You all, I know, have been anxiously awaiting this periodic explanation of our letters-page policies, so you need wait no longer.
First of all, we have an ""open-door"" letters policy, meaning the colander I use to filter out unusable letters has very big holes. If I used it to make pasta, all the spaghetti would drop into the garbage disposal. (Yes, this is an imperfect analogy since unsuitable letters are bad and spaghetti is good.)
Occasionally a letter does get hung up, though, and here are some of the reasons:
* The letter is too long. We try to enforce a 400-word limit for letters, which is twice as long as the word limit for letters sent to the Columbus Dispatch. Letters need word limits because folks tend to just go on and on if you let 'em. Limiting letter length also leaves more room for more letters. Sometimes I'll cut a long letter down to size myself, and sometimes I'll ask the author to cut it, and sometimes, if the letter is absurdly long, I'll call it names, sneer at it, and hide it somewhere on my computer where it won't bother me.
* The letter doesn't make any sense. Nonsense can be confusing, and confusion can cause headaches, so we try to avoid it.
* The letter might libel someone. We'd be really embarrassed if we got sued and knocked out of business because of a libelous letter to the editor. We'd much rather get sued and knocked out of business because of a crackerjack investigative story that shook the foundations of government and society. If we get sued and knocked out of business, my first choice for an alternative business would be a taco stand. Less pressure, more cilantro hot sauce!
* The letter is intended as a personal note to Aunt Helen.
WE DO OCCASIONALLY run long opinion pieces that are labeled as ""Readers' Forums."" These pieces, to be honest, are just long letters to the editor that hold together reasonably well. Otherwise, they're really no different than letters. While getting your letter published is nearly automatic, per our minimal requirements, Reader's Forums are published when and if space becomes available. (These submissions are also noteworthy in that I can never decide where, if anywhere, to place the apostrophe in ""Readers Forums."")
CONTRARY TO THE SUSPICIONS of some anxious local conservatives, we don't use an ideological screen for letters to the editor or Reader's Forums. If we run more letters from lefties or liberals, than from righties or conservatives, it's because we receive more letters from the left. We can't run what we don't receive. Like it or not, our comfy political oasis has been called the ""People's Republic of Athens"" for a reason.
Nonetheless, I encourage submissions from local conservatives (along with everybody else) because as a journalist I happen to believe an editorial page with a diversity of opinion is a lot more interesting and enlightening than one that hollers just one note. (I admire the otherwise conservative Columbus Dispatch for publishing a diverse editorial page, with a broad range of opinion from left and right, and aspire for folks to appreciate us for the same reason.)
WE REALLY TRY TO AVOID running ""editor's notes"" at the end of letters because anything that's that much fun can't be good. Seriously, it's immensely difficult to resist the temptation of running a smartass editor's note at the end of a letter that you wholeheartedly disagree with. But it's not fair and abuses editorial privilege to throw in the last word after a critical letter. It's also a good way to discourage that person from writing any more letters.
We do make an occasional exception, however. If a letter has a verifiable misstatement of fact, which isn't subject to varied interpretations, we will correct it in an editor's note. Or we'll run a responsive note if a letter directly challenges us to answer a question about something that we've done in the paper. Sometimes, too, if the author of a letter is notable, we'll run a short note identifying that person (e.g., ""So and so is director of the U.N. Land Mine Commission."")
Regardless of the reason, though, when we run the occasional editor's note, we try to write it as neutrally as possible, without sarcasm or malice. (This is somewhat self-serving in that we realize that papers that abuse their editorial privilege look like jerks.)
WE HAVE A NO-EXCEPTIONS prohibition against running anonymous letters. Without the accountability that goes along with identifying yourself in a letter, you can pretty much say whatever you want. We're legally responsible for whatever appears in the paper, and don't want our readers to feel they can exploit this forum without any obligation for truth or veracity.
If you write something, have the courage of your convictions.
We don't make exceptions because they tend to breed requests for more exceptions. Pretty soon you have an editorial page full of anonymous rantings.
OVER THE YEARS, DEBATES in our letters section occasionally have gotten personal. We discourage personal attacks, but will allow personal criticism if it's directly related to the issues at hand or the way something has been argued.
For example, if a letter writer makes a point to cite his religious background as a basis for his stance on an issue, then that religious perspective becomes fair game, within reason.
Depending on which side you're coming from, of course, defining a ""personal attack"" can be in the eye of the beholder.
In general, though, we err on the side of open expression with letters -- and don't cut or censor something unless there's no question it's out of bounds.
WE PREFER LETTERS on local issues (because they're more pertinent to our mainly local editorial mission); that have been sent to us alone, rather than all the papers (for obvious reasons); and that are sent via e-mail -- preferably as Microsoft Word attachments (because then we don't have to retype or reformat the letter).
That said, we will publish letters that don't meet those preferences, and welcome letters in other media or formats. (Just don't send any other types of e-mail attachments, since I probably won't be able to open them.)
Send letters to (e-mail) firstname.lastname@example.org, or (fax) 740-592-5695, or (regular mail or drop-off) 14 N. Court St., Athens OH 45701.