Newspapers Take Mailroom Precautions

By: Joe Strupp

For most daily newspapers, the letters-to-the-editor section is the only place for readers to express their opinions. But, due to the recent spate of anthrax poisonings, such as the one at the New York Post confirmed at E&P‘s deadline Friday, the vox populi is in danger of being silenced.

Whether it’s the Tucson-based Arizona Daily Star refusing to accept letters to the editor via snail-mail or the Boston Herald setting up a trailer in its parking lot to screen all incoming mail, newspapers’ access to readers’ opinions has been diminished.

“At the moment, we’re sort of in limbo,” said Rachelle Cohen, editorial page editor of the Herald, which halted mail distribution for several days last week while the new procedures to separate mail into “safe” and “suspicious” categories were put into place. “They’re even considering X-raying packages,” Cohen said.

Similar efforts involving more careful review of letters and packages — as well as the use of latex gloves and surgical masks — are under way at many major and midsize papers across the country, according to editors. Because of the anthrax attacks at NBC News, The New York Times, and a group of Florida-based supermarket tabloids, newspaper executives said employees are concerned about the current wave of bioterrorism.

“We can never be sure whether it is enough,” said Paul Greenberg, the editorial page editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, where the two staffers who open letters to the editor have been given gloves and masks. “It is better to be safe than sorry.” The Democrat-Gazette‘s parent company, Wehco Media Inc., also has banned employees at the daily and its six sibling papers from traveling by commercial airlines, offering them the use of two company jets instead.

Also taking precautions is The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. All mailroom employees are wearing gloves and masks as they sort letters and packages, keeping their eyes peeled for suspicious items, such as those without return addresses or with strange writing. “It’s very scary,” said Judy Starling, who has served as the Times-Union letters editor for 15 years. “We get a lot of kooky letters.”

Robin Weisenborn, an executive assistant at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, left a job in the paper’s research department four months ago for her present post, which has her opening letters to the editor. She said new procedures that require her to screen the mail more closely while wearing gloves are more annoying that frightening. “It takes more time, and I have to wear these clumsy gloves,” Weisenborn told E&P. “I am not too anxious about [anthrax]. I have read up on it, and it is treatable.”

Editors said the new fears and tighter controls over mail are only part of the effect the anthrax scare is having on letters to the editor. By throwing “suspicious-looking” mail away, newspapers are seeing their pool of letters shrink. “If anything looks suspicious, we are setting it aside,” said Ron Clark, editorial page editor of the Saint Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press, who added that about 40% of the 200 letters a week he receives are sent through the U.S. Postal Service. “It’s been a minor disruption.”

Still, other editors, such as Noel Rubinton, “Viewpoints” editor at Newsday in Melville, N.Y., said so few letters arrive via snail-mail anymore that the effect has not been too great. “There may be some small amount of mail that we are not getting,” said Rubinton, who noted that 75% of the letters to the editor he receives come via e-mail. “But we don’t get a majority of our letters from the mail.”

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