At Large: We potter on, still talking

At Large: We potter on, still talking

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The Times publishes in its print edition each week nearly every letter it receives from readers. That amounts to between 15 and 20 each Thursday, except for predictably slack times, such as school vacations when, one supposes, parents are immobilized by the chaos.

At industry conferences, editors of other newspapers are often concerned because they receive too few letters. Occasionally they are worried about what to do with all the letters they get, but that’s rare. Often, they are troubled by space constraints, because they want to devote significant space on editorial and oped pages to columns, local and syndicated.

What does it mean that we get so few letters, they wonder. Or they puzzle over how to handle the letters they do get. Should there be strict rules about length? Should only the best letters on each subject, in the editor’s view, be published, as a sort of opinion sampler? Or maybe the best parts of the best letters. How should letters critical of the newspaper’s coverage be handled? Or letters that pull no punches in attacking political leaders and their decisions.

For its part, I am delighted by its relationship with its correspondents. And, after going a few nasty rounds with the horrors among the Comment population, I’m happy too with the conversation that takes place online among visitors to mvtimes.com. I am, mostly, satisfied by the volume, the length, and the range of views expressed in the letters and the comments we receive. Which is not to say that I am charmed by each and every opinion, or by the tone of many of the expressions.

Still, the more, the merrier is our view. We like how you sound (most of you). We like how you get after some of your neighbors and leaders and heap love and praise on others. Your letters and comments help us to get to know you.

Why do members of one community, ours, speak up so unreservedly at the drop of a hat, while elsewhere newspaper readers apparently bottle it all up and editors face daily disappointment at mail call?

Habit, probably. Islanders are introspective, irascible, accustomed to having their say, and meddlesome, either naturally or by training. Plus, being residents of a two-newspaper Island where their opinions are regularly solicited, most have found the letters columns and the comment lists (at least in this newspaper) welcoming and widely read by neighbors.

For our letters columns, the rules are pretty simple. The subject must be of interest to Islanders. The correspondent ought to have an Island connection. (No, thank you, to the AARP and the Pork Producers’ Council, who yearn to be regular letter writers or oped columnists.)

Letters, we say, should be clear and concise, though it’s almost hopeless. And in good taste. If you have deplored some of the letters we print, you ought to see the few we reject.

We require signatures and telephone numbers, although nowadays we sometimes have to settle for working e-mail addresses. (Along with comments, which of course appear only on mvtimes.com, Letters to the Editor for the print newspaper now arrive almost exclusively via the submission form on the web site.)

The Times will not, except in a few exceptional cases, publish unsigned letters. If you are going to make a spectacle of yourself, we want everyone to know who you are. That’s not the rule for online comment, where anonymity or pseudonymity rule. Why the difference? I confess, I don’t know for sure. The law places special responsibility on newspapers for things it publishes in print but, at least till now, does not exact the same scrupulousness from web site publishers who maintain a forum for comments from visitors. Part of the difference arises from the fact that it is nearly impossible to determine if the name a commenter might attach to a comment really comes from that person. All this may change, of course, but on the other hand, some of the views expressed by commenters would never see the light of day, not in print or online, if authentic attribution were required. They are not mainstream views and might invite retribution in a small community like this one, but they are the views of some of our neighbors. What to do about it is a daily puzzle.

Sometimes correspondents specify “Not for Publication” on their letters. It’s a way of whispering in the editor’s ear.

“Pssst, you screwed up, but I don’t want to be an I-told-you-so.”

“Pssst, here is the true story, but I don’t want to get caught up in it.”

“Pssst, that was a terrific story you published about so-and-so. I am not the sort that writes letters to the editor, but if I were I would tell you how much I enjoyed it.”

Huh?

Sometimes, the most affecting letters and comments are not headlined “Private” even though they ought to be. They are unreserved and defenseless, the correspondents convinced that through the letters and comments columns they may be in direct touch with sympathetic neighbors.

I particularly remember one classic example. In three or four densely typewritten pages the authors detailed a business tragedy. They were offering an explanation to the newspaper and the community. And the letter concluded this way:

“The unfortunate outcome was that no monies were able to benefit [homeless and abused children]. We’ve lost the support system for [them]. We’ve lost the restaurant, the bulk of my anticipated inheritance is lost, I’ve lost the home I was buying because I can’t afford the payments as I am now unable to be gainfully employed. With no health insurance I have astronomical medical bills and there are yet more medical expenses to come. Thank you for your consideration and compassion … and for your understanding and assistance …”

Being Islanders, they knew you would understand.