Faithful letter writers perform(ed) vital function in democratic society

Take a look at the obituary column in this issue and you’ll see the name of one of a woman who did something a lot of other folks in this community don’t: tell the public what she thought in letters to the newspaper.

I qualify the “tell the public what she thought” because a lot of people tell the public what they think: via blasts on Facebook or Twitter or otherwise. But it’s not really the same, and I’m not saying that because I’m a newspaper editor.

I like to read letters to the editor, even in other newspapers than this one. I even appreciate those that challenge something we’ve seen or done, or those I don’t really agree with.

I like that these people have the guts to put their ideas on paper let us publish them for posterity – and that really is the case, because that’s what happens when it appears in the newspaper. It won’t be 25 screens down in 10 minutes.

In my experience, and that includes a stint as an opinion page staffer at a major urban newspaper group, letters to the editor are generally more thoughtful and articulate than much of what I see on social media. Maybe it’s because the writers realize that what they’re submitting may be not only distributed well past their group of Facebook friends, but will also be enshrined for perpetuity.

I was already sad to lose another inveterate letter writer, Bill Curtis, a few months ago.

Both Bill and Jeanie weren’t afraid to express their opinions. They called a spade a spade.

Their letters were interesting, partly because when I read them I wondered what brought them to the ideas and positions they espoused.

Jeanie was a longtime waitress at Pineway Golf Course, whose husband Bruce was a coach for decades at Sweet Home High School – and a very good one, as attested by his win-loss records and generations of athletes who competed for him. Between the short-order restaurants and the general competitiveness of the West household, it’s not too hard to see why Jeanie could lay it on the line.

I didn’t know her very well, personally, although one of our staffers did. But I liked her spunk and even though I occasionally wondered about the defensibility of her rationale, as she called out all those “liberals,” her letters were fun to read.

Bill was, as we said in his obituary in our June 28 edition, “passionate about politics, writing literally hundreds of letters to Linn and Lane county newspapers.”

He’d spent a lot of his life traveling the world aboard Military Sealift Command and that experience, combined with the university education he had, gave him perspectives that made his letters very interesting as well.

One of the reasons why I am particularly sorry to lose Bill and Jeanie from our community, frankly, is that they contributed quite substantially to the public discourse on our opinion page.

We are a small newspaper and, again frankly, we don’t get a tremendous volume of letters to the editor. I realize some of that is probably due to the fact that people now find it easier to post their commentary elsewhere. They might consider it safer, too, to rant to their friends rather than present their opinions in a truly public arena.

I realize, too, that much of our community may not be scholarly, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have reasoned opinions that shouldn’t be shared with other citizens. That’s how democratic government works. Healthy democracy requires exchange of ideas.

Letters to the editor also, as I’ve already alluded, reach a large audience (comparatively), and are read by elected officials and others with influence – who might not be reading your Facebook posts. They can, as the one (conveniently) on this week’s letters page does, offer information not addressed in a news article.

Letters to the editor are among the most-read sections of most newspapers, including this one. When I walk through a restaurant or otherwise see people reading The New Era, often they have the opinion page open.

Letters can generate discussion as well as influence the direction of public discourse. They can convince readers by using emotions, or facts – or some combination of those two, hopefully with an emphasis on the latter. We’re not too interested in publishing rants, but letters that thoughtfully analyze complex issues and events are very welcome.

By writing a letter, citizens can also publicize their involvement in some issue or find others who have similar interests. Letters can also stimulate interest from our reporting staff (we occasionally get a letter that ends up as a news story rather than a letter), and Yeah, that’s also possible with social media, but again, the newspaper audience covers many elements of Sweet Home society and leadership.

I might add that I occasionally hear from people that they’re reluctant to express an opinion, particularly one critical of something going on in Sweet Home, because they’re concerned about retaliation.

I’ve been involved in newspaper journalism for nearly 35 years and I can’t recall ever hearing about a local letter writer having their house spray-painted or otherwise experiencing any significant blowback, other than an occasional critical response in the letters column. I know it has happened, elsewhere, but believe me, if we became aware of payback of any sort to an opinion expressed in a letter in our community, we’d be highly motivated to expose that in a news report.

I certainly encourage writers to avoid name-calling and flak that isn’t necessary, but sometimes the truth hurts and the fact that it might annoy someone is no reason to wimp out. In my experience, people respect the fact that you made the effort and had the courage to state your opinion publicly in the newspaper, even if they don’t like it. Again, people view this differently than a Facebook rant.

One other concern I hear from people is whether their letter will be published. If it meets the criteria in the box published every week on the opinion page, which states our policies for letters, it will be published. Frankly, in this newspaper, given the lack of volume of letters we receive, we always try to run the full letter if possible. If significant cuts are required, we’ll contact you and discuss the situation – which is why it’s necessary to give us a phone number. We generally do not edit letters without consulting with the writer, because it’s your letter, not ours.

Back to Jeanie and Bill: They’re gone and our wish is that they rest in peace, having left this world full of the issues they wrote about.

Now it’s time for somebody else to step up and address them.