Marna Porath - The case of the missing letters
As coordinator of content for the News-Register’s Viewpoints section, I’ve noted a significant reduction in letters to our Readers’ Forum during the past few years. I have a few ideas about why it’s happening, and I want to encourage a reversal of the trend.
In election years, we normally have boatloads of letters. I’ve been doing Viewpoints layout since 2000, and I remember once we received more than 100 in a week!
In summertime of a non-election year, our letter tally usually is at a low, so this summer’s lull was expected. Some readers are on vacation and don’t have the means or the inclination to write. But normally, others have more time in the summer, and we count on them to fill our mailbox.
I was curious enough to do a little digging into the number of letters historically received in the month of July. Number-crunching revealed that, since 2000, July letters peaked in 2006, at a total of 54. Last summer, only 12.
The average number of letters per week declined from 11 in July 2006 to only three this year. We’ve had weeks with only a single letter submitted to the newspaper. All in all, this trend makes us wonder where the letters have gone.
No doubt, a number of factors contribute to the decline, but not the population of Yamhill County, which increased 18 percent in 12 years, from 85,000 in 2000 to 100,550 in 2012.
Some people might shy away from writing letters for fear of making spelling, grammar or punctuation errors. If that’s holding anyone back, never fear! We do our best to correct grammar, spelling, clarity and even factual errors, working with the writers.
I have talked with longtime readers who used to write letters regularly. As might be expected, some have changed priorities. Others are less inclined to put their opinions forward. I believe the political polarization and lack of civility in society have lessened people’s willingness to offer their views.
Perhaps, as more people move to the Yamhill Valley but maintain their former contacts elsewhere, we’re seeing less interest in local issues. “Bedroom communities” suffer from this problem, but I hope that doesn’t come to describe our local population.
Let’s not allow either political divides or disinterest to become the norm here in the Yamhill Valley; this is our home, and local happenings affect us directly.
Some might believe that few people will see their letters. But in fact, thousands of people read our Readers’ Forum, in hard copy and online. County residents regularly discuss our letters, even when they aren’t subscribers.
I suspect the decrease in people sending their letters has much to do with their use of communication alternatives such as social media. These days, it’s easy to post your views on Facebook, write a blog or tweet comments from a smartphone.
But how many people read your comments in social media? Are you merely “preaching to the choir” on your Facebook page, sending messages only to others who think as you do? If you’ve already done the writing, you could garner a far larger audience by copying your words and e-mailing them to the News-Register.
The newspaper reaches a varied population in all corners of the county, and even beyond. We offer you the chance to open others’ minds with your words — a golden opportunity to influence people who vote, decision-makers and others.
Sometimes, a letter spurs someone else to write a response, either to disagree or affirm an opinion. Our Readers’ Forum offers a public space for civil discourse on issues of importance to our readers.
Recently, the opinion in a letter to the editor in the News-Register was heard by a national audience after columnist Nicholas Kristof read a letter we ran about a tragedy resulting from the lack of health insurance. Kristof decided to interview the writer, a physician, and his patient, and the column was published in the Nov. 2 edition of The New York Times. Our local letter-writer was amazed … and gratified.
You’ll never know what might happen unless you try it. Letters needn’t be long — we’ve published them as brief as one sentence. You don’t have to be a subscriber, and it doesn’t cost a thing.
We try to make it easy to submit letters to the editor. On our website, www.newsregister.com, click the “Submit Information” link at the bottom of the page. From there, “Submit Letter to the Editor” takes you directly to a form where you can either write or paste your text.
The News-Register’s general guidelines for letter-writers are published regularly and are always available online on the Submit Letter to the Editor page. The form even counts your words, like most word-processing programs, so you’ll see if you exceed the 300-word limit.
Once we receive a letter, part of our process is to contact the signer to confirm he or she wrote it. That’s why we ask for your phone number and address; they are not for publication. When you receive our message, please reply promptly. If you wrote a letter and don’t see it in the paper, it’s possible we’re waiting for your return call.
Fourteen years ago, I never thought newspapers would need to encourage readers to write letters to the editor. But times have changed. Frequently, I hear people say they read Viewpoints cover to cover, and I know they enjoy poring over residents’ letters on a variety of topics.
So here’s my pitch: Introduce more minds to your opinions by writing a letter to the editor.
Marna Porath joined the News-Register newsroom in January 1999 and enjoys working with people who write letters and Viewpoints covers.