You know, the weeks fly past and it can be difficult to remember what happened last month, or last year. Publishing a newspaper can be like that. Because I read everything that goes into every issue, I can get quite confused about what we cover and what may have been missed. But that is what the rest of the team is for: to remind me when I think I’ve done something, when, in fact, I have not. Maybe it’s just age?
But that is not relevant right now. You will see in the Letters to the Editor section this week that a reader raises a complaint about the length of some of the letters we print, as well as the frequency with which some writers are represented. There is also a question about publishing letters with names withheld, for one reason or another. My usual response to letters or articles that complain about something in the Times, particularly something I write, is to communicate with them directly, off the record, as it were, to discuss their complaint.
I did this with the reader in question this week, and we had a very cordial discussion, as is usual with the kind-hearted people who read the Times. And, respecting his position on the issue, I thought it might be a good idea to seek a wider opinion from the wider community. This is, after all, your community newspaper, and we try to reflect the opinions, often quite contrary to each other, of the residents of North Grenville, Merrickville-Wolford, and beyond.
My initial response to William Vanveen’s letter was somewhat tongue in cheek: his original letter, since amended, noted that those things about which he complained “started under Dr. Shanahan’s watch but has continued”. This is something which has often caused me some personal embarrassment. Last year, I stepped down as Editor in order to focus on my other work, and Lorraine Rekmans replaced me. This lasted for about three months, when I returned to the position following Lorraine’s departure to become President of the Green Party of Canada. But it seems many people didn’t notice my return, in spite of my name appearing on each subsequent Editorial, which were each titled after a song (what I thought was my trademark, but apparently one that has gone largely unnoticed). Anyway, let me point out to all those who have asked me how I am enjoying my retirement: alas, I am still here, much to the displeasure of some, I know. Oh, and ownership of the Times has not changed since we started almost ten years ago. Another “mythunderstanding” (sorry).
But to get back to the point: my response to William’s letter was as follows: As for your points: as you say, this is a community newspaper, not a major city one. This means, from my point of view, that there is a greater emphasis on reflecting the thoughts and opinions of the community. Letters to the Editor are a major forum in that respect, and so I believe a lot of leeway needs to be made to accommodate that. This also results in letters that are not always literate or well-formed, although I do try to correct the more egregious errors. I should also note that you don’t see the letters we don’t publish! As for frequent letter writers: alas, that is another aspect of a community paper. There are only so many people in a small community willing to write at all. You mention “Major papers” twice: as I say, we are not a major big city newspaper. Our mandate is to provide a voice for this community, and I believe the letters serve that purpose.
And as for anonymous letters: we do not publish a letter unless we have the name and contact information of the writer. There are times when anonymity is requested, usually for a good reason. But we do not publish letters submitted anonymously.
That, in a nutshell, is our policy regarding Letters to the Editor. As I mentioned above, there are letters we simply refuse to publish, and these are usually libelous, or spreading misinformation (lies), or so rambling and incoherent as to defy publication. We don’t like to publish anything that could put the health or life of our readers in jeopardy. Believe me, there have been many of that kind over the past two years.
But, basically, that is our approach to letters from readers. The fact that we get so many of them implies, at least as far as the Times is concerned, that readers appreciate them and find the forum accessible and open to all shades of opinion. I hope that is the case. And, yes, we do have some writers who seem to pop up most weeks. It is clear that, for some of them, at least, this is the only forum they have to express their opinion or to engage in debate with others of differing views.
I also recognise that some will grow very tired, very quickly, of some of those debates, either because they have no interest in the topic, or because they feel it is being done to death. In some cases, I can only agree. But here is where I’d love to get a general sense of how people feel about this topic.
Should we insist on shorter letters, regardless of their content? Should we always demand that people put their names to their missives. Note what William says: “If potential contributors wish to keep their name to themselves then they should also keep their thoughts to themselves”. What’s the verdict on that?
I have been accused, at times, of using the paper as a mouthpiece to impose my ideas on people. It is, let’s be fair, my role as Editor to do that sometimes. However, I believe we have offered the same option to all, this is the Voice of the communities we serve: not our voice, but a place for those other voices to be heard. Surely, that is a central core responsibility of a community newspaper? And isn’t that the perfect role for the Letters to the Editor section? What do you think?