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 say they receive too few letters. They want to know what to do to stimulate letter writers. Rarely, a few worry about what to do with all the letters they get. They are hemmed by space constraints, because they want to devote significant space on editorial and Op-Ed pages to columns, local and syndicated.
Mostly, editors wonder what sparse communication from readers means. 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, 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. 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, perhaps. 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. (No, thank you, to the AARP and the Pork Producers' Council, who yearn to be regular letter writers or 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 those we reject.
We require signatures and telephone numbers, although nowadays we sometimes have to settle for working e-mail addresses. Rarely, we screw up and publish a letter such as the one last week from Sal Selmonica. His letter did not include a phone number or email address, and we didn't check. The letter was inflammatory, and it sparked lots of phone calls to animal control, which in turn wanted to reach Mr. Selmonica. We don't know what Mr. Selmonica, if there is such a person, had in mind. Making mischief, perhaps. The sad lesson is that, much as we like hearing from you, in the general sense, there are, among you, the occasional clinkers.
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.
We get lots of letters about school budgets, wastewater plants, Steamship Authority fares, energy conservation, and county government. We have had lots about President Bush and the war, but they've tapered off, as has Mr. Bush's tenure. It's possible we could get letters about the interminable presidential primary campaign if we tried, but nationwide, even worldwide, presidential campaigning is big. Here, the Steamship Authority is big, thanking the EMTs is big, and wastewater is big, and wastewater may be less offensive than presidential politics.
Anyway, for this editor, simple concern with the preservation of life and limb suggests avoiding such perfervid national questions. Life is a minefield anyway, even if the subject matter is kept strictly Vineyard. For instance, at a holiday party a couple of years ago, 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. No sense globalizing the capacity of readers to take umbrage at our editorial behavior.
Some correspondents write, "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."
Why not, for goodness sake?
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 writer just knew you would understand.