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.

I wrote back and told him the letter had too many offensive references to use in the Press-Republican and that I was sure he could make his point more eloquently.

His reply included this:

"If you want me to write a liberal viewpoint, just say so. You own this press, so can censor as you see fit."

I wrote back:

"This has nothing to do with your opinion, which I think is appropriate, just your choice of language, which is not."

I told him if he took out the tasteless references, we would publish it.

Taste is a matter of opinion, no doubt about that. But we have to take into account the sensibilities of the adults and children who read the Press-Republican. After many years of handling compliments and complaints, I think I have a good idea what they want to read — and what they don't.

E-mail Lois Clermont at: