At Large : Getting to know you
The Times publishes nearly every letter it receives from readers. That amounts to between 15 and 20 each week year-round, 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 which pull no punches in attacking political leaders and their decisions.
For its part, The Times is delighted by its relationship with its correspondents. We are, mostly, untroubled by the volume, the length, or the tone of the letters we receive. (I can't say that about the Comment feature on mvtimes.com, but that's a subject for another day.)
The more, the merrier is our view. We like how you sound, and the letters help us to get to know you.
Why do members of one community, ours, put pen to paper 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 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. (Thanks but no thanks to the AARP, the Pork Producers' Council, the LED bulb industry, and others who apparently 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 email addresses. And The Times will not, except in a few exceptional cases, publish unsigned letters. If you are going to make a spectacle of yourself in print, we want everyone to know who you are. Seven hundred to 1,000 words is the upper limit, and contributions that extend to 1,500 or 2,000 will need to be trimmed, a job we think belongs to the letter writer. After all, he or she knows what needs to be said, and while we'll spruce up spelling, punctuation, and grammar, the point to be made is to be made by you.
We get lots of letters about school budgets, wastewater plants, Steamship Authority fares, and taxes. We get very few about whether Beyoncé lip-synced or sang live. It's possible we could get more Beyoncé letters if we tried, but nationwide, even worldwide, national politics and political sidelights are big. Here, water quality and roundabouts are big. Gratefulness is very big, for neighbors, for doctors, for the ferry workers, for the EMTs, even for the woods and beaches. Generally, these are healthier and more satisfying topics.
For this editor, simple concern with the preservation of life and limb suggests avoiding such fevered national questions. Life is a minefield anyway, even if the subject matter is kept strictly Vineyard. For instance, a while back at a holiday party I was nearly torn limb from limb by a fellow who threw off his remarkably thin (as it turned out) veneer of sociability and good will toward men to take issue with The Times' description of a killer as a killer in our news columns.
Maybe I could have put him off the scent by asking, "Don't you think a walk in Waskosim is a treasure?" But all I could find to say was, "Write a letter, write a letter."
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."
Sometimes, though, the most affecting letters are not headlined "Private" even though they ought to be. They are unreserved and defenseless, the correspondents convinced that through the letters 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 ..."
The letter writer knew you would understand.