AILWA STUDY ON LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

 

A great editor acknowledges only one allegiance and that is to the people. He makes their cause his own. He influences their day-to-day thinking and conditions their reactions to events. He becomes their voice and their conscience.

 

- H.Y. Sharada Prasad,
  Former Information Advisor to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
  (Asian Age, Feb 27, 1996)

 

 

[We sent the following Questionnaire to 20 foreign and 80 Indian newspapers/magazines in October 1997. The idea was to educate the Editors as much as to elicit their opinion. Time magazine replied to it immediately. Newsweek e-mailed a reply. R.K.Karanjia, M.V.Kamath, Shobha De, Behram Contractor, Bachi Karkaria, John Mathew, Ranjona Banerjee and Malavika Sanghavi, are the only Indian journalists who replied. The Questionnaire and the replies appear below.  Reproduced from Pen Power]

 

1.   What, according to you, is the Purpose of the Letters-to-the Editor Column?

2.   How many letters do you receive daily on an average?

3.   Why do readers write letters-to-the-editors?

4.   Who shortlists/selects letters for publication? Is there any selection criteria?

5.   How do you classify letters?

6.   What, according to you, should be the ideal length of a letter?

7.   Do you concede the ‘Right to Write’ to your Readers?

8.   What is the percentage of space given to Letters Column?

9.   Does your editorial policy affect your choice of letters?

10.       Do you tone down or kill the letters to suit your editorial policy?

11.       Are most letters addressed to the community problem rather than individual?

12.       Do you merely publish letters or take action on behalf of the reader?

13.       How often do you get response from authorities to published letters?

14.       Have you ever followed a clue given in a letter into a story?

15.       Do you think letters influence the government policy/public opinion?

16.       Do you send complimentary copies of your newspaper/magazine to letter-writers whose letters are published?

17.       Do you consider letters to be a sign of good citizenship and mature democracy and give adequate importance to letters column? Or are you one who thinks that you are doing them a favour?

18.       Do you give prizes for ‘Best Letters’? What is the value of the prize and periodicity? Are your prizes sponsored?

19.       Finally, are you one of those who started as a Letter-Writer and then took to full time journalism?
      If yes, please write how the transition took place.

20.       Write additional comments, if any, and send your replies to : Dr. Leo Rebello,  President AILWA, at 28/552, Samata Nagar, Kandivli East, Bombay 400101. Telefax (91-22) 8872741. E-mail : leorebello@vsnl.com

 

 

RESPONSES TO THE AILWA STUDY:

 

FOREIGN MEDIA

 

Time Magazine:

Apropos your questionnaire on the survey, we offer you a brief summary of how the Column works here. It was the idea of the wife of one of Time’s founders - and it has thus been part of Time nearly from the beginning, and always one of the most popular sections for readers. We receive some 1,400 letters a week and from those the column editor selects about 15 or 20, depending on the available space. The criteria is that the letters be in response to stories in Time that are no more than two weeks old, that they be cogent and brief in making their point. (Letters not selected are acknowledged -so, yes, we do believe that what readers have to say is important, and their letters are welcome). The column editor reserves the right to edit for clarity or space, or both. We do not open it up for personal reader agendas or projects, or general comment. Nor do we choose letters according to any editorial agenda; the column is a forum for readers’ thoughts and opinions prompted by what they read in Time; ideal selection would represent a balance of pro and con viewpoints on a particular subject (but the mail doesn’t always co-operate with that plan!). No prizes are given for ‘best’ letter. Good luck in your project, and best wishes. Gloria Hammond (Editorial Offices)

 

Newsweek:

Thank you for contacting Newsweek. Since we receive hundreds of e-mail messages every week, we can’t answer each one personally. We do, however, read and consider all e-mail we receive. We appreciate your comments and consider your feedback vital to the continued excellence of Newsweek. We hope that the following answers will be helpful to you.

 

Every week, we receive over 1,000 faxes, e-mail messages and pieces of mail, most of it from readers responding to one of our stories. Because there is a premium on space in the letters column, we can only publish a small number of these letters. Many good letters cannot be used simply because of the limited space available.  If your letter is under consideration for the letters column and editing questions arise, we will contact you by phone. Always give your complete address.

 

INDIAN RESPONSE

 

R.K.Karanjia, founder, editor and publisher of Blitz and former nominated Member of Parliament opined : We always gave prominence to letters column in the Blitz, titled it as Vox Populi,  because that conveyed to us the Pulse of the People. We revised our editorial policy periodically based on the readers response and therefore Blitz became a national weekly reflecting people’s aspirations and concerns. Whatever reported in Blitz was discussed in the Parliament with awe.

 

Letters should be within the constraints of three paragraphs, namely, the idea, the argument and the conclusion, which should contain the solution, he recommends.

 

M.V. Kamath, veteran journalist, says that he receives excellent response to his syndicated articles. Usually, ‘Hate Mail’ is given preference by the editors these days, he rues.  When he was the Editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, he reminisces, he used to welcome the views of letter-writers and happily published letters of all shades and increased the pages to accommodate them.

 

Kamath, who has donned many caps as Editor of Bharat Jyoti, Free Press Bulletin, Sunday Times of India, has some tips to offer : Be brief. Be courteous. Be balanced, he says.

