February 15, 2011

Screening letters, by the numbers

One of the jobs I am getting used to in my new role of editor is monitoring letters sent to the Press-Republican.

It's not as easy as it might seem.

We receive between 2,000 and 3,000 letters a year, a hearty number for a paper our size.

The people of the North Country have a lot to say about local, national and international issues, and we give them three forums to do so.

There is the traditional Letter to the Editor. Those can be no longer than 300 words — we are strict about this or we would never fit all the letters in. In my first week, I had to send about six letters back for shortening. They were all in the range of 550 to 800 words.

Because Letters to the Editor are signed, writers can express themselves strongly as they make their points. We watch for length, libel and other problems, but most of the letters run.

As another option, readers of the articles we put online can add comments, as long as they give a valid e-mail address. We have a limit of 150 words, and the comments are screened beforehand — and sometimes deleted for reasons detailed in our online policy.

People can also e-mail comments to Speakout. With that, you have only 100 words, and most of those are edited down. Because they are totally anonymous, we are especially discriminating with them.

While the biggest content issues we deal with, as far as opinions are concerned, come from the online comments and Speakouts, letters to the editor present some tough choices too. I am used to dealing with sticky issues from years as news editor; the dilemmas just differ a bit in this office.

Take a letter that arrived last week. His intent was to criticize Chris Mathews, Lawrence O'Donnell, Rachel Maddow and Ed Shultz, "renowned liberals." The problem was that he did so using references to toilets, regurgitation, laxatives and words of a similar vein.

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