The height of my writing career came on Oct. 16, 2006, when The New Yorker published a letter I wrote commenting on a story on bioeconomics (scientists stick people in an MRI machine, ask them to make financial decisions and watch their brains tick). Two people I knew saw the letter and were suitably impressed. One was Hank Sims, then editor of this paper. This column coincidently began two weeks later.
Until 1992, The New Yorker didn't publish letters. My favorite magazine of all time was Spy, which was a sort of Mad Magazine for grown-ups, and it had a running feature called "Letters to the Editor of The New Yorker" which it started in October 1986 because, as it explained, "The New Yorker doesn't." Readers of the high brow New Yorker would send the low brow Spy "Dear Bob" letters (for then New Yorker editor Robert Gottlieb). Spy felt it was egregious for a publication to not have a place for reader reaction. Controversial New Yorker editor Tina Brown began publishing letters when she took over in 1992.
I thought of the Spy feature last Wednesday when I opened the opinion pages of the Times-Standard and found not one letter.
But unlike the New Yorker pre-Brown, the T-S does invite letters. There is a prominent box that says "LETTERS, LETTERS, LETTERS Send your letters and comments to... " in the space where the editorial should be. So where are all the letters?
On Sunday, one letter filled that space. It was from Idaho resident Jim Gordon, who felt compelled to write about seeing a cross-shaped cloud in the sky nine years ago when he travelled past the Ocean View Cemetery in Eureka. On Friday, the T-S published three letters. One was from an Arcata resident who wished to thank whoever found and returned the bracelet she lost at a showing of the latest Harry Potter movie at the Broadway Cinema. (That reminds me, thanks to whoever found and returned the wallet I lost at the July 13 showing of the movie Bloodlust! at the Arcata Theater Lounge.)
To have few to no letters in the opinion pages of a daily newspaper says one of two things. Either the paper rejects letters or few to no readers feel compelled to write. On the basis of Jim Gordon's letter I'll bet the former isn't true, although if the T-S or any other local publication rejected any letters you sent, I'd love to know.
To have so few readers feel compelled to write is a serious problem for a publication. Letters show reader engagement; a lack of letters means people either don't read the paper, or they don't care enough about what they read to take the effort to respond, or they don't think the paper is a valid place for them to air their opinions.
It could be that the Times-Standard gets few letters because it fails to run a daily editorial, something I've long complained about (see my column "Holy Zoo" March 4, 2010). The strong opinion voiced in an editorial prompts some readers to voice a similarly strong opinion countering or supporting it. Instead, the paper runs editorials from other papers. If you are going to write a response to another paper's editorial, you might as well send it to that paper.
It could also reflect the interactive nature of online publishing. Compare the lack of letters in the Sunday paper to the slew of comments people posted to a story about Borders bookstore closing in the Bayshore Mall. When you can shoot off a post at the bottom of a particular story, you don't feel compelled to write to the editor. Don't get me wrong, I like constructive online comments - they can turn into an energetic dialogue between readers. But those, like me, who still read newsprint at the kitchen table miss the online comments. And online posters tend to read only what already interests them. So they end up conversing only with like-minded people. To connect more readers, I think the T-S should reprint in the opinion section the most thoughtful comments submitted at the end of articles.
Online comments fall short in other ways. They don't replace thoughtful letters. People often shoot out their online comments quickly with little thought. But letters to the editor must be signed, and so people tend to put more thought into what they write. And online comments, geared to individual stories, don't address issues the paper doesn't report. A feisty letters page allows readers to share their thoughts about unreported problems the general public knows nothing about. Now people blog these on issues elsewhere.
I'd also like to see more columns from members of our community. Instead I've noticed the numbers of local columnists diminish rather than increase. We live in an area filled with highly literate people who have strong opinions on politics, the environment and the economy. Let's get them to voice their opinions in print and spur thoughtful dialogue on important issues. In the Internet age this is more important than ever before. We sit apart in our cubicles or home offices, or alone at the coffee shop, our heads bent over the iPad, cut off from the sounds of conversation by the plugs in our ears. We read magazines targeted to our tastes and hobbies and Twitter among our hundreds of Facebook friends. When someone says something we don't like it is easy to defriend them and poof! They disappear, like a cross-shaped cloud in the sky.
Marcy Burstiner is an associate professor of journalism and mass communication. She would like to share a sigh of relief with the staff of the Two Rivers Tribune. It appears that as a result of strong community support, they will continue to be hard at work publishing that gutsy little paper in Hoopa for some time to come.