Tuesday, February 22, 2005
Okrent's idea: I must admint that I was both heartened and disappointed when I read New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent's column this weekend. I was heartened by Okrent's expressed desire for more dialogue with readers than the paper's letters section currently allows. A newspaper can only come out better in the end when it provides a forum for a variety of views to be heard.
What was disappointing, however, were the institutional hurdles that it appears must be overcome.
Certainly the numbers are impossible. The letters department receives 1,000 messages every day, and publishes 15. Beyond that, many of the paper's readers find certain practices and policies regarding letters either dumbfounding or objectionable. Chief among these is the paper's general hesitance to publish letters that make accusations against The Times, criticize writers or editors, or otherwise call into question the newspaper's fairness, news judgment or professional practices.
As letters editor Thomas Feyer points out, The Times does occasionally print correspondence of this sort. But he also notes his unwillingness to publish criticisms of individual writers, and a reluctance to publish letters that suggest bias. "Such letters," he says, "seem to impute motives to reporters or to The Times that the letter writers have no way to know."
I can understand a hesitancy to publish letters which are little more than mindlesss screeds against reporters, but the Times' general rule that none may question its "fairness, news judgment or professional practices" is overbroad.
Just for kicks, I took a look at Monday's letters to The San Diego Union-Tribune. The final letter calls into question the Union-Tribune's decision to print an article about UAVs being used to spy on Iran.
Is the Union-Tribune hurt by this? Hardly. It's surprising that the Times would be so thin-skinned.
If the Times is going to do as Okrent suggests -- appending letters to the articles they address and expanding Web forums, allowing more conversations to take place at the Times, the paper is going to have to re-think its archiving policy. Currently articles -- and anything appended to them -- disappear behind a pay-for-access wall after seven days. Conversations of the sort Okrent would like to see take place would be stunted if a seven-day limit is placed upon them.
Okrent's got some good ideas, but I'd be surprised if the Times turned out to be forward-thinking enough to implement them.