Editor's Notebook: Keep those (signed) cards and letters coming

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The great South Dakota letters experiment is kaput.

I wrote last December about a decision by the weekly Freeman Courier to publish letters by writers who requested anonymity. It was a six-month trial designed to test whether relaxing the paper’s requirement for signed letters would encourage more readers to express their opinions on a wider variety of meaningful topics.

According to the publisher of the Courier, Tim Waltner, it didn’t work.

The paper saw virtually no increase in letters and received only three requests from writers to withhold their names. And none of those letters, Waltner wrote in a column reprinted by the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, were on topics that were either controversial or likely to lead to recrimination of the authors.

For editors, including me, who were intrigued when the pros and cons of anonymous letters were debated last June at the annual ISWNE conference, the Courier experience is, frankly, disappointing. Some of us had hoped it would bolster the argument that anonymity isn’t evil, or a sign of cowardice, and can advance the exchange of ideas and opinions on newspaper editorial pages.

Personally, I remain unconvinced that anonymous opinion is a bad thing. There is long historical precedent for it in American newspaper publishing, and research shows that anonymity can give a voice to disenfranchised readers and those who risk recrimination because of the opinions and information they share.

But I am also convinced that the level of reader engagement in greater Portland is unlike the situation in Freeman. Our letter writers produce a consistently vibrant exchange of ideas and willingly sign their names. Those who feel they can’t be identified are always welcome to share their opinions privately with me and our publisher, Karen Wood.

And, based on the experience in Freeman, this is not the time to fix something that may not be broken. But with school budget referendums and local elections approaching, it is a good time to review and adjust it.

That’s why you can now find an expanded letters policy on the Contact page of our website. It includes the basic points from our previous policy, codifies some practices that have been in place (if not in writing) and adds a few new wrinkles – for example, letters endorsing candidates for public office are now limited to 150 words, instead of the 250 words we allow for general letters.

As usual, let me know what you think, either in an online comment or a letter to the editor.

Signed, of course.

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Mo Mehlsak is editor of The Forecaster. He can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 107 or mmehlsak@theforecaster.net. You can also follow Mo @mmehlsak on Twitter.

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Editor of The Forecaster; prior reporting/editing gigs at Automotive Age magazine, Daily News of Los Angeles, Biddeford Journal Tribune; Syracuse U. Orange-bleeder; lifelong NY Yankees fan, longtime resident of Red Sox Nation.