Wick Communications

Host letter writers

In Editorial pages on February 10, 2011 at 1:17 pm

The Daily Press Letter Writers Conference may be the best thing any Wick paper has done in my tenure here. Period.

It’s Montrose Daily Press Publisher Stephen Woody’s bright idea and something he told readers he has wanted to do for some time. As he writes in a brilliant front-page treatment last month, the idea was to get the newspaper’s most active letter writers in a room and hear them out. He wanted to answer their questions, to hear their feedback about the newspaper and also to encourage them and others to write more.

Steve says his newspaper published a record 727 letters to the editor last year. How many of us can say we publish more letters to the editor today than we did, say, 15 years ago? (In fairness, some of us have more robust comment/community blogger opportunities on our Web sites than does the Daily Press. I’m sure that cannibalizes some of what would otherwise be letters. Nonetheless, the Daily Press leads this league in terms of an active, interesting editorial page.)…

The Daily News coverage of the conference included photos of the gathering of two-dozen letter writers and a rail with comments of those present. Steve asked these active community members what they liked and disliked about their town and their newspaper. He found that they consider their newspaper courageous, local and open to differing opinions. They had complaints about the paper and Steve dutifully reported those too.

It’s worth noting that the Jan. 30 newspaper – the one that included coverage of the gathering – had seven letters, one staff-written editorial, a publisher’s notebook column and a column from a state legislator. That is nothing short of wonderful and the reason the paper has so many committed contributors.

If you want to do something like this, Steve has the following tips. Take it away, Steve:

“First and foremost, you’ve got to like letter writers. Even the ones who write frequently (usually retirees) and those who question your sanity and integrity. Some publishers regard letters/letter writers with annoyance, or reluctant “duty.” So, you basically have to like these people (in general) to begin with.

“I keep all of the letters we publish in an electronic file and have done so for many years. Therefore, at the end of the year, we can publish a “thank you” ad about all of the letter writers, names and number of letters. (For the conference,) go through the list, eliminate all of the bomb throwers, homophobes, racists, bigots and those who don’t feel right. When the list is culled, bounce the idea off of a couple of letter writers — lefties and righties — to gauge interest. Proceed with a telephone call, follow up with a mailed letter invitation. I picked 27 names and was surprised that 24 confirmed.

“The list is highly arbitrary (like letter publishing) and it’s your party. (See column regarding criteria for invite.) An equal number of left/right is recommended. I’d have one person that you know well handy to jump in if in case the conversation goes in the ditch about politics so he can bring the focus back without the publisher appearing to be heavy-handed about either left/right politics.

“Give the circulation department the list of conferees you want to invite; subscribers mostly as letter writers tend to have an interest in the paper and the community. I did invite two single copy buyers. As you can tell by the group photo, we’re a ‘mature’ bunch.

“Keep the program manageable, time-wise. Outline guidelines early — no discussion on gun control, abortion, religion — and make light how the group can’t solve Palin, or Obama, or illegal immigrants, health-care, Fox News/MSNBC in 90 minutes/two hours. Choose three topics — local issues – to discuss and ask what compels you to write a letter, likes/dislikes about community/newspaper.

“Buy lunch. Take a photo. Have introductions/allow adequate time (to talk about themselves) around the table. Invite staff. Have sign-in sheet w/questions like: first job, hometown, two interesting facts about yourself, what would you do to improve the newspaper, the town, etc. Give a tour.

“Thank everyone for coming. Make it seem like it’s a big deal, which it is.”

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