Thursday, April 27, 2006

Letters, do we get letters

As the editor of a community newspaper, you get accused of a lot of things. That was certainly my experience as editor of The News-Review. I was always up to something, according to some readers. I figured my involvement in electoral politics years ago contributed to that perception — understandably, I guess. Some people assumed I played favorites because of it.
From time to time I found myself accused of things like not printing letters to the editor because I didn’t agree with what the letter writer had to say. Of course, if we did that kind of thing, these pages, usually bursting at the seams with letters from readers incensed about something, would often be pretty barren. And surely those letters calling me all kinds of names would never have seen the light of day.

But, no, we print them all — as long as they had a name, address and phone number attached, and as long as we can confirm that the name on the bottom of the letter belongs to a “real” person.

Usually, our letters pages are filled, and some weeks we even run out of room for all the letters we get. To my mind that’s cause for celebration. Industry experts tell us that a good measure of a community newspaper’s success is the health of its letters to the editor section. Lots of letters tell you that people are reading your newspaper, that its contents matter to them, and matter enough to inspire them to pick up a pen or sit at their computer and voice their own opinions. That’s an honor — even if the opinion they’re inspired to express is that the editor is an idiot.

One of the things that gave me pause about stepping into the editor’s role at The Suffolk Times was, in fact, managing its op-ed section. I knew it would be a challenge. The Suffolk Times almost always has more letters than we can fit on these pages. Many of the letter writers are regulars. Some even have their own followings. How would I know which letters to hold when we run out of room? Which letters to trim to make them more readable and to-the-point?

Southold, I knew, was different than Riverhead (I can almost hear that chorus of “amens” right now.) Its demographic combination of old-time Yankee and cosmopolitan second-home owner is hard to figure for this working-class kid from Brooklyn.

OK, so I was a tad intimidated by the task. Luckily, I’ve never been one to shrink from a challenge. And these first few weeks have provided plenty of challenges. For starters, there’s the sheer volume. It’s a huge task to read, edit and confirm all the letters.

Then there’s dealing with the length of some letters. Southold folks can be somewhat — er, shall we say — verbose, I’ve noticed. I had one letter this week that was 1,580 words long. I am loathe to make a hard word “limit” part of our letters policy; I’d rather play it by ear. But 1,580 words? That’s twice as long as most of the stories we print. I sent the author an e-mail asking him to trim his letter to something less than 500 words. As I write this, I haven’t heard back from him yet, but I know I will — and I’m bracing myself. He opened his dissertation by calling The Suffolk Times coverage of the Factory Avenue affordable housing proposal “inflammatory, one-sided, inaccurate and simply the writings of a reporter who is ill-informed.” He will probably think I want to cut his letter down because I didn’t like what he had to say. Of course I didn’t like what he had to say, and I don’t agree, but that’s quite beside the point.

Then there are the once-is-not-enough people. I’m not talking about the people who are our faithful correspondents each and every week, without fail. (How can anyone have so many opinions about everything?) I’m referring to the people who have so many opinions about everything they feel inspired to write several letters almost every week. Three, four, even five letters on different topics! This is a phenomenon I never saw in Riverhead, and I’m not sure what to do. I’ve informed these prolific writers that we have a “one-per-week” policy here, but it hasn’t changed anything. I don’t mind reading multiple letters from one reader every week, but after I edit and format a letter for printing, it’s a drag to have the reader call or e-mail to say, “Never mind that one, print this one instead.” And when that happens three times in one week, it makes for a very cranky editor.

Of course, there are moments of levity in this business and they help balance the trying times (like printing the wrong name at the end of a letter, which we did last week.) My favorite thus far: a letter to the editor accusing us of making somebody up.
“Now I realize there is no such man as John Copertino,” wrote a Southold man in an e-mail to me. “It is a fictional character made up by the editor of the Times/Review to generate controversy and more letters. I have to say to the editor of the Times/Review, you can’t fool us.”

Mr. Copertino is a real person of course. He came into the office this week to drop off another letter. And I have witnesses.

Keep those cards and letters coming. E-mail me at, or post a comment on my blog: