Tuesday, September 18, 2007

N.Y. Times Letters to the Editor

My friend Bill Reader from Ohio University has just launched a broadside over at the Community Journalism Interest Group blog on the N.Y. Times' decision to allot less printed space for letters to the editor and to move more of them online.

(Although I can't find an online version of the Times' note to readers, a site called Rejected Letters to the Editor has a commentary on it this month. If that link no longer works in a few weeks, try this one, which seems to be a permanent link once an issue rolls off the main page.)

Under the heading "The New York Times -- Community Be Damned," Reader writes:

Traditionalists of journalism are bemoaning the change as an affront to tradition and of times gone by. I would argue that the Times’ reduction of letters space in the printed newspaper is an ill-conceived dismissal of the current and future needs of its readers and the broader public. ...

To its credit, the Times has offered to provide even more space for letters online. But it’s a hollow gesture, like trading beads for an island that would become one of the world’s most valuable slivers of land. The move by the Times to reduce space for ink-on-paper letters is an admission that its paper is precious space, and a statement that the space is far too valuable to give over to the common citizen.
Those come from an op-ed piece he submitted but that was not published.

I demurred, however. Part of my comments:

Print is a nice ego booster. But if I want my voice to be heard -- and continue to be heard long into the future -- and if I want feedback on my ideas instead of just casting them to the wind, these days I go to the Web.
The Times does allow some of its letters to be indexed by search engines. However, the ones that go behind the Times Select archive wall could not be found in a little Google test I ran.

As I commented:
To me, that -- and not allowing comments on the letters so there is robust debate on one of the premier news sites in the world -- is the greater failure here.
Bill is trying to get a rousing debate going over at COMJIG. So why don't you head over there and weigh in? I think it's a valuable topic worth discussing at length. Among my thoughts: While the Times' and Wall Street Journal's letters pages are arguably among the most influential in the world, I wonder if the reason I seldom see anyone link back to one of those letters is not just the difficulty (the WSJ's letters are completely behind a subscription wall), but perhaps that a large portion of the digital world has written them off as largely irrelevant and slow to react. One then wonders how long before the politicians and policy makers follow. We're already seeing it on the campaign trail.

Sept. 19, 2007
Following up on that, of course, is today's announcement from the Times:

The Times's Op-Ed and news columns are now available to everyone free of charge, along with Times File and News Tracker. In addition, The New York Times online Archive is now free back to 1987 for all of our readers.

Why the change?

Since we launched TimesSelect, the Web has evolved into an increasingly open environment. Readers find more news in a greater number of places and interact with it in more meaningful ways. This decision enhances the free flow of New York Times reporting and analysis around the world. It will enable everyone, everywhere to read our news and opinion - as well as to share it, link to it and comment on it.
(Emphasis mine.)

Sadly, so many other organizations still don't get it.

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