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Blogging is cool; letters are better

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By Ben Carlson

Some newspaper industry wonks say the measure of a paper’s success lies almost exclusively with its bottom line.

Perhaps, but nothing offers a more accurate measure of a newspaper’s health than the letters and correspondence it receives from readers.

Over the past year, this page has gone from one letter a week (if that) to at least several or more in nearly every edition.

In a digital world replete with options for folks to sound off, we are thrilled beyond words at how well you, dear readers, have come to see this page as a place to share your thoughts, aggravations, congratulations and feelings.

People can blog their fannies off in cyberspace but, unless someone happens to stumble across what they have to say, doing so serves as a personal catharsis at best, a waste of time at worst.

Rip off a signed letter to the editor, though, and see what happens. Folks who previously didn’t give a hoot what you thought suddenly perk right up and pay attention, especially those in government who can’t stomach the idea of you giving their future opponents campaign fodder.

One needs only to review how the joint city and county decision to employ One Call Now came to be. While they’ll tell you that they had already considered various ways to mimic how the schools relay vital information to parents, they know deep down that it was the letters on this page from outraged readers who got them off the schneid.

Either way, the important thing is that the system is thankfully on its way.

So does that mean any time someone gets their britches in a wad over something all they need to do is blast those who offend them in a letter to the editor?

Absolutely not.

We had an interesting back-and-forth with a would-be letter writer this week who wanted to take to task a public agency and a business for their perceived shortcomings during the recent ice storm.

We rejected the letter for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that this page is not your sounding board for consumer complaints.

Those who buy a lemon-mobile, a rotten rutabaga or faulty furniture need to take that issue back to the seller and hash it out there. If you can’t get satisfaction, take them to court and let a judge decide.

Don’t like the service or a store policy? Go somewhere else, complain to the Better Business Bureau or picket on the sidewalk.

Here’s why: Say you sell something at a yard sale, only to have the buyer return and claim it was faulty. After you point out your “all sales final” sign, the buyer stomps away angry, vowing revenge.

The following Wednesday you crack open the paper and there, on page A4, is a letter to the editor whacking on you for being a creep or whatever.

You’d be outraged, and rightfully so. Not only were you potentially slandered, you also had no way to offer your side of the story unless you send a letter of your own the following week, which only exacerbates the problem.

The same holds true for criticism of public officials and agencies. While we certainly don’t mind people sharing their opinions on decisions of the school, city, county and state governments, we aren’t going to print a writer’s account of his or her personal interaction with government officials, particularly when the writer alleges misconduct. And putting words in the mouths of officials — “The judge told me this,” or “the mayor told me that,” doesn’t cut it.

As we told the above-mentioned writer, the place to level complaints against specific departments and people is at a city council, school board or fiscal court meeting. Do so and you can be fairly certain that your concerns be reported and the agency will be asked to respond.

And remember, criticism is at its best when constructive, and a lot more interesting, too.