Doug's Diggings: Facts, figures and myths about publishing lettersLetters to the editor are always an interesting topic for newspaper discussions and it’s probably going to get more interesting in the months ahead. I thought it might be a good time to go over a few letter-to-the-editor ground rules.
By: Doug Stohlberg, Hudson Star-Observer
Letters to the editor are always an interesting topic for newspaper discussions and it’s probably going to get more interesting in the months ahead.
When the budget repair bill was introduced in Madison, the number of letters to the editor increased dramatically for about two months. The Star-Observer was devoting an extra full page of space for letters, and we still didn’t get all of them in the paper — eventually most made it, but some were held two or three weeks. We were receiving in the neighborhood of 40 or 50 letters per week.
With the upcoming recall election, I suspect we are going to have a summer filled with as many, or more, letters from people on both sides of the volatile race.
I thought it might be a good time to go over a few letter-to-the-editor ground rules.
First, the opinion expressed in a letter has nothing to do with whether or not it gets published. A few weeks ago a lady from the town of St. Joseph asked me my position on the town’s race for chair. To make a long story short she had heard from a couple of friends that the Star-Observer wouldn’t publish their letters because they were supporting a particular candidate.
Now there could be a reason we didn’t publish a particular letter, but I had no recollection of declining to run any letter I received from any person in the town of St. Joseph. I’m not sure if the letters never made it, were lost in cyberspace or never written in the first place. If someone is concerned about whether a letter arrives via e-mail just ask for a quick acknowledgement that the letter was received at the newspaper office.
Another frequent request that has surfaced is writers asking that their letter be allowed to go over the word limit. The Star-Observer’s word limit is currently 400, although most area newspapers have gone to 300 — something we may consider in the future. For now, however, the limit is 400.
Requests to go over that limit are never granted. When I get a letter that is over 400 words, I generally edit myself if it is close to 400. I have the authority to edit any letter, but when letters get up to 450, 500, 800 or more words, I often give the writer the option to edit the letter or, if the writer would like, they may opt to have me edit the letter. Again, with the volatile political climate, both sides watch letters very carefully and if an exception is granted, the word limit may as well be scrapped. Another helpful hint — the longer the letter, the less likely it will be read. Some of the most effective letters are just a few of paragraphs long.
Another rule that is never broken — all letters must have the writer’s name attached. It is amazing how often we get unsigned letters. Often they are great letters, but they will never see the light of day. In addition to having your name attached to your letter, you must include your full mailing address and your telephone number. The letters published in the newspaper include only the name and hometown, but we need the other information for verification purposes and/or to have for our records.
So, now you have followed all the rules, how can you be sure your letter gets published?
Here are the standards that generally apply during periods of heavy letter writing — and we’ll be expecting that again in the weeks and months ahead. Local letters get first priority. By local, I mean Hudson, North Hudson, and the towns of Hudson, St. Joe and Troy.
In the past several weeks all local letters we received, and met the criteria, were published. At the end of the letters file, I put the letters from out-of-town writers in the order in which they were received. As space permits, we run as many out of town letters as possible. By out of town, I mean something within 15- or 20-mile range of Hudson. Letters from across the state or country are seldom published unless we can establish that the writer has some connection to the community (Hudson High School graduate, former resident, connected to a local story, etc.).
The letters that generally never get published are from writers in Oconomowoc or Stevens Point; they are writers who blanket the state’s newspapers with a letter supporting a political candidate –— or as is usually the case, bashing a particular candidate.
With all this said, keep in mind that the editor has the final say on all letter issues. Also, letters do have to live up to certain ethical standards. At the Star-Observer, however, we have always been as inclusive as possible.
Again, the opinion expressed has nothing to do with whether or not a letter is published. We welcome opinions from all sides of an issue or political debate. Because we are receptive to letters, the Star-Observer has a history of attracting large numbers of letters. If you compare the Star-Observer with other areas newspapers, you’ll find that we consistently have many more letters than any of our neighbors. We like that! It’s good for our readership and our circulation.
So keep those letters coming!