Readers' letters, and disputes, a constant

June 1, 2014 

Robert Ehlert

IDAHO STATESMAN

  • About this series

    Our Statesman 150 coverage continues today in Life with a photo package and in News with another Top 50 story.

Among my favorite parts of this job is fielding input from the Idaho Statesman audience in Letters to the Editor and Guest Opinions. From the digital standpoint, that means occasionally rounding up comments to online stories, as well as Facebook and Twitter posts, and packaging them in print to show what Idahoans are thinking on social media.

One of our frequent print contributors, Chet Bowers, is featured in a Guest Opinion today. His piece is about the importance of remembering D-Day - June 6, 1944 - a historic date, with the 70th anniversary Friday.

My Statesman colleague Peggy Calhoun says that Bowers, a World War II veteran, is one of the most prolific and senior members of our letter-writing "regulars." The 94-year-old B-17 co-pilot told me that D-Day was one of his last combat missions. I was in town for less than a week in April 2013 before Bowers introduced himself.

I hope to get together with Bowers and other writers to discuss a bit more about who is behind these signatures. Why do they write? What topics engage them the most? This is a particularly good question now, as the Idaho Statesman celebrates its sesquicentennial this year, leading up to July 26.

From the very beginning, we and our Statesman ancestors strived to make these pages, and now platforms, a community resource from which to debate the matters of the day. Much to the dismay of some, we sometimes must edit letters for taste or length - or both. That has been consistent through the decades. When we must edit, of course, we make sure to preserve the core message of the letter.

We try hard - some argue to a fault - to let people have their say. Certain topics rub some wrong, and thrill others. For instance, there lately has been a subplot discussion on climate change - the debate heating and cooling over the science, or lack thereof. Hell might freeze over (or the Arctic thaw) before we hear the end of it.

Occasionally there are requests that we stop allowing certain people to submit letters or opinions. Such wishes are ignored. There is equal opportunity to get a letter in monthly. Some never miss their opportunity. Because of space and other constraints, there have been times when letters are published online only. Overall, our aim is to attract the largest number of people willing to follow our guidelines to express themselves.

And that is a big number.

According to Calhoun, between 2005 and 2013, we published 33,335 letters, for an average of just more than 3,700 letters yearly. We've published 1,215 letters so far this year, so we're on track to publish around 3,000. We average about 275 to 300 Guest Opinions per year.

Over time, and with the advent of the Internet and online comments, things have been in flux.

But there have been plenty of constants.

Law/legislation, politics, religion and social issues - the very things our parents warned against discussing in polite company - have dominated the discourse since my arrival.

And since the beginning of newspapers, basically.

In recognition of our 150th, I've occasionly gone back to the pages of yesteryear to "sample" the conversations of the day, and I invite you to do the same. During World War II, I noticed letter writers making and upping wagers over their best guesses/wishes about when the war might end. It was the kind of to and fro one might see on social media today - only with a lot more time between responses.

Memorial Day, 1943: "If the enemy doesn't throw in the towel by July 4, I win the bet in spirit. As I sat Memorial Day. I''l stick to my guns. So make it Sweet's Reknown, $1.50 per lb. Should the drinks be on me, would you prefer a quart of that which goes with Holy Joe?" - Jane Hart, Boise.

Over time, our rules of engagement have been altered. Today, we ask that letters come in at 200 words or less, and Guest Opinions 600 words or less.

Folks in the last two centuries faced letter limits ranging from 150 to 300 words.

Mid-20th century letters were published only with "specific, verifiable addresses and must be signed to letters and will be published with them."

In the early 1900s those who didn't follow the rules met a certain fate:

"Anonymous communications and those attacking personalities will be thrown in the waste paper basket - The Editor."

Robert Ehlert is the Statesman's editorial page editor. Contact him at 377-6437, or on Twitter @IDS_HelloIdaho.

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

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