"The paper wouldn't print my letter, though; I guess my opinion is too extreme!"
I saw the comment recently on a blog I visit, and it had a familiar ring that made me smile and shake my head. I've heard the same claim about letters submitted to the Journal -- there's a certain badge of honor that accompanies such rejection -- though the more likely reason a letter wouldn't make it into our letters column is probably something more mundane and easily avoidable: it was too long (much too long), it was from a writer who lives outside our circulation area or its facts were wrong (and while everyone is entitled to their own opinion, they're not entitled to their own facts).
Don't get me wrong; if you want your letter to be too extreme for the Journal, you can achieve that goal. But all in all, we'd rather you send us something that we can print.
Admittedly, we're selective about our letters, and when I discuss our criteria, it's easy for me to fall into the default mode of reciting the don'ts:
We don't print "thank-you" letters -- if we printed one, we'd feel obligated to print all that we receive, and we just don't have the space for that.
We don't print letters about topics that disappeared from the news a month ago -- we want our letters column to be fresh and timely.
We don't print announcements of events or meetings -- there are other places in the paper for that kind of information.
We only print letters from people who live within our circulation area. With our limited space, we have to draw the line somewhere or we'll be printing letters from New York and California. It seems practical to show a preference for people who have a stake in our local communities.
There are many reasons we might decline a letter, including the awkward fact that it might just not be very good.
We are selective, but our selectivity isn't to deny participation; it's to keep the quality high. Our letter writers expend a little more effort, a little more thought than you'll find in most online comments sections and we want it to be that way.
Fortunately, we receive many fine letters from skillful writers and thinkers in the community.
At its heart, the letters column is a forum to allow our readers an opportunity to respond to the Journal, to our news stories, editorial content and letter writers, so that we're offering a conversation rather than a lecture. It presents an opportunity to express agreement or disagreement and explain why, to bring up overlooked aspects and discuss matters with neighbors.
We also want to produce letters columns that people enjoy reading. We want to print letters that are smart and insightful, with well-developed, well-expressed opinions. It doesn't hurt for a letter to be funny. It also doesn't hurt for it to be angry, as long as there's still substance to it.
Because we don't just want people to write -- we want them to read, too, to get a little exposure to opposing viewpoints. We benefit when we listen to and learn from each other, to opinions and notions that take us outside of our personal dogmas, our foregone conclusions. The letters column, at its best, mixes things up and challenges each of us to think, to put aside what we thought we knew in favor of what we're just discovering.
None of us are so brilliant that we can't learn something new.
We won't print gratuitous personal attacks, but our door is wide open to legitimate criticism, even of the Journal. Any regular reader will see that our letter writers sometimes really take us to task. We need letters like that; there's always more than one side to an issue, and not printing critical letters would just make us look silly. Plus, we might be wrong.
Still, like every daily newspaper, we're chained to practical considerations like space and time. With limited space, we tend to focus on the issues of the day, and we have to limit writers to one printed letter every 30 days. And with deadlines to meet, it's just not possible to speak to every person who sends us an unusable letter; the closer a writer can adhere to our guidelines, the better.
We do edit letters -- not for content, but for grammar, spelling and style. Letters should address the Journal -- we don't print letters that address other letter writers directly, or to the readers as a whole or to the president of the United States (while it's flattering to think that he might be reading the Journal, we really have no reason to believe it's so). And if you're pushing the word limit, it's a good idea to leave us a little wiggle room; if we have to add something for clarity, something else might have to go.
We do verify facts; in this age of fingertip information, there's also a great deal of misinformation, and we feel a responsibility to not spread it, or, really, to print anything that can't be defended to some reasonable degree.
And when in doubt, it doesn't hurt to ask; I'm a phone call or e-mail away and happy to hear from you.
My space is up (know the feeling?) and I haven't even mentioned our policies on foul language and commercial endorsements.
But I'll bet they're easy to figure out.
■ Mick Scott can be reached at 727-7359 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.