 

Shobha De, Columnist and Author, felt that the quality of letters is very often far superior to the articles published on the op-ed pages. She also felt that letters should be vigilant, fearless and point out lapses and errors. When she was the editor of Stardust, she selected letters on the basis of style, content and topicality. Now she looks out for feedback to her own articles in publications.

 

Behram Contractor, Editor of the Afternoon Despatch and Courier, a Bombay eveninger, is happy to provide a forum for readers to express their views.  Responses to articles are usually given priority.  But independent topics, too, are covered.  The Afternoon gives more importance to letters column than other papers, he avers. 

 

Behram Contractor aka Busybee, himself selects letters and confesses having turned letters into stories, many times. He says that regular writers are well informed.

 

Bachi Karkaria, who earlier worked with the Statesman of Calcutta, then with the old lady of Boribunder and who has now joined Mid-Day, as Group Editorial Director, is most enthusiastic about Letters Column. She feels that the standard of readers’ letters is very high.  Many are learned pieces.  Letters provide a lively forum when they contradict articles published. Letters serve as an emotional quotient. A barometer for level of interest in articles.

 

John Mathew, Asst. Editor, The Daily, recorded that they welcomed letters on any subject under the sun. They usually look out for thought-provoking letters and do not have any bias. They only look into grammar and facts. Some letter-writers, he said, wrote extremely well and letters received a pride of place in The Daily, he averred.  Mathew considers letters to be a sign of good citizenship and mature democracy.

 

Malavika Sanghvi, Editor of the Bombay Times, felt that the letters column serves as a bulletin board and encourages dialogue. She feels readers’ opinions are important and reveal a mature readership. The policy of her paper, she says is : I may not agree with what you say, but I will uphold your right to say it.  Keep them clean, keep them short and type them, she suggests.

 

Justice P.B. Sawant, Chairman, Press Council of India, New Delhi : The letters should not be mere reactions and responses but should also shed light on the aspects, corners and sides of the subject not covered by the editors, authors and other letter writers. They should serve as a model for others.

 

The only person who replied pointwise was Ranjona Banerji, Deputy Editor of Mid-Day.  Here goes her reply.

 

1. The purpose of a ‘Letters to Column’ is to have constant interaction between readers and the newspaper, to give readers a space to put forward their opinion, to start dialogue between readers and to mobilise public opinion, vital for a healthy democracy.

 

2. We receive an average of about 50-60 letters a day

 

3. Readers write because they want to be heard, they want their opinion to be known and they want to share their comments with members of the public.

 

4. The letters are selected by myself. There is no strict selection criteria except lucidity. We also space out letters from very regular contributors so as to give enough scope to everyone.

 

5. If we do it at all, it is into letters, small points and letters which are part of action mail.

 

6. The ideal length of a letter, to a tabloid newspaper, should be between 200 and 250 words.

 

7. We definitely believe that readers have the right to write.

 

8. We usually give about three-fourths of a tabloid size page to letters. Twice a week we also carry action mail, which is about a third of the same page

 

9. Our editorial policy is to have as wide a variety of voices as possible on the letters page.

 

10. We edit letters which ramble or contain passages which are slanderous, libelous, mischievous or malicious. Since our editorial policy is to give readers access to a variety of opinions, the question of ‘killing’ because of it does not arise.

 

11. Letters mainly deal with the country’s political system and the city’s problems. However, we also get other kinds of letters, which will be dealt with in the next point.

 

12. We have a section called ‘action mail’, carried twice a week, where we try to resolve problems which readers have with corporations and government agencies. We forward complaint letters and get responses from these agencies.

 

13. Varies from organisation to organisation. The government — most of our complaints are about the railways, telephone department and BEST – is quite prompt. Often, companies try and skirt the issue and it is only doggedness which gets a response.

 

14. We frequently follow clues from readers for stories.

 

15. Yes. And if they don’t, they should.

16. No.

 

17. Letters are vital for a healthy democracy. They are also a good way for people who work in the newsroom to stay in touch with public opinion.

 

18. No in Mid-Day. Yes in Sunday Mid-Day. The periodicity depends on the quality of letters.

 

19. No.

 

20. Letter-writers are extremely important to any publication.

 

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AN ODE TO LETTER WRITERS

By Late Girilal Jain, Editor Times of India

 

… “ letter writers are obviously not ordinary newspaper readers.  They are also communicators.  Some of them may be full-fledged communicators and stalwarts such as M. K Gandhi, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Acharya J. B Kripalani, Jayaprakash Narayan, Indira Gandhi, Madhu Limaye, Minoo Masani, Vijay Merchant…

……. they are a separate category who use a newspaper as another medium to communicate their messages.   They are those who are essentially not in the business of communication, that is educated men and women who feel impelled to respond to developments and to a newspaper’s reports and comments on them, though these affect them as much or as little that these do millions of others.    They are public spirited, though they are not public men.  That is what makes them mediators.   They practice a kind of journalism, though they are not journalists.  They can be interested and partisan; they can be disinterested and non-partisan; in either case, they give life to a newspaper.   It would not be an exaggeration to say that a newspaper is best judged by the quality of its readers’ views column”