The drive-thru window of opinion

Posted: Sunday, September 03, 2000

Don't worry, this is not the kick-off of some regular, self-indulgent account of "What's Happening in My Life (Not Yours)" column. Today, the space is devoted to acknowledging the hospitality that has been extended to me since I arrived July 31 and to sharing my initial reaction to Word of Mouth.

While Word of Mouth and our Letters columns may be lightning rods, I am assured by my out-of-building experiences that everyone in Juneau is not mad at everyone else. Amid the congestion of Egan Drive and the Fred Meyer parking lot, I have been waved ahead by courteous fellow drivers many more times than I have been forced to hit my brakes to accommodate drivers who believe they will win the day's race if they can position themselves just one more (and one more and one more) car length ahead of the pack.

Yielding to others in traffic and rain demonstrates that we remain considerate of our neighbors. A willingness to be second -- or last -- is a healthy sign.

As for Word of Mouth, I'm listening. It was obvious from comments addressed to me during my first week in town that WOM has its detractors, including some who are as strident in their insistence that it be canned as is the tone they claim the column conveys. For most of the last two weeks, I have listened to and transcribed all of the WOM calls. It is at once rewarding and daunting to dial into the system and have the mechanical voice announce: "You have 41 messages."

To the detractors of WOM, try to understand how important it is for the Empire to hear from 41 readers in a 24-hour cycle. We value the expression of opinion included in a thoughtful letter to the editor. But the Empire receives fewer than half as many letters in a week as it does calls to WOM in a single day.

We're a hurried and harried society. Along the way, some things impress us. We want to acknowledge the good or to vent about the bad. For some readers, WOM is the solution: Punch in seven numbers and think out loud. There, you're done, you feel better and it took 60 seconds or less. Try composing a letter or an e-mail in a similar amount of time. Is WOM valid? Let's say it's the drive-thru window of opinion. You want a sit-down dinner? We can handle that, too. Write the editor or send me an e-mail.

If WOM can accommodate 15 or so comments on a typical day, which 15 of the 41 get into print? It's a subjective exercise, but I pledge to you that my personal feelings never will be used to filter the comments. Some topics will run their course. If we've had road tar-cracked windshield-it-is-it-

isn't-the-contractor's-fault comments for a few days, we may conclude that the subject has been covered.

Word welcomes callers who express their appreciation for random acts of kindness and who pass along compliments. That said, the tone of some comments can be far more objectionable than their substance. Callers may have an interesting observation or a valid criticism, but too often they cannot resist the temptation to conclude with a gratuitous insult. Thus, the "those who think otherwise are stupid/should get out of town/ should get a life" remarks are not going to find their way into print -- and they have not been finding their way into print for a while. Given the tendency of perceptions to linger, look at last week's WOM if you can find the back issues.

To those concerned that some callers base their comments upon a false premise that then spreads throughout our readership, you have a good point and we're alert to the damage that can result. To those who have used "courage" and "high road" in urging me to kill Word, thanks, but if Word reflects a reasonable tone and attracts dozens of callers and a wide readership, it will continue to be one -- just one -- of the several dozen components of your Empire.

But it may move off the Op-Ed page, or get longer or shorter or run less often. Or not. Stay tuned.

Steve Reed is managing editor of the Empire. His e-mail address is

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