May 18, 2022

Last fall, Daniel Delgado was bothered by something in a comic published in Jewish Currents, a magazine with a loyal following on the Jewish left. “When Settler Becomes Native” examines the claim that all Jewish people are native to Israel, but Delgado, who is Quechua and Jewish, thought the piece used anti-Indigenous language and erased Native Jews.

“Jewish Natives are already invisibilized in the Jewish community. Yet our voices and experiences are of critical relevance to this conversation,” he wrote in a Twitter thread in November. In a Twitter direct message, Jewish Currents asked Delgado if he’d turn it into a letter to the editor.

“We do that all the time,” editor-in-chief Arielle Angel said. “Our older readers will write letters, but younger folks need to be invited and told that the thing that they just published on the internet is also a letter, and can be integrated into the conversation that the magazine is having.”

“I imagine the Jewish Currents audience as being both larger and not necessarily as plugged in to contemporary Native discourse” as the audience for his Twitter thread, Delgado said in an email. “I was also glad to have a larger audience receive a reminder that Jewish Natives exist! … I felt like my contribution helped balance the conversation a little.”

Jewish Currents, which launched in its current iteration in 2018, is unusual among new media outlets in putting substantial resources into letters to the editor. Its most recent issue devotes six print pages to letters, and the magazine’s staff works with each writer to edit their submissions.

“If they come to us with something that is half-formed, we help them think through that argument, even if it’s scathingly critical of us,” Angel said. “That’s been wonderful because we’re helping people to help us sharpen the debate.”

Every story that has associated letters includes links to them at the bottom. “If we’re publishing it, we really feel like you shouldn’t read this piece without also reading this letter,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of strength in deepening an argument and situating it in situ, in real conversation with the work.”

“The letter to the editor is such a fabulous form,” Angel said, for generating conversation and “helping the community to see itself.”

While Jewish Currents sees letters as essential to its mission, and has sought ways to make them fit more naturally in an online format, many publications are doing away with them or never had them in the first place. With an abundance of free platforms for readers to express themselves — social media, website comments and messaging tools — the value of letters is no longer self-evident. Editors who still accept letters feel a need to better articulate their purpose.

Because letters are so entwined with the history of print media, digital-first outlets — even those that have gained mainstream popularity like Vox, HuffPost and BuzzFeed — usually don’t run them. Letters “emerge out of the tight association between journalism and mail service, which goes back to the first newspapers,” Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, said in an email. “In the 18th century, newspaper editors and town postmasters were often the same people.”

Some legacy publications, too, are rethinking letters. NPR has stopped airing letters on its “All Things Considered,” “Morning Edition” and “Weekend Edition” programs, according to chief communications officer Isabel Lara. Vanity Fair stopped running letters in 2020.

“Gradually it has begun to seem like not the most rewarding use of print real estate,” editor-in-chief Radhika Jones said in an email. Most of Vanity Fair’s feedback now comes via social media.

“The letter to the editor is an art form, as far as I’m concerned,” Jones said. “At various points in my career, I’ve been on the receiving end of letters to the editor that have changed the way I think about my work. But it’s hard to force the form, especially on younger generations. And I don’t want to force it or mourn it, because other forms come along to fill the void.”

Blair Hickman, executive director of audience strategy for Vox, takes a similar view. “The concept of letters to the editor as a branding convention is going away, but Vox is still interacting with our audience,” she said. “We will directly ask for feedback through newsletters or emails, and people respond. And we often write back, which really surprises people.”

Lara of NPR echoed this. “NPR has always been extremely attentive and responsive to our audience, and what’s evolved over the years is our approach (to) that work, just as the way people prefer to offer feedback has evolved,” she wrote. “Sometimes we respond directly to the audience (we have a team in the Communications division who does this) and more often we prioritize escalating feedback internally wherever it can be most helpful.”

I heard many versions of this idea when talking to editors for this story. It reminded me of when, about a year ago, I took issue with something published in a well-regarded, relatively new magazine. It was on a subject I knew a lot about, and so hoping to correct the record, I wrote out my thoughts. I was proud of my text — it was clear and resolute, without the air of contempt of so much media criticism on Twitter. But it turned out the magazine didn’t publish letters, online comments or reader feedback of any kind.

