There has been very little coverage of the New York Times' decision to cut the space it allots for printed letters in its paper edition. That's a shame. The move further exemplifies the disdain the "mainstream" media has for their audiences, and, by extension, the communities they serve.
I have long believed -- and now, even moreso -- that the NYT and other so-called "elite" news organizations, simply don't get what it means to HAVE a community to serve, let alone what it means to SERVE those communities. We shouldn't be surprised, then, that the media elites pay little attention to the massive growth of community media in the online age, nor do the print media understand the power they could tap in the communities that support, and pay for, their products, print or otherwise.
Below is an op-ed I submitted to the NYT upon its announcement that it would be cutting space for printed letters. Of course, and hardly surprising, I never heard a peep back from the Times other than an automated response. Following my submission is the Times' response.
I'd be curious what fellow COMJIG members think of all of this, and enourage response.
The Times does a disservice to “Visitor” and all of its readers
The New York Times enjoys a place of high privilege in the United States and, indeed, the rest of the free world. So the small parcel of space it has committed to letters from the public is perhaps the most coveted virtual meeting space in all of literate society.
Here are some important milestones in the history of the small parcel of intellectual real estate:
• Just five days after it began publishing in the late summer of 1851, the New York Times published its first letter to the editor, an innocuous tribute to the fine city by somebody who signed the letter, simply, “Visitor.”
• The Times’ own Kalman Seigel, who in 1972 published a collection of notable Times letters, reported that in 1896, when Adolph Ochs bought the newspaper, he wrote that he was committed to provide “a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.” It was an affirmation from the new owner that letters were not only to be continued, but cherished as the very soul of the newspaper.
• In the 1930s, the Times published letters in the usual place on the editorial page, but also published a full page of letters every Sunday in the space now occupied by its high-profile columnists and op-eds from the cultural and intellectual elite. It was a sign that without its readers, the Times was nothing.
There have been other changes to the Times’ letters page since then — the decline and end of publishing letters with pseudonyms in the 1940s, the introduction of a printed “letters policy” in 1973 – but perhaps none will be as infamous as the notice it published on August 6, 2007, when the editors announced that the Times would provide less space for letters in the print edition, shoveling them off instead to the cheap ghetto of the company’s Web servers.
Traditionalists of journalism are bemoaning the change as an affront to tradition and of times gone by. I would argue that the Times’ reduction of letters space in the printed newspaper is an ill-conceived dismissal of the current and future needs of its readers and the broader public.
Over ten years of studying the social roles of letters to the editor, I have become convinced that the wild popularity of online discussion groups, blogs, and do-it-yourself citizen journalism is a direct response to professional journalists providing less of their space and time to the people they serve. Personal opinion is the water of democracy; put a barrier in the stream of ideas, and the water will only back up so long before it finds a way under, around, and over the dam. As newspapers over the years have put up more and more barriers to their readers, they have gone elsewhere to have their say.
To its credit, the Times has offered to provide even more space for letters online. But it’s a hollow gesture, like trading beads for an island that would become one of the world’s most valuable slivers of land. The move by the Times to reduce space for ink-on-paper letters is an admission that its paper is precious space, and a statement that the space is far too valuable to give over to the common citizen.
I would urge the editors of the Times to consider these opinions from a humble college professor who has spent many years reading letters, talking with letter writers, and discussing these issues with letters editors:
• Providing space for letters from the public builds and maintains trust. It is a constant reminder that a newspaper values its readers, and respects its role as a public forum.
• The letters section of a newspaper is its heart and soul. It is a regular reminder that the role of a newspaper is not just to inform and to entertain, but to encourage discussion and debate, and to allow a community – or a nation, or an entire world – to talk to itself through a common space.
• The public is not foolish. It knows that the Internet provides cheap and plentiful space for the publication of ideas, but the best of ideas are put into print. Having one’s letter shoveled onto a Web site is not nearly as affirming as seeing it on the printed page.
I suggest an experiment: For one month, instead of providing less space for letters, provide more. Move the fine columns of Maureen Dowd and David Brooks and policy wonks off of the precious printed page and onto the Web site (where many of us will happily read them whenever we want). Give their space in the paper to thoughtful letters from Brooklyn, from Scranton, from Iowa City, from Dar es Salaam, letters that otherwise would be lost in the Tower of Babel of the blogosphere.
The opinions of an unknown citizen, from Miami or from Mysore, can be as interesting and as thought-provoking as a column from a Pulitzer winner. It is certainly just as valuable, and as deserving as a few dollars’ worth of ink. And if the Times doesn’t think printing more letters is worth the expense, it shouldn’t be surprised that the people who might write those letters don’t think buying the newspaper is worth the expense, either.
And here's the Times' response, such as it is:
Thank you for submitting an article to the Op-Ed page. We have received your manuscript and are reviewing it. If you do not hear from us within one week, we do not plan to use it and you should feel free to offer it elsewhere. Please do not call to inquire about its status or respond to this automated message.
I acknowledged their request to not inquire about its status or to respond to the automated message. If the Times doesn't care enough about a loyal reader to issue a more personal response, I suppose it's no wonder that this loyal reader has little care for the fate of the Times.