After the first page of the newspaper I tend to read the editorial page next, paying especially close attention to whatever letters may be printed that day. It has been that day since my high school years, and isn’t likely to change any time soon.
Though some tend to disregard the letters from readers (“I have no interest in what other people have to say” is one battle cry I have heard more than a few times over the years) I think it is a mistake to ignore the letters columns, particularly when it comes to understanding the mood of a community on issues of the day. And while it may be true that some may look as though they were scrawled hastily in crayon and faxed to the paper, others can open our eyes to things we never knew or even cared about.
And yes, while with just a tap of our finger on the “Enter” key one might be able to reach mullions and billions of people on the Internet, a lot of folks still don’t get their news online. Letters to the editor are still a good way to reach out to others. I wrote this a few years ago for the Little Rock Free Press.
The Art of Low-Tech Persuasion
In the Age of Websites and Blogging, old-fashioned letters columns still carry influence
“When I write letters to the editor, most of the time my impetus involves thinking another letter writer or, in many cases, the newspaper itself has gotten something wrong or somehow misrepresented an issue. I'm not sure whether my letters really sway public opinion or clarify what I think is wrong, but if I'm lucky someone has at least read my opinion on the subject.” - C.F. Roberts, Fayetteville
In an age when people turn to websites for news, and television “journalists” turn to bloggers to learn their views on what is going on in the world, it seems almost quaint and rustic to consider that many people still avidly read the Letters to the Editor columns in their local papers.
More than that, there are those who use the letters columns in an effort to persuade others, to support political causes, or just write about whatever strikes their fancy on any particular day.
My own love affair with letters to the editor began overseas as an Air Force brat during the Vietnam War, reading the letters column in the military newspaper, The Stars and Stripes. The hot topics of the day - the war, racism, poverty - were likely to be discussed in the letters columns.
Returning to the states, I discovered that many newspapers in the 1970s allowed writers to hide their identities behind monikers like “A Real American,” “A True American,” or the ever-popular, “Patriot.” Without exception, these letters were written from an extremely conservative position.
“I do think letters are influential, and the reason is that over a dozen people I hardly knew, clerks in stores or at the P.O., neighbors, etc. have commented on my letters (maybe having recognized my name on the check I handed them). The impression I get is that a lot of people have been very uneasy about our government but either afraid to write a letter or thought they didn't know how, and they appreciate somebody doing it.” Coralie Koonce, Fayetteville
I began writing letters myself in the 1970s. The 1970s and 1980s were kind of like the glory days for letter writers; newspapers hadn’t yet hit upon the notion of limiting writers to one letter a month and a lot of writers were able to engage in heated debates with one another.
A lot of the names that people see in the letters columns now were also prominent in the 1980s. Northwest Arkansas has always had a lot of issues that bring out eloquence in people, whether it be incinerator battles, public access controversies, gay rights, immigration, or the use of tax money on dubious projects.
If there is an issue, people will write about it. And, more to the point, people will read about it, and may even be persuaded by what a writer has to say.
This isn’t always the case, of course. Newspapers in many small towns do not even have a letters column. And some small newspapers will not print letters that the publishers deem too far out of the mainstream. Traveling across the country, I have had the misfortune of reading some small-town newspapers that don’t have letters columns. They are all too often dreadful, boring little things.
“As a writer and independent journalist who has been involved with the media for quite some time, I feel that letters to the editor are an indispensable tool which potentially, can expose the public to views and information that ordinarily does not make its way into the mainstream. Despite the Internet's growing political clout and its great success at bringing the other side of the story to anyone who searches for it, the televised evening news report and the morning newspaper remain the main sources of information for most Americans. Found on the editorial pages of many newspapers however, are the letters to the editor. This is the people's forum and it is where the great debates often takes place. Within these letters the opinions brought forth from knowledge obtained from the Internet meet those of the mainstream, as well as from other experiences.
“In recent times I have personally used letters to the editor in order to inform the public about potential plans by the Bush Administration to attack Iran, to counter various media blitzes hatched in City Hall, and to describe the horrors of depleted uranium use in recent U.S. military actions. Without a Letters To the Editor section in the newspaper, I tremble to think about how many thousands, or even millions more Americans would never even know that there is another side to the news that we are hearing and reading.” - Al Vick, Fayetteville
Sometimes it isn’t how well-written the letters are, but how many letters supporters of a various cause can manage to send in to various papers to get their message across. It helps if there are several papers in the area, because many more letters can be sent out.