I couldn’t blame them for not having an infrastructure set up for letters. Young readers are used to voicing their thoughts on social media, and even when submitting a letter is an option, most of us don’t think to do it. No one wants to, as Jones put it, force a form that feels unnatural.

I didn’t want to criticize the piece on Twitter and risk creating a fight that I did not want, so I let it go. I could have written directly to the editors, but sending private correspondence is not the same as airing a critique in print, where it would be seen by fellow readers. For accountability to work, it needs to be public. And emailing privately would make me feel like I’m sending a scolding, unsolicited complaint.

Inviting readers to publish letters sends a different message: that they are equal participants in the conversation, and that reader criticism is a necessary part of how the news is made.

Rosen said there is a need for this kind of dialogue to build trust between media and readers. “(W)hen a newsroom does something really dumb, as with The Philadelphia Inquirer’s ‘Buildings Matter, too’ headline, there has to be some means by which readers can register their discontent,” he said. “Letters to the editor can be part of the solution, but I can imagine other solutions working just as well — the public editor position, for example.”

At national and regional newspapers, the traditional homes of letters to the editor, the form isn’t going anywhere, and many editors report that submissions aren’t necessarily declining.

“I’m reluctant to say there’s a larger trend in where we’re going, because I’ve seen it swing so dramatically,” said Paul Thornton, letters editor at the Los Angeles Times.

During Donald Trump’s presidency, Thornton received more submissions than in any period since he started editing letters in 2011. “If we were having this conversation in 2015, I would be telling you that there’s a pretty consistent year-over-year decline in letters,” he said. “But by 2016, I would have been calling you to say I was totally wrong.”

“My worst nightmare is I’m going to wake up one morning and find that there are no letters in the queue, and that just never happens,” said Boston Globe letters editor Matthew Bernstein. “That’s how we know that what we’re producing is landing with our readers, when they actually talk back to us.” But he acknowledged that the number of letters the Globe receives — about 50 per day via email — feels lower than it was when he started as letters editor in 2006.

Some organizations are trying to refresh the format. The Los Angeles Times recently launched a series of video letters to the editor, called “Hear Me Out,” in which writers expand on their published letters. For the paper’s most engaged readers, “there was this perceived need to go beyond just giving people 150 to 200 words,” Thornton said, “and give them a greater platform than we have before.”

My hypothesis about letters had been that they were rapidly becoming outmoded, but the reality is more complex. The proliferation of discourse on our social feeds is such a firehose that, it seems, readers still feel that there’s something unique about being published in the paper.

“I think people have realized that it’s a good way to get your voice out,” said Phil Hands, letters editor and cartoonist for the Wisconsin State Journal. “People consume your viewpoints much more than if you just comment on somebody’s Facebook post.”

And letters have the benefit of being read by real decision-makers. “There’s plenty of evidence that they do actually get read by city council members, by mid-level bureaucrats who can do something about problems that people raise in letters,” Thornton said.

He recalled an example from last year’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout. “We had seniors writing to us saying, ‘Hey, I can’t get a vaccine. I’m not mobile. I can’t get out of my house.’ The University of Southern California Medical Center actually contacted me and said, ‘Hey, we have mobile vaccine clinics. Can you put us in touch with these readers?’”

While newspapers don’t study the demographics of letter writers, it seems clear that they tend to be older than average. “Our letter writers tend to skew, I would say, over 50,” Thornton said. Vox’s primary age group, by contrast, is 25 to 44, Hickman said.

If editors want letters to remain a live tradition, they can’t just wait for letters to come to them. Like Angel of Jewish Currents, Thornton solicits letters from readers who post strong reactions to the Los Angeles Times’ work on Twitter.

“You’re finding critics who would otherwise not have a voice in the paper or who don’t think they can get a voice in the paper,” he said. “Half the time I don’t get any replies. But the times that I do, it elevates me, because seeing this occasionally vicious criticism on Twitter turn into a well-thought-out, well-argued letter to the editor is quite wonderful.”

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Marina Bolotnikova is a journalist in Madison, WI.
Marina Bolotnikova

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