Where did all of the letters go?

Posted: Sunday, January 04, 2009

I've been wondering what the difference is between letters to the editor and the online responses, and what kind of impact they have on our community.

The most notable distinction is that there are two different standards. Authors of letters to the editor are vetted by the newspaper to make sure they submitted the letters. The writers put some time into forming their opinions since they will be in print for everyone to see. Libel is out. They can be edited. Rebuttals follow the same standards. The letters become part of the public record.

Online postings are mostly anonymous and they are self-regulated. The posters react to the content, to the author, and to the other posters. There is a give and take that can go on for hours or days. Pretty much anything goes, yet it is still a kind of community.

Dan Reaume took on religion with his My Turn on Dec. 30, and Judy Shuler's Dec. 31 My Turn asks "As capital creeps away, where's the outrage?" A year ago, those two topics would have been good for at least a week's worth of letters to the editor. They may show up yet, but the trend is headed the other way.

If readers went online on Dec. 30 , they would have found more than 100 postings by 28 people discussing Dan Reaume's My Turn.

If Judy Shuler checked out the space below her My Turn on Dec. 31, she would have read more than 60 postings on the topic of capital creep and plenty of outrage. Most of them wouldn't make it past the editor, but that is irrelevant.

In the big city newspapers, there are still plenty of letters to the editor and they all have anonymous online posting, but it's different in a smaller city where people know each other. Has the online criticism scared people away from writing letters? Have the letter writers found online posting more satisfying? Do government employees feel safer posting anonymously? In public policy terms, are the online comments like the tree falling in the forest? Does that matter to the editor? Does it matter at all?

As a 20-year subscriber to the Juneau Empire and an avid newspaper fan, I believe that newspapers are crucial to a democracy and that letters to the editor are part of community building. I miss them.

Barbara Belknap


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