A ‘Read-Letters’ Day Honors Best Critiques

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By: Shawn Moynihan

The dirty little secret of editorial pages is that they often enjoy getting critical letters. Not ones containing profanity or rambling points of view, but rather, letters that are well thought-out and well written, even when the point of view expressed runs counter to the newspaper’s.

The Anniston (Ala.) Star is no exception to this rule. But the newspaper takes its appreciation for the area’s most prolific and skilled letter writers to an unusual level: It hosts an annual banquet to honor them. “Every paper gives lip service of having letters to the editor, and I’m sure most papers believe that,” says Commentary Editor Phillip Tutor. “The Star has a long, long history of believing in the necessity of its readers taking part in what we do. That’s not lip service for us. That’s the truth.”

The event, which the paper has hosted since the late ’80s and is held annually during the first week in March, spotlights the prose of some 40 to 50 letter writers who attend and hobnob with Star editors and reporters. While attendees enjoy lunch, some 15 to 20 of the most exceptional letters published on the editorial in the past year are read for the crowd.

Throughout the year on the edit page, Tutor says, “We literally put a star on letters on the letters page that we deem to be well written. If we do our job correctly, it will get people to raise [readers’] eyebrows and enlighten them a bit.” A clerk keeps track of the starred letters, and in January, editors add their own selections to the list (this year that task was handled by Editor Bob Davis). Those letter writers ? usually between 60 and 70 people ? are then sent invitations. Each letter writer may bring a guest.

Tutor, who has been with the paper for 18 years and has served as commentary editor since September 2006, says the process of selecting which letters to highlight is “very unscientific. It’s a gut feeling. The letters that are very heartfelt, and very passionate, that you could feel are dripping with the person’s thoughts, those go to the top of the heap.”

Tutor emphasizes that the event is a longstanding one, and is by no means his creation. “The banquet is something we really don’t think about all year until January, because we’ve been doing it for so long,” he says. “It was here before I was here, and will be here after I’m gone. It involves a lot of people here ? it’s not a one-man show.”

Such humility is not surprising at a family-owned Southern newspaper like the Star. The paper is owned by the Ayers family and published by Consolidated Publishing Co. ? which the family also owns. Consolidated also puts out the Daily Home in Talladega, Ala., and three local weeklies. In order to insulate the Star from any future corporate takeover, the Ayers family created a not-for-profit foundation. In time, the Ayers family’s holdings in the publishing company will be assimilated into that trust.

The newspaper is “an odd one for the state of Alabama,” Tutor says. During the civil rights movement, the Star earned itself a reputation as one of the few liberal-minded Southern newspapers. The state typically runs Republican and conservative, he notes, “and the Star is seen to go against that grain. Our readers can disagree with us, and we welcome that. If you squelch that because you feel your nose has been smacked, that’s defeating the purpose.”

Tutor emphasizes the importance of having the luncheon’s guests interact with the papers’ staffers. One Star staffer is seated at every table, he says, “to make sure there’s at least some contact with news- paper employees.”

Attendees are also treated to a lecture by a figure of note in the publishing world. The event’s speaker also gives a public lecture the following day at Jacksonville State University as part of the Ayers Lecture Series, named for the Star’s owners, the Ayers family. Past guest speakers have included former New York Times reporter Gay Talese and Knight Foundation President/CEO Alberto Ibarg?en.

Guests at this year’s banquet, held at the Houston Cole Library on the campus of Jacksonville State, were treated to a talk by New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who spoke about the changing face of newspapers, the importance of maintaining a dialogue with readers, and ongoing changes at NYT Co. He also answered questions from attendees.

So how did the Star manage to attract a speaker of Sulzberger’s stature to make the trip to Alabama to speak before a luncheon of less than 100 people? Tutor replies, “Our publisher knows a lot of people.”

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