Letters tell much about community’s life

Aug. 17, 2013 @ 12:12 PM

A few years ago, the folks at the Press Enterprise in Bloomsburg, Pa., not far from State College, where I was then editor, published a delightful retrospective from the paper’s archives.

“Letters to the Editor: Two Hundred Years in the Life of an American Town” told, as its title suggests, a great deal about life in Bloomsburg through the lens of the thousands of letters to the editor published in the paper.

Shortly after the book was published, the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble adapted it for a stage presentation that was a wonderfully evocative portrayal of life in a small town through the decades.

The Bloomsburg book and dramatization come to mind often when I think about the place of letters to the editor in this or any newspaper. We cherish letters as the voices of citizens, offering not only thoughts on issues of the day but also observations about life around them. At their best, they are thoughtful, informative and sometimes provocative. At their quirkiest, they can be entertaining and amusing.

We’ve just taken a small step toward making it easier to send us letters, by updating and streamlining the on-line submission form on our web site. That form had been functioning well recently, and news editor Wes Platt overhauled it this past week.

You can find it at http://www.heraldsun.com/opinion/sendletters/x2119574830/Send-us-your-letters.

Of course, you can also send you letter by email to letters@heraldsun.com, by postal mail, by fax – even by hand-delivery, which sometimes happens.

The postal address is Letters to the Editor, The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705. The fax number is 919-419-6840.

To be honest, we especially like emailed letters, or those submitted through the online form. Typed letters that arrive by mail or fax take a bit longer to get into the newspaper, since we have to re-transcribe them into our publishing system.

We accept but discourage hand-written letters; penmanship, sadly, isn’t what it used to be, and the possibility of errors, misunderstandings or simply illegibility are too high.

We publish virtually every letter we receive, as long as it’s about a topic of general interest and isn’t simply a personal, narrowly focused gripe (“my neighbor’s dog barks too loudly,” for example). It can’t be libelous, of course, and we limit letters to no more than 250 words and no more than one a month for any writer. We continue to require published letters to be signed. I appreciate the wild-west anonymity of much on-line discourse, but we continue to believe that attaching identities to published letters keeps the tone a bit more civil and holds writers more accountable for their assertions.

And – as I was provoked to feel like mentioning this past week – we don’t accept form letters.  We received several envelopes from one statewide nonprofit. They contained multiple copies of neatly typed, almost identical text headlined “LETTER TO THE EDITOR ON CARBON POLLUTION.” At the bottom was a form to fill in – by hand – name, email, phone number, city and ZIP code. Many were incomplete, even with that guidance.

Sorry – we love to share folks’ individual thoughts on issues, but I don’t think we would add much to public discourse by publishing multiple, redundant, mass-produced letters.

I hope some folks (some of the signers are friends, by the way) will take to their keyboards to send us their own thoughts on the issue.

And I hope others will weigh in on those and the host of other issues that excite or dismay our community. As a radio preacher on WPAQ in Mount Airy used to end his broadcast, keep those cards and letters coming.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashleyl@heraldsun.com.