters by sending in one below the max! Nice try, though.)
This will allow us to highlight more voices on our print pages, noting that we’ll still publish some letters online only in weeks where we’re over-full for print.
One other request: Some of you — of a certain age, I suspect — are in the fixed habit of sending in text with double spaces between sentences. I know it's a reflex but PLEASE STOP. It’s taking up huge chunks of time that CDN’s editor could put to better use cajoling staff members to write more concisely and in an active voice.
Thanks in advance for all this, and thanks for being such active citizens and filling up our letters page on a regular basis. Our letters deadline for the weekly print edition remains Mondays at 10 a.m.
A final note about the Opinion page: To clear additional letter space, starting this week, the weekly beloved/beloathed column feature “The Hammer” — a more quippy, slightly less reserved alter-ego voice of the editor and others — will move to (mostly) online publication. We’ll compile the Hammer's Greatest Strikes once a month to highlight in the print paper, but look for it regularly at cascadiadaily.com/news/opinion/columns/the-hammer on Fridays, with some updates throughout the week.
Thanks for reading CDN’s Opinion page, and keep those thoughts and letters coming.
Ron Judd's column appears on Wednesdays; email@example.com; @roncjudd.