September 17, 2007

The New York Times -- Community be Damned

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.


Doug Fisher said...

I can't totally agree with you Bill.

Print is a nice ego booster. But if I want my voice to be heard -- and continue to be heard long into the future -- and if I want feedback on my ideas instead of just casting them to the wind, these days I go to the Web.

The Times has letters dating to 1981 online. I am unclear, however, whether it allows them to be indexed by search engines (I can't recall ever seeing one come up in a search, which is surprising given how far back they go).

I suspect, however, it does not because of its log-in wall. (I just did some Googling using rather unusual phrases in some of the older letters, and nothing came up.)

To me, that -- and not allowing comments on the letters so there is robust debate on one of the premier news sites in the world -- is the greater failure here.

-Doug Fisher

Doug Fisher said...

I stand slightly corrected. Among more recent letters, I am able to access some through a Google search, but only those that have not been put into the archives and behind the Times Select paywall.

Method: I took key phrases from pairs of letters on the same or close dates for this past June and July. Those not indicated on the Times' site as being Times Select came up. Those requiring a Times Select subscription did not.

I then put in word pairs, not quoted phrases, from letters, such as the term nontheist prejudice as a regular searcher might do, and those that were available generally came up by the second page.

I could not find anywhere on the Times site an explanation for what letters it decides to put in the paid archive and what ones it does not.

So my general observations hold: If the Times were to open access to all its letters and allow commenting (even under what I am sure would be a restrictive protocol), then online letters would, to me, be far more valuable.
- Doug

Mark said...

Even with limited space, there is one thing The New York Times could do which would make readers (and NYT editors) more aware of the true nature of the "vox populi" on a given subject: tally -- and report -- the total number of letters, pro and con, on a given subject received within, say, five days of an article's or editorial's appearance.

Often, I'll see four or six letters all lining up with the NYT editorial stance on a subject, or all opposing this or that move from the administration. Did no one write to oppose The Times or support the administration's view? No one at all? I find that difficult to believe, especially in this e-mail age.

Tell me, New York Times that 463 letters came in on a subject. Tell me 38 agreed with an editorial and 425 opposed it and the rest were neutral. Then, when you only print six favorable letters, I'll have some context.

This would, of course, require the transparency that the NYT so famously demands of others, but won't always apply to itself.

Anonymous said...

Want to know why your comments really aren't heard? Because on average, only about 15% of a newspaper's revenue comes from subscribers like you. Guess what percentage of that same newspaper's revenue is spent on printing and delivering the newspaper? 15%. So essentially you are only buying the paper and ink. The funding for journalism (whether editorial or objective) comes from the money spent by advertisers. That's why they don't care about what you think. Until you fork up the money to buy a full page ad to say what you want, you opinion is worth just about as much as it costs you to have it.

Bill Reader said...

Mark -- I appreciate and agree with your comments. There are a few newspapers that do what you say, and it would be nice if that became standard practice.

Of course, such a move would also suggest that high selectivity is virtuous (akin to peer-reviewed research journals, many of which brag about having high rejection rates).

A lottery approach to selection would be another interesting experiment.

bigyaz said...

Personally I like it that the Times is selective about the number of letters it publishes. Almost all of them are well-reasoned, backed up with facts and often witty. If I want to read hundreds of half-baked opinions, there's no shortage of them on the web.

As for a personal response to your submission: Do you really think it's the best use of limited resources for the Times to pay someone to write a personal note to each of the hundreds of (unsolicited) pieces it receives every month? Or do you mean just you, because you're special?

Futureshok said...

Paper is dead; long live the web! Think back to what the Times' website was just two years ago when they began TimesSelect. The changes are immense, evolutionary. They are putting their letters to the editor "where their mouth is."

Anonymous said...

And there are people who object to not giving enough space to the Bridge column, not covering poker, not covering recreational bicycling at greater length, ignoring the Aliens Bombed the Pentagon conspiracy ...

What makes you think I want any newspaper to devote more of its limited space to your opinions from letter-writers (when doing so means they have to give less space to the news?) When I buy the paper, I'm paying for that space, to paraphrase Mr. Reagan. I want it used wisely.

peaceworker said...

The tally of pro, con, and neutral letters is well worth giving space to. More vs less letters in print version is a matter of personal taste. I like reading them so I'd like more, but the point that limited space keeps there from being more -- or enough -- of many things is well taken. How about more coverage of debates like this one? As a non-"business" issue, it is unlikely to make the Monday industry section, or any other part of the NYT. Finally, what about letters about other letters? That is much better handled online, and keeps any given debate going rather than artificially capping it via editorial fiat. Some kind of signal to print readers regarding what is going on online in a given domain -- especially an interactive dimension like letters -- could surely be devised. New times demand new solutions. Looking forward to seeing where all this goes. In the meantime, does the now-tougher task of getting a kletter oublshed in the Times grow in value for tenure-seekers? The "journal" just became more selective. Worth pondering.