In school, one of the standard writing exercises in our language classes was to write a letter to the editor of a newspaper. We were encouraged to think about issues—from local to global—and express our considered opinion on the same in the letter. It was also an exercise in the proper form of address, the clear enunciation of views, and discipline of expressing what we had to say in limited words.
It was not only the writing, but also the reading of letters to editors in newspapers that was an integral part of the morning newspaper reading ritual. Over the years, it was comforting to know that the right hand column on the middle page of my newspaper would carry the day’s letters. Over time, one became familiar with some of the ‘regular’ writers, and were amused, appalled, or in silent agreement with the views expressed.
In recent times this part of the daily newspaper has been disappearing in many papers. In the age of social media, people express their views instantly, in the required number of characters. The almost knee-jerk reaction to happenings invokes an equally instant avalanche of responses. And, then, a new day begins with a fresh news-storm as it were.
Long before all this, it was a tradition of newspapers around the world to carry their readers’ opinions, thoughts, questions, and outrage on the news of the day. What is it that motivates people to write these letters? Letter writers do not receive material compensation for their efforts, but do enjoy rewards such as publicity, or satisfaction from directly or indirectly influencing public discourse. And most newspapers still honour and respect this sharing from their readers by giving them the space to be seen and heard.
Newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post receive thousands of letters to the editor every year. Letter writers respond to news articles and opinions, and often take the newspaper to task for how it operates. At the end of the year the Washington Post puts up on its website a selection of the novel, thoughtful and funny insights that readers submitted that year, sorted by the date they appeared in print and subject matter.
Other newspapers are also encouraging of the art of writing to newspapers. As the associate editor of an Irish newspaper puts it, “In a world where social commentary is now almost free of any kind of professional oversight — or curating, to use today’s vernacular — the letters columns of mature, honest newspapers are, as they ever were, a reliable weather vane of how a society feels on certain issues. They are a kind of a social pulse giving an insight into the health–in the broadest terms–of the nation. They are direct, from-the-heart commentary.”
The power of “Dear Sir”…is evident in the case of the letter to the Times from a seven-year old girl from the Isle of Man. It read ‘Sir, Yours faithfully, Caroline Sophia Kerenhappuch Parkes.’ The brief epistle was intended to inform readers of her unusual name Kerenhappuch which had been mentioned in a letter the previous week on the subject of uncommon 19th century names.
I for one do look forward to seeing the column back in all newspapers.