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Guidelines for Letters to Editor 10/23/2003
Guidelines for Letters to Editor
From Newsweek and N.Y. Times

 
By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, The California Courier
 
Writing a letter to a newspaper is one of the simplest ways of publicizing
one's point of view and influencing public opinion. Since the chances of
getting any one letter published are slim, Armenian-American organizations
often advocate mass letter-writing campaigns.
 
Three important elements are needed to make such campaigns successful: 1)
the participation of a large number of letter-writers; 2) a very quick
response time; and 3) making the content of each letter different.
 
Since Armenian-American organizations often ask the community to participate
in letter-writing campaigns - and I have made similar suggestions many times
in my columns -- it may be useful to share with our readers the guidelines
recently provided by Newsweek and The New York Times.
 
Advice from Newsweek
 
In the July 7, 2003 issue of Newsweek, George Will wrote a column stating
that "Californians need an Ataturk" to run the state properly. Hundreds of
Armenian and Greek Americans, who were deeply offended by Mr. Will's
undeserved high regard for the Turkish tyrant, sent letters of complaint to
Newsweek.
 
After a lengthy delay, Newsweek published just one letter on September 1,
2003. In addition, Richard M. Smith, the Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of
Newsweek, sent a personal letter to all those who had written to the
magazine complaining about Mr. Will's column.
 
Mr. Smith reassured the unhappy letter-writers that Mr. Will's "reference to
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was in no way intended to embrace or endorse the
atrocities that occurred under his reign." Mr. Smith also said, "I am well
aware of the continuing painful and bitter memories in the Armenian and
Greek communities of that period in history, and I can well understand how
strongly you feel about the subject. Above all, I want to assure you that
Newsweek has no interest whatsoever in insulting the memories of those who
perished early in the 20th Century or in aggravating the emotions that last
to this day." Mr. Smith expressed his regret that Mr. Will's comments "have
prompted very painful memories...."
 
In response to his letter, I sent an e-mail to Mr. Smith asking him why his
magazine had printed just one letter to the editor in response to Mr. Will's
column. I urged him to publish in Newsweek, as a note from the
Editor-in-Chief, the letter that he had sent only to those who had
complained, so that all readers would be informed of his negative opinion of
Ataturk.
 
Mr. Smith was kind enough to reply to my e-mail providing the following very
interesting explanation as to why his staff had published just one letter in
response to Mr. Will's column: "Each of the letters said almost precisely
the same thing. In fact, it was quite clear from the language and the
citations that the letters we received were part of an informal campaign.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it does color our judgment.
If there truly had been a diversity of opinion, or even significant
variations in the language or the themes expressed, we certainly would have
considered publishing more. Why did I not respond in the pages, as I did in
my letter? A fair question, and, alas, the reason reflects more art than
science. By publishing the letter we did, I felt that we reflected an
important view on Mr. Will's column. By responding one-on-one to those who
wrote to us directly, I felt that we were reaching those who felt most
strongly on the subject. As I'm sure you can imagine, we receive literally
thousands of letters and e-mails each week. Given the nature of
letter-writers, many of them are critical of something we or our columnists
have published. We try to accurately reflect the tone and volume of the mail
in our Letters column in the magazine and, as in this case, respond directly
to those who seem most passionate. We respond in the Letters column only in
very unusual circumstances, preferring to save space to let the real authors
of those pages - the readers - have their say."
 
Advice from The New York Times
 
Thomas Feyer, the editor of letters at The New York Times, wrote a lengthy
note in the Sept. 14, 2003 issue of The Times, explaining how he decides
which 15 letters to publish out of the more than 1,000 letters the newspaper
receives every day.
 
Here are Mr. Feyer's guidelines for writing letters to The New York Times:
"We are looking for a national (and often international) conversation about
the issues of the day - big and not so big - as well as fresh, bright
writing that stands out through its own charm. Timeliness is a must; brevity
will improve your chances; stylishness and wit will win my heart. ...Letters
should be kept to about 150 words.... They should be exclusive to The Times
and respond to an article that appeared in the newspaper in the last week.
In fact, writing by the next day is a good idea. Like other sections of the
newspaper, the letters page seeks to be timely, so even a very good letter
that arrives three days later may get passed over."
 
Learning the preferences of Newsweek and The New York Times regarding
letters to the editor should help our readers write letters in line with
these guidelines, thereby increasing the chances of seeing their opinions
reflected in the pages of these distinguished publications.
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