Letters give readers a chance to become involved

“Interactivity” has become the magic word of the newspaper business, in print and online.

There is little that warms the cockles of a journalist’s heart more than reader responses to the things we publish. They prove that you are reading, are moved by what you see, and are willing to spend time telling us what you think.

Today there are more ways than ever for you to make yourself heard in the marketplace of ideas, but for my money the most effective is the same as it was in Ben Franklin’s newspaper days:

The letter to the editor.

It is high-profile — letters usually appear on the editorial page or in the opinion section.

It’s exclusive — published letters are selected by an editor as a worthy contribution, culled from many submissions.

And best of all, each published letter includes the author’s real name and city of residence. Despite the popularity of online give-and-take, few things are more worthless than an opinion that arrives with no name attached. A signed letter to the editor carries weight that anonymous chatter does not.

Of course, attaching your name to your opinion requires a certain degree of self-assurance, because doing so invites disagreement and occasional criticism — and occasionally more than a little. Thus, a gent named Austin Kuder of Seven Hills — a frequent correspondent — seemed to feel a little bruised last week after an encounter with some readers in Sunday’s Forum pages.

The previous Tuesday, The Plain Dealer had printed a PolitiFact column that addressed a statement by House Speaker John Boehner that Social Security is out of money. “Mostly False,” ruled PolitiFact.

Mr. Kuder wrote a letter that we published the following Thursday, accusing conservatives of trying to undermine public confidence in Social Security.

That got things going on the other side, and last Sunday’s Forum section included a package of five letters, all taking issue with various points in the PolitiFact story and Mr. Kuder’s letter.

“One [letter] would have been enough,” he wrote me last week, “but the PD printed five similar critiques.”

Well, that’s what can happen when a letter writer strikes a nerve, and it’s part of what makes the letters section the vibrant place it is. Particularly on Sundays, when Forum includes an entire page of letters, we offer one or more packages of opinion on a single topic and thus provide discussions, rather than just single opinions.

“Basically the packages reveal themselves, I don’t have to go looking for them,” said Racquel Robinson, who has been The Plain Dealer’s letters editor since 1999. “I identify trends based on the submissions I get and put them aside for use as potential Sunday packages. Often, there’s that one column or letter or package that really sets people off, and I know I’ll get an interesting mix of opinions.”

She said packages usually are not as one-sided as the Social Security comments last week: “In an ideal world, I’d get one letter expressing an opinion on each side of every issue,” she said. “But people mostly write when they disagree with something, and all the letters were on one side of that issue.”

Most of the complaints I get about letters involve balance. “Why didn’t you run any letters from the other side?” readers will want to know. But Robinson can’t run letters she doesn’t have, and she says she tries to publish letters in proportion to what she receives.

“I don’t necessarily look for equal balance,” she said. “I think readers need to know which side is weighing in more heavily. This isn’t a poll, and it’s not scientific or even consistent. One week we’ll be heavily liberal, and the next week the conservatives will weigh in.”

The letter writers tend to police one another, she said: “It’s their page. In any debate, there’s a wide spectrum — a wide continuum of thought — and our letter writers are really good about writing rebuttals if they think somebody has gone too far on the other side.”

Letter writers are restricted to no more than one published letter every 30 days. “I have a huge stable of regular letter writers, all of whom I greatly value,” said Robinson, “but it’s always refreshing to publish a new voice. I love it when I call somebody to verify that they wrote a letter and they get excited to know that they’re going to be in the paper.”

One person who didn’t get a call but who I’m confident will be excited today is Austin Kuder of Seven Hills. Last week he took it on the chin, but if you look at page G5, you will see that a package of readers rallied to his defense.

Happy reading, Austin.

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