Handling readers' letters: How editing process works

June 27, 2003

Elsewhere on this page is a letter from Ron Hovis which touches on, among other things, a letter he wrote which The Herald-Mail didn't print in regard to handicapped parking spaces. It provides an opportunity to explain what we do on the editorial page, and why.

As for the Hovis letter, in May the City of Hagerstown added two new handicapped parking spaces in the Antietam Street parking lot near the Washington County District Courthouse.

Meters were placed on the spaces, in violation of state law. But when Hovis and others brought it to the city's attention, bags were placed over the two meters until the meters could be removed. All of this took place over a span of less than two days.

By the time we could have gotten Hovis' letter into print, the situation had been resolved. To run the letter would have required an editor's note on it, stating that the matter had already been settled.


Why spend limited space on such a matter, which seemed more like an honest mistake than anything else? We didn't believe it was worth it, but not because the letter was written by Hovis.

Our archive shows that we have published more than a dozen letters from Hovis since 1995. (Letters prior to that were not archived.) They were on a variety of topics, including the plight of handicapped hunters and the deteriorating water quality of the Potomac River.

Were some of them edited? I don't doubt it. It's necessary because we have a limited amount of space. To get everyone's opinions in, everyone has to accept the idea that they won't have an unlimited amount of space to make their points.

In his letter, Hovis asks how The Herald-Mail can be held liable for something someone else says, if they sign their name to the letter.

The answer: Because there's a difference between a reader's opinion and an account of the facts. The example that I usually use goes like this:

If I say that County Commissioner X has an irritating voice, that's an opinion, because what is irritating to me may be music to your ears.

However, if I say that Commissioner X mistreats his dog, I had better have an impartial witness, or better yet, a copy of his cruelty citation from the Humane Society.

Certain terms, even when used in expressions of opinion, can be libelous. You may say a police officer ticketed you unfairly, but you cannot compare him or her to a Nazi storm trooper.

If The Herald-Mail prints a libelous letter, we take responsibility for it. And if a lawsuit is filed, it will likely name the newspaper. It's my job to see that such things don't happen.

Do some letters exceed our recommended length of 250 words? Yes. When someone closely involved in a matter of public interest offers their opinion, we sometimes relax the word limit.

This past Sunday, Washington County Commissioner Doris Nipps wrote a lengthy defense of the runway extension project. I question how many people got all the way through it, but that's what she felt she had to say to make her case.

Another factor which leads longer letters to be published is that with a two-person staff, editing all letters down to easy-to-read nuggets of information is impossible. We do the best we can, given that our day also includes research, writing, page layouts and proofreading.

My day begins at 8 a.m., when I begin to weed the few letters to the editor from a list of 100 or more pieces of Internet "spam."

I read those letters, copy them into our news program, then look at the day's local news stories, the state briefs and the Pennsylvania and West Virginia wires.

On most days I write two editorial, one for The Morning Herald's Tri-state audience, the other for The Daily Mail, which concentrates on Washington County.

Once the first editorial is done, I pick up the page that's been put together by my colleague Tim Rowland, and place my copy on it.

To prevent errors, three people proofread the page, including me, my wife Sandy and Linda Duffield, managing editor of The Morning Herald.

Once I get the proof back, I make the corrections, then copy the editorial and reader letters to our Web site. Then the page goes to what we used to call the print shop, where it comes out as a negative that I read again before a plate is made for the press.

In between all that, I make phone calls and do an editorial for The Daily Mail. Then I create a second editorial page and repeat the entire process.

Sometime during the day I also arrange interviews that are usually the basis for the columns I write.

I'm not complaining about my workload. But what I must do means I have no spare time to sit around deciding whose letters I like and whose I don't.

Even if I did start injecting my person feelings into decisions on letters, two things would stop me.

When someone feels their letter has been poorly edited, they generally call me, and we have a long talk about it. I don't need to make readers unhappy needlessly and make more work for myself.

Second, I answer to the publisher, John League. If I don't satisfy readers, they'll be calling the man who signs my paycheck.

At the bottom of the page on most days, a box explains that letters are subject to editing. Those who feel that they need more than our suggested 250 words can call or e-mail me and argue their case.

As I've told people for years, if you buy a car and you want a special option, you ask the dealership to add it on.

You pay for the newspaper just the same as you pay for that car. If you want some special service from us, just ask and we'll do what we can to help.

Write to Bob Maginnis c/o The Herald-Mail, 100 Summit Ave., Hagerstown, MD, 21740, or e-mail him at

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