Readers’ write

2014-09-10 00:00

ARE Letters to the Editor past their sell-by date?

If you have read that sentence and had a sharp intake of breath and a palpitation then you clearly do not agree — and are probably part of the minority of our readers who have taken the time to share your thoughts with others on these pages.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that Letters to the Editor in The Witness should be done away with — yet.

Letters to the Editor — or LTEs as they are known in the business — have existed as long as there have been newspapers. In fact, they are at the very root of early newspapers, whose news and dispatches were usually in the form of letters from correspondents.

They would be a mixture of reportage and opinion, sometimes even influential essays.

Over time, they evolved into the form that we know them today — the Letters to the Editor page, which is a standard feature in almost every newspaper in the world.

But over the past decade or so, there is no doubt that the number of readers willing to pen a missive to the Editor has waned.

Increasingly, contributions are drawn from a diminishing pool of enthusiastic letter writers. Make no mistake, we value our loyal contributors (here’s looking at you Robert de Neef, Rodger Ferguson et al) for the time they take, often several times a week, to document their thoughts and fire them our way.

But I have to ask if our letters pages represent the full diversity of the community The Witness serves. I don’t think so. Others feel the same and have raised it with me. But what is the solution?

We cannot force people to write LTEs; we can only encourage them.

I think the decline in letter writing can be put down to a number of factors. Is there a general decline in literacy?

Well, not if you look at the numbers. The General Household Survey of 2012 produced an estimated literacy rate of over 92% in South Africa, but that’s a number experts say we should view with caution.

The survey assumes that anyone who has achieved a Grade 7 education is functionally literate. But I think this figure is largely meaningless when it comes to evaluating formal communication. I receive correspondence daily from people with a far higher level of education and the quality is often, to put it bluntly, shocking.

Another factor is the predominance of social-media networks, which encourage rapid, brief engagements; a single thought fired into the fray.

Some of our letter contributors complain about our 225-word limit, but for someone more familiar with the limits of a 140-character tweet or SMS, that length is akin to an essay.

No, crafting a publishable letter to the Editor is an art which I fear is dying, along with traditions of formal communication, and assisted by an education system that puts too little emphasis on the skill and discipline of succinct writing.

It’s far easier to key out a quick SMS, a Facebook comment or to unleash a tweet, which is why many newspapers — including The Witness — have launched SMS comment services and have also invested in creating a presence on major social-media platforms.

I’d hate to see the death of Letters to the Editor. The page is at the heart of a newspaper’s connection to its community and where readers get down and dirty with each other.

On the letters page, it was always about engagement, decades before that became a buzz word.

For those interested in keeping alive the art of writing a fine LTE, here are some tips from deputy editor Zoubair Ayoob, who edits the letters space each day.

“Ideally, write on current issues. Stick to the 225-word limit. Get straight to the point. Beware of exaggeration, sweeping generalisation and stereotyping. Do some research and ensure your facts are correct,” he says.

And if you think our word limit is tough, consider the demands of the New York Times.

Letter’s Editor Thomas Feyer will only consider contributions of a maximum of 150 words. It publishes only 15 of the 1 000 or so letters it receives daily.

“Here are some tips: write quickly, concisely and engagingly. We’re in an age of fast-moving news and virtually instant reaction,” Feyer writes in offering advice to contributors.

I know Letters to the Editor seems a bit old-fashioned these days, but they’re an important part of a community’s conversation.

Some traditions are worth fighting for, so let’s keep this one alive.

• E-mail: andrew.trench@witness.co.za

• Twitter: @andrewtrench

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