At Large : Back and forth
The theory was that a newspaper participated in a weekly or daily conversation with its readers. Scotty Reston, the late New York Times columnist and publisher of the Vineyard Gazette, had the habit of saying that the Gazette was a weekly postcard to summer visitors who lived elsewhere in the winter but wished they were here. He was a summer visitor himself, and with that in mind, his view made sense.
Years ago - not that many years ago, alas - the conversation was lopsided. The paper handed out the word, the readers wrote letters, which the paper elected to publish, or not. We publish almost all the Letters to the Editor we receive for the print newspaper. There are rules that rule some letters out, or at least parts of some letters, but generally we hold dear the notion that the letters columns ought to be a place, like Alley's Porch or Squid Row behind Menemsha Texaco or Bert's Barber Shop, the Wharf, where Islanders and their friends, neighbors, and guests get together to gab.
I do not include among the Letters to the Editors all the letters and e-mails that I receive. Sometimes that's because they are shockingly profane. They fail to meet rudimentary community standards as we define them.
But, times, and The Times, change. Now, on mvtimes.com, the possibility of conversation, not just once a week but any time, exists in several forms. There are direct Email features, Feedback features, Reader Forums, and Comments that can be appended to news and feature articles, and editorials. And these conversations are not restricted to you and us. You can converse with another reader, about something we've published, or something else you'd rather talk about.
And now, to widen the conversational possibility even further, we've added blogs, a few now, more to come, some by familiar writers, others by folk you may not know, but may enjoy meeting.
To me, some of these aggressive conversation opportunities seem pointless. For instance, one benighted Islander with access to email wrote recently: Dear Mr. Editor: Everything you and your newspaper write is worthless. What's the likelihood that I'll take this to heart? Not great.
This is an example of a communication that cannot possibly advance the community conversation to which the letters, comments, forums, feedback, and now blog features are dedicated. In fact, some of the conversational efforts by readers, despite our efforts to inspire a relaxed and thoughtful exchange of views, are shockingly, depressingly, nasty. And, we acknowledge, the rules for letters in print and comments or other postings online differ. The latter enjoy greater latitude.
On the other hand, there are the comments that refer to the Vineyard as "special." Well-intended, not nasty, but stomach-turning nevertheless. Maybe it once was special, but that adjective is now meaningless, like "awesome" or "great," and despite all the changes we have seen over the last 30 years or so, the Vineyard still deserves better than special. Anyone who uses the word special to describe the Vineyard really ought to live or summer on Long Island. Ditto, "precious," and "beloved."
Sometimes, readers tell me their correspondence is not for publication, in print or online. For instance, I get quite a few letters agreeing with Times editorial positions, but often the writer asks not to have his letter published or his name used. These timorous correspondents apparently fear social disgrace if their sympathy with my views becomes known.
And of course, we get comments or emails that take our editorial positions to task, but the writers ask that their thoughts remain between us, because they don't want to become involved in the vigorous public debate. They are low profile types.
Sometimes, we get comments or feedback from people on opposite sides of a public question. Each has read a recent editorial, and each writes to congratulate me for taking his view on the issue. This could be a sign that the editorial lacked the clarity that is so enormously desirable when it comes to editorial writing. I mean, if one side thinks you've said "X" and the other "Y" in the same 1,000 words, perhaps the editorial failed to hit the mark. Or, perhaps it was perfect.
It's a mystery how this happens, but I confess I am comforted by the thought that there is some virtue in pleasing all of the people some of the time. To these correspondents, I reply with a simple thank you.
After all, if this business is intended to be a real conversation between you and The Times, for sure we won't always agree, except to agree to go on talking, in print or online. Your choice.