Oftentimes, those who can get the most letters out, win the day.
One organization in Fayetteville, Community Access Television, has always been adept at having supporters write letters to the editor in support of C.A.T. when its funding has been threatened.
Some groups use a type of form letter, which can be spotted a mile off. As a former newspaper editor, I learned to spot those pretty easily, and consign them to the trash. Surely, if an issue is important to someone, they can take the time to put things into their own words?
“Letters to the editor have helped make people aware of the destructive effects of the National Animal ID System. Opposition to the NAIS is a cause I am currently involved in. NAIS will require all livestock owners, even if
they have as little as one chicken, to 1.Register their premises and obtain a 7-digit federal Premise ID Number, a new license required to keep farm animals, totally unnecessary and unjustified. 2. Register every animal with
a 15 digit ID number and attach an RFID tag to each animal at a cost of probably minimum $35.
“ . . . Letters to the Editor, along with Internet, talk radio and independent publications such as “Acres USA” and “Countryside and Small Stock Journal” have been helpful in informing the public about the true nature of this program, which government and Big Media are doing everything they can to hide through deceptive propaganda and ignoring the issue.” - Joe Alexander, Fayetteville
Over the years I have learned to skip over the letters that begin with the words, ‘I am outraged . . .” Yeah, right, I always think. I haven’t checked this out with any mental health professionals, but I suspect the human body only has room for a certain amount of true outrage - after that it becomes political play-acting.
The Holocaust? Outrage.
The use of children in cheesy political television commercials? Annoyance at the very best. Some folks seem to get outraged at the drop of a hat; I’ll bet they’re no fun to be around on a regular basis.
“I enjoy reading them, and have written a number. I've written to the national press to challenge examples of sexism (though there's not so much of that around now) and stupid bits of pedantry, and to correct anything I think is just plain wrong, but especially I've written on environmental issues . . . I do it to raise awareness of these issues and of the Green Party to which I belong. Probably more people will read a letter in the press than a leaflet you stick through their door, but who really knows?
“I'd like to think letters made some difference, but it's hard to be sure. I've never been part of a letter-writing group, except insofar as I identify as a member of a political party with known views. I always think that a number of individual letters each with a slightly different slant is better than a collective one.” - Jean Hill, Liverpool, England
“The good, the bad, and the ugly can form an interesting daily read on the letters-to-the-editor page, but do they move mountains or change anything? My vote would be "yes" since one way or another almost everything in our culture adds up to a numbers game. If, for instance, an editor —-or a politician—-is flooded with letters on an issue (and the handwritten kind are the most impressive considering that most of us no longer bother to fight the pain of taking pen in hand), that recipient can not help but come to the logical conclusion that the issue is a hot one and so he/she begins to pay attention. If the numbers of letters are skewed to a heavy support for one side, it again leads the recipient to —-naturally—-assume that "most" people think like the majority of letter writers.
“The truth of these numbers may be entirely opposite from the impression derived from a flood of mail, but first impressions are hard to shake. The mail could have come from an organized, yet small group that focused on a letter-writing effort as a potent weapon.” - Fran Alexander, Fayetteville
Across the world, many groups have come together in groups to organize and plan letters. Be they liberal or conservative, they are often very effective at getting their views out to the public.
I’ve been invited to join such groups in the past, but have always declined the opportunity to join. I’ve always preferred to write about whatever I wanted to write about, be it politics, evolution, or the latest Superman movie.
But it is undeniable that such groups can be highly effective. One website, 20/20 Vision, offers some invaluable tips for such groups. Their website includes such advice as keeping your letter timely, staying short and simple (why do so many writers have to drone on and on?), and demonstrate how issues effect people locally.
