Even in the age of social media, The New York Times boasted a few years back that they receive hundreds of letters a day, spread across the gamut of society, all addressed to the same person: “To the Editor.”
Newspapers have been publishing letters to the editors for nearly 300 years, allowing readers a safe space to vent and opine about the news of the day. My wife joined this grand tradition a few years back, penning a short reminder for drivers to slow it down in our local park.
Unfortunately, a negative streak has washed over this fine tradition in recent years, filling what was once considered a community square for ideas into an angry corner of vitriol, conspiracy theories, and personal attacks. It’s a mirror into a national discourse corrupted by social media and polarizing cable news hosts.
Like many local newspapers, the Laconia Daily Sun in rural New Hampshire has grappled with the shift to extremism on its opinion page. Things came to a head last year during the Jewish holiday of Passover, when editors decided to run a letter denying the existence of the Holocaust by a reader who had publicly announced his intention to run for public office.
Julie Hart, the paper’s digital editor, said they felt strongly that residents deserved to know the viewpoints of someone who was going to be on the ballot. But the overwhelmingly negative reaction to the letter caused Hart and her colleagues to reexamine the entire opinion page and the role it should have in a small community newspaper.
“We function a little bit differently than a big city newspaper. A lot of our stories focus on things like who’s on the honor roll and what happened at the city council meeting,” Hart said. “So, we feel really strongly about fostering a productive dialogue in the community and being part of that solution.”
Of course, the Daily Sun isn’t alone in trying to retool its opinion section to cut through the noise in today’s polarized media environment. In Nashville, the Tennessean pushes for civil discourse under the banner of the “Civility Tennessee” campaign. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel replaced its opinion section with something called the Ideas Lab, which focuses on solving problems in the community. They still run letters to the editor, but only in the Sunday print edition.
In Laconia, the newsroom received training from the Solutions Journalism Network which included the practice of looping—listening to understand instead of to respond. At the same time, two of the most vitriolic contributors to the editorial page—Bruce and Eric—decided to have lunch together and penned a letter to the editor about what they found when they listened, and genuinely tried to understand their different points of view.
After reading the letter, Hart said they decided to focus on the newspaper’s letter writers, and see if offering them training and more tools and resources to have better conversations could improve not only the dialogue on the opinion page, but also within the community.
So, editors got a group of letter writers on Zoom and paired them off with somebody with an opposing viewpoint to practice looping. The paper put facilitators into breakout rooms to make sure everybody remained on task. Sure enough, discussing opposing viewpoints with fellow members of the community allowed the temperature of their opinions to cool.
Hart said the end result has not only been an increase in letter writers, but the pieces themselves tend to be more focused on local issues and topics than ever before, with personal attacks (and letters addressed to other writers) dropping off dramatically.
“Without the pages just being dominated by the back and forth of our previous regulars, we’ve seen a lot of new voices, even young voices coming through in the pages,” she said.
According to Hart, new guidelines placed on letters to the editor, including a limit of 500 words and just one letter submission per week, have also helped foster a better section for readers.
“It’s a great country, and we can all say pretty much anything we want, but none of us get to say everything we want,” Roger Carroll, the Daily Sun’s managing editor, cheerfully says in a short video introducing readers to the guidelines.
Hart said the newspaper has also begun to host a series of tolerance forums throughout the community (virtually, of course, due to the coronavirus pandemic). Panelists and members of the community discuss how people with different viewpoints can come together and learn from one another, even if they don’t agree.
The changes didn’t stop at the letters to the editor. Until recently, the newspaper’s opinion section featured a syndicated editorial cartoon that alternated between conservative and liberal points of view. But editors nixed the offering after widespread backlash from readers and local businesses to a cartoon by Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The cartoon, which was published during the height of protests following the murder of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, featured a Black student and a white student hiding under a desk during an active shooter drill. “This feels like preparing for a cop to show up,” the Black student says in the cartoon.
“In rural, mostly white, New Hampshire, it came off as anti-police because the majority of the readers did not see the boy under the desk as Black,” Hart said. “They just saw two students, and they didn’t understand the context.”
Fortunately, the Daily Sun isn’t giving up on editorial cartoons entirely. Instead, Hart said the newspaper is looking for a local cartoonist that editors hope can help foster the discussion of local issues.
“We’re missing that visual element on the page, definitely. It’s an open page, and having just text on it is a little fatiguing,” Hart said. “We want to get back to using the cartoon to provoke thought, instead of provoking polarizing opinions.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.