Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Letters to the Editor - what's the point?

The editor of the IHT has four primary sources of feedback from readers: letters or emails addressed to Mike Oreskes but not intended for publication; letters to the Editor intended for publication and perhaps not even seen by the editor; comments returned by subscribers when renewing or cancelling their subscriptions and last but not least, direct face to face contact with IHT readers.

When I left the IHT in 2000, letters or emails addressed to the editor and not intended for publication were not shared on a systematic basis with senior executives of the newspaper, editorial or commercial, not even the publisher and naturally not readers. The editor carefully guarded any comments that came his way, and for reasons we could only speculate on, did not provide a monthly internal summary of them or simply circulate them to the executive board of the newspaper. I am unaware that this has changed, although it might have: editors in general rather like to safe-guard their somewhat privileged access to reader feedback, the good often disseminated, the less flattering 'round-filed'.

A system for providing the editor with a monthly report from the subscriptions department of comments received by it - comments most often written on the back of renewal notices (negative generally when not renewing, positive when renewing) - was in place, set up in 1996 for the then editor Mike Getler. However, as I understand it, this is no longer the case. (The subscriptions customer service department is now largely in Hong Kong.) That is to say, if you are an IHT subscriber, and you include comments or a letter/note to the editor when you renew your subscription, the chances are that neither the editor, nor anyone of any import, will ever read it.

As to letters to the editor, sent for publication, very few are printed on a daily basis - typically 3-5 - and most are dedicated to commenting about what is in the news, rather than the way the news has been reported. The selection of which letters are published is the responsibility of the editor of the opinion/editorial pages. What's interesting to note is how frequently certain regular letter writers to the IHT are published. A search on one Frank Peel of Geneva, Switzerland for example, not only reveals a remarkable hit-rate for his letters' publication in print, but also how he uses this for his own self-promotion. Does Mr. Peel have some special relationship with the editor of the opinion pages, is he an outstanding letter writer or are there in fact rather few letters sent to the editor for publication, narrowing the choice somewhat? (A typical refrain from those who work on Op-ed pages is the poor quality of English used by people submitting pieces for publication.)

Finally then, there is the editor's social and professional network. Mr. Oreskes, the editor of the IHT is an American in Paris, and if he is a reflection of many of the IHT's editorial staff working in Paris, he most likely most frequently socializes with other expatriates, often Americans. On a professional level, his work takes him to conferences and speech events where naturally the audience is also rather self-selecting - the high level 'C Suite' executives who attend such events as Davos or, for example, the IHT's conferences. One can argue whether these people do or do not represent the core readership of the IHT; indeed one can argue as to what is the core readership of the IHT, but the point to be made is that his contacts with IHT readers are probably limited in scope and type.

Hence we arrive at this blog: a place where your comments about the IHT - good or bad - can be read by readers, indeed anyone. Uncensored and freely available to all. Open source letters to the editor.

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