News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Columns

January 26, 2014

MAX JONES: Readers and writers — we’ve got lots of them

TERRE HAUTE — When people grab their daily newspaper, you can pretty much predict the reading path most will take. Readers have habits, as academic and professional surveys have shown.

On that list of the first three items most readers consume is the front page. No surprise there.

Obituaries, of course, are a close second.

Can you guess the third?

The most common “third” stop in the paper for readers with whom I talk is the opinion page, or more precisely, the “letters to the editor.” Broad surveys of newspaper readership report similar findings. People really enjoy reading others’ views on issues of the day, even if they don’t agree with them.

The Tribune-Star has a robust letters page. We get a ton of submissions, which tells me that our readers not only like to read comments, they like to write them.

I don’t keep a precise count of letters published, but I estimate we print about 20 a week. That means that in a given year, approximately 1,000 letters appear on our opinion pages. And we receive many more than that.

We present letters we publish in an area labeled Readers’ Forum, because that’s really what it is. It is a rare day we don’t print at least one letter.

Usually, it’s more. On Sundays, we publish between five and 10 letters, most of them on a page dedicated solely to our Readers’ Forum.

Because of the popularity of our Readers’ Forum, I try to write about it at least once a year. I get asked about it a lot, so I know people are interested.

There has been a heavy volume of submissions in recent weeks. That’s partly Because the General Assembly is in session, especially with respect to the controversial same-sex marriage ban that’s proposed for our state’s constitution (HJR-3). I anticipate it will be a recurring Readers’ Forum topic in coming months.

The cold weather may also be having an impact on reader submissions. More people are staying inside these days, so they need something to occupy their time. Why not write a letter to the editor?

It’s always refreshing to receive letters from readers who have never written to us before. We’ve had a lot of those lately.

I do get asked from time to time about frequent letter writers and our policies concerning their submissions. The answer is simple. We don’t publish every letter a frequent writer sends us. And I try to adhere to the guideline that a writer usually gets one letter published per month. That may vary, of course. If we’re in a period when volume is low (late summer seems to produce fewer submissions), then of course I will allow writers more frequent publication. But during heavier periods, frequent writers may have to wait longer to get published. It seems only fair that new or less frequent writers get first access to our limited space.

I devoted quite a bit of energy this past year to enforcing a word count. The limit is 700 words for longer letters. But I never miss the opportunity to encourage folks to write shorter. It is a fact of newspaper life: Shorter letters are printed sooner than longer ones. And longer ones generally have to wait until a Sunday edition, which means the timeliness of submissions may be compromised.

I also get asked on occasion if letters that disagree with our editorial board’s stated position on an issue are rejected. Those who actually follow the Readers’ Forum closely know that’s not the case. But I do try to explain to those who ask (or accuse), that the purpose of the Readers’ Forum is to be a forum for the exchange of ideas and reflect the diversity of opinion in our community. With that mission, why would we ever reject any letter based on its position? We wouldn’t. And we don’t.

Our simple guidelines for letters are published often on the opinion pages. We don’t publish anonymous letters. All printed letters must contain the signature and community of the author. We require an address and phone number for verification purposes. If you submit a letter that does not get published and you want to know why, please ask. My phone number and email address appear on the opinion page every day.

To those who do write to share their views, let me assure you our readers appreciate it, as do we. If you’ve not yet submitted an opinion to our Readers’ Forum, I encourage you to do so. We’d very much like to have you on board.

Max Jones can be reached at 812-231-4336, or by email at max.jones@tribstar.com. Follow him on Twitter, @TribStarMax.

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