Why lengthy letters must be trimmed

April 03, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

Earlier this month, I spent a week at a seminar for editorial page editors in the American Press Institute in Reston, Va. Besides me, the group included some very clever and hard-working editors from papers large and small from all over the U.S. and Canada.

It's the toughest brainwork I've done in a long time. In addition to detailed presentations from some of the brightest people in the newspaper business, we were also divided into clinic groups of five editors apiece in which we offered constructive criticism of each other's product.

The Herald-Mail got good marks for just about everything but the length of our letters to the editor.

"Doesn't anybody edit these things?" one editor asked.

Yes, we do, but based on what other papers are doing, we don't do nearly enough trimming and compacting. We will do more, because my goal as an editor is to do what other papers have done and get as many voices as possible into the paper.


Does that mean we won't have any lengthy letters? No, because there are some subjects - the Social Security debate, for example - that aren't easy to cover in 250 words. In those cases, we're going to try to turn them into columns, with the writer's picture attached.

In other cases, we may be able to run an abbreviated version of a letter in the paper, while posting a longer version on The Herald-Mail's Web site.

To some letter writers, this policy of forced abridgment will seem mean-spirited on our part, but it's really based as much on research as it is our hunch about what people read and what they don't.

Last April I wrote about a study on how people read newspapers done by the Poynter Institute of Media Studies. Using a tiny camera that tracked readers' eyes as they moved from story to story, the study found that most readers only looked at 25 of the average story's text. Briefs did much better, with readers looking at two-thirds of their text.

When I think of newspaper readers, I often think of my father, who bought three newspapers a day - The Washington Post, The Evening Star and The Daily News. The Post he read at breakfast, The Daily news at lunch and The Star for an hour in evening before dinner.

There may be readers like that out there now, but they're not typical, according to Phil Nesbitt, a seminar associate with API whose specialty is newspaper design.

The average person spends 18 to 22 minutes per day with the paper, he said. If you have a 64-page paper, he said, that is about 20 seconds per page.

That means newspapers have to grab readers - with short items, headlines, graphics and even photographs, which, except for those little mug shots of the columnists, have been mostly absent from editorial pages.

One plus for local readers: Most seminar participants agreed that the way The Herald-Mail does its editorials - two a day instead of one, long ponderous piece - is the better way to go.

We were warned at the seminar's end that it would be a mistake to try to make a lot of changes at once. I agree. But we will be making some changes and looking at doing some of the following:

n We heard a lot about "blogs," which is short for Web logs. They're kind of personal Internet diaries in which the participants share their thoughts and sometimes their own research on the news of the day. Bloggers, as they are called, were among the first to question the 60 Minutes reporting on President Bush's service record.

The Indianapolis Star has created two blogging groups of five members apiece, one for younger readers and the second for older folks. They serve for six months, then rotate out. People can access the blog on line, but excerpts from it, with their pictures, are also published in the paper one day a week.

We do something like that with The Herald-Mail Forum which appears on Mondays, but this would be more personal, since readers would know who was writing, as opposed to the anonymous comments in the forum.

When will it happen? We're looking into the software now, but I promise I will keep readers posted on the progress we're making.

n Dennis Ryerson, vice president and editor of The Indianapolis Star, gave one of the week's most thoughtful presentations, saying bluntly that readers' loyalty must be earned.

"The era of 'trust me' journalism has passed. The era of 'show me' journalism has begun and the level of proof in the paper must rise accordingly," he said.

That means editorials must be backed up with facts and research and that the discussion of events must be conducted in a civil way. The shrill voices - Ann Coulter and the like - may attract attention, but most readers want a more thoughtful, reasoned approach, even if they disagree with that particular columnist's conclusion.

What do you think? If you have an idea for something we should do - or stop doing - please share it by writing to Bob Maginnis, Editorial Page Editorial, The Herald-Mail, 100 Summit Ave., Hagerstown, Md., 21740. Or e-mail If you'd rather not have your name used, please note that.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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