Pointers for election-season letter writers

Posted: Sunday, July 18, 2004

Campaign signs for this year's crop of political candidates are sprouting in front yards around town, reminding me of what I don't want the Empire's opinion page to look like during the election season.

Perusing the Empire's letters to the editor in the next few months could become a lot like driving through local neighborhoods: Your eyes graze over a sea of blurbs that let you know for whom your neighbors are voting. The blurbs don't change anyone's mind, but at least the people who penned them get the sense that they're part of the democratic process.

I'd like reading the paper to be a far different experience than driving around town. Campaign signs are a great way for people to express themselves, but the newspaper's opinion page is about much more than self-expression. I'd like readers to turn to our opinion section and be compelled to really think about who they're going to back in the voting booth.

The opinion page should be a place where you discover details about a candidate's history and learn more about their stances on issues, where readers make a connection between a politician's rhetoric and his or her actions.

We will run letters on candidates that deal with issues, politicians' past actions, and experiences that reveal an office-seeker's character. To get an election season letter published, make sure that you're offering specifics about the candidate's history, that you stick with issues and that you write as persuasively as possible.

In short, don't just make it clear whom you're voting for; make it clear why other readers should vote for that person too.

We want the opinion page to be an especially good read during the election season, not something you skim over in two minutes because most of the letters sound like the script for a 30-second TV ad.

This means that the Empire is not going to run every single letter that plugs a candidate. We will not run letters that simply state vague generalities about the person running for office, about how he or she will be good for Juneau, how much Candidate X cares about jobs and families, or how many times the candidate has baked cookies for the local Girl Scout troop. Nor will we run letters that regurgitate points from a campaign brochure. Like many other newspapers, we will not run letters that appear to be part of an orchestrated letter-writing campaign.

We also will not allow name-calling. Well-argued criticism is encouraged. Personal attacks will be rejected.

We will do everything we can, however, to make sure that the mix of letters represents what we receive. Our interest is not in pushing one side or another, but in having the most thought-provoking opinion page possible. If letters start stacking up in favor of one candidate over another, it won't be because we're killing those with which we disagree. It will be because that's what has arrived in the Empire mailbox.

The newspaper will accept election-related letters until noon, Thursday, Oct. 28. The last day we will publish these letters will be Sunday, Oct. 31, two days before the general election.

Under this policy, the opinion-page editor is going to have a much tougher job than simply running every letter he gets. He's going to have to field more calls, explain our philosophy over and over again, and face the wrath of writers who are new to the art of persuasion.

But I think it's worth the headaches.

I think this approach will mean that readers won't just skim a sea of redundant, predictable letters and flip to the comics. Instead, my hope is that they will look to the opinion page to stretch their minds and preconceived notions and to decide how they're going to vote in the next election.

• Lori Thomson is managing editor of the Juneau Empire and can be reached at lori.thomson@juneauempire.com.

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