A Semi-defense Of The Letters Page

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THE PLANK MAY 29, 2009

A Semi-defense Of The Letters Page

The "letters page" is a journalistic institution that's already on the ropes. New York, for instance, replaced its letters page with a round-up of the online comments generated by its articles; we here at TNR got rid of our letters page altogether a few years ago. And those publications that still have an old-fashioned letters pages are mocked for it mercilessly, as Newsweek recently was by Michael Kinsley:

Why, for that matter, is there still a letters page? It's
the first page of content you come to. Five one-paragraph comments on
the issue published two weeks ago--room for little more than a thumbs
up or down. On the Internet, thousands of people have their say
immediately and at length. And then a self-parody: "Your thoughts on
swine flu" -the cover story two weeks ago--"in six words." Hali McGrath
of Berkeley, California, submitted, "Blah, blah, swine flu, blah blah."
And Newsweek published it.

But I don't think you'll find a better case for the continued existence of the letters page than this lovely piece by David Margolick in The Nation (via Romenesko). It's about a couple of particularly prolific letter-to-the-editor writers named Cy Shain and George Avakian, the former of whom was much more successful at actually getting his letters published than the latter. A sample:

As he grew older, then lost his wife, getting into the Times
became Shain's way of keeping engaged with the world and in touch with
friends, especially Avakian, since each appearance invariably led to an
exchange of e-mails. Still, Shain took to waiting two months between
attempts--in order, he once told Avakian, "to avoid wearing out my
welcome." The San Francisco Chronicle got his overage. A couple
of times he even gave seminars around San Francisco on how to get
letters published. 

It's worth reading the whole thing, and not only because it's Friday afternoon.

--Jason Zengerle

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