“In my experience, letter writing campaigns have had a sort of 'slow-burn' effect on the causes I'm trying to influence. I've rarely seen any dramatic impact right away, but instead I'll see small changes occur here and there over a period of time. As any firefighter will tell you, slow burns are still extremely dangerous because they continue to generate heat, consume energy, and will weaken a structure to the point of collapse. So if you just keep up a letter writing campaign and continue to throw fuel on the fire, eventually you are guaranteed to see some results. It will be a slow process and sometimes very punishing. It can cause you to be misunderstood and accused of holding a grudge or beating a dead horse. But if you stick with it, in the end you are likely to see real change and long-lasting positive results.” - Joey Dutton, Fayetteville
In the early 1990s, I worked for the Grapevine, an alternative newspaper based in Fayetteville. One thing the paper never suffered from was a lack of letters. It was, after all, an especially exciting period in Fayetteville, with all sorts of political battles going on. And yet, with all the spirited debate happening on the letters page, there was one thing that bothered the publisher.
One day, as we were sitting down and talking, she expressed her frustration that so few people were writing letters about the articles that were in the paper. It was a conversation I took to heart when I became editor of the Ozark Gazette some years later, and I noticed that we had the same situation.
Lots of letters about issues, but very few about our content. So I decided to try an experiment; I began running the content-based letters at the beginning of the letters columns, and general issue letters following those. In this way, I hoped to put the idea out that we were encouraging folks to debate not only local politics, but the stories they were reading in the OG.
Did it work? I like to think so. And that’s all I’ll say on the subject.
“I read letters to editor to gain insight about the community I call home. I may not agree with others's opinions but it’s important to see a forum where they are expressed. Paid professional writers (editors and columnists) usually offer up a singular point of view. Letters to editor allows for a diversity of subjects and viewpoints. Minority opinions often find their only expression on the letters pages of newspapers. ” Larry Wooddall, Springdale
Every so often one is forced to read a letter in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, read it again, and say, “I can’t believe they printed that.” Growing up in the military in the 1960s and 1970s, it was easy for us to believe that all sorts of bigotry would be gone by the start of the 21st Century.
And yet, judging by the letters in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, bigotry is very much alive and well. I understand it is the paper’s policy to publish pretty much every letter they get, yet I wonder where all these maniacs are coming from?
I have this recurring vision of interns from the Democrat-Gazette driving through the country side, throwing out boxes of crayons, crying out, “You, too, can be a writer!”
“During the last twenty years, I have written many letters to the editor. The bulk of them regarded what I believed to be social injustices. At best, a letter might effectively draw attention to a situation and play a small part in being a catalyst for change. At the least, it gives one an opportunity to purge. And that always helps.
“Brief well written letters on behalf of political candidates can certainly be an enormous asset. If the letter is written by someone held in high regard in the community, you can't get any better publicity.” - Nancy Allen, Fayetteville
There are those who take issue with the fact that newspapers impose word limits on letter writers. I am not one of those, however.
Though I write professionally, one of the reasons that I enjoy writing letters to the editor is precisely because of the word limits. Well, that and the fact that I can write about things that I wouldn’t write an entire article about.
Word limits force writers to be concise, to make sure that all their arrows hit the target. It doesn’t always work, but I prefer them.
“ On the subject of letters to the editor in pursuit of a desired goal or for simply bringing a subject to public scrutiny I am less positive than I was years ago. There was a time when numerous letters could persuade an editor or editors to publish an over-quota of them in fairness. Through the years that became over-used to the point of irrelevance.
“However, I have for a long time remembered the answer given to reporters by the famous Casey Stengel when he was asked if he thought arguing with umpires so redundantly actually helped. He responded that complaining to the umps so often made them start thinking about their calls and become a little doubtful of there correctness. It was Casey's view that that would cause them to sort of "make up" for them and give Casey the benefit of the doubt on later close calls. Made sense to me. So perhaps a flood of views on one side of a particular issue would work in a similar manner with editors.” - Don Bright, Fayetteville
There are many who turn their noses up at the very thought of reading letters to the editor, dismissing them as somehow beneath them. They couldn’t be more wrong.
On any given day, you’ll likely find more passion, more wit, more humor, and more persuasive power in the letters section than in most columns written by professional writers. Why deny yourself the very real pleasure hidden in the letters columns? Even better, why not write one yourself?
See you in the letters pages!
Richard S. Drake is the author of a science fiction novel, “Freedom Run,” and “Ozark Mosaic: Adventures in Arkansas Alternative Journalism, 1990-2002.”
Little Rock Free Press - December 2006