Well, it’s all gone a bit NYT on here today, but Dan Okrent has written an interesting column about communicating with readers who contact the newspapers, usually with some kind of grievance:
Here’s what you can do on the Web. You are not limited to three slender columns of the right side of the editorial page; nytimes.com stretches from here to the horizon. In the electronically archived version of articles – the ones that exist for the ages – you could move letters from their own ghetto and append them to the articles they address; that’s the way that corrections are handled. In fact, even in the print edition, it makes sense to move letters about news coverage away from the editorial page, where they reside in inappropriate proximity to ideological arguments about editorials and columns, and to a space of their own, perhaps on Page A2. If the news pages and the opinion pages are truly separate, then truly separate them and give news editors, not opinion editors, responsibility for letters relating to news stories.
The better use of the Web site could also give readers the chance to see letters from The Times. One of the great frustrations of my job is seeing the thoughtful letters that go out from Times reporters to readers who have taken issue with something they’ve written. Why frustration? Because one reader gets the benefit of the thoughtfulness (and, sometimes, the writer’s candid acknowledgment that he or she might have done something better), and a couple of million others who might appreciate it do not.
Okrent goes on to say, though, that this view is unpopular at the Times, as it is seen as opening the editorial staff up to a “public confessional.” The usual suspects have piled in on this as a clear sign that the Times does not “get it”, that a public confessional is entirely the point. But I think Okrent’s post is thoughtful and realistic. The Times gets a thousand letters every day to its official letters page alone. I hate to think what the total volume of incoming mail must be, if you include emails and letters to individual journalists. The idea of having a live, open commenting system of this scale would collapse under the weight of the need to moderate it.
So what’s the answer? I have no idea. But I think any answer needs to balance the needs of reporters to be supported by the institutional cotton wool a newspaper provides, with the obvious need for the general public to correct and balance the view of that newspaper. I really don’t think “putting all the letters into a blog”, as Dan Gillmor suggests, is the answer for a newspaper of the NYT’s size. It might work in Greensboro. At a national and international level, any individual post, however interesting and revealing, would just as likely be drowned out by screaming about the Middle East.