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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 24, 2003

Letters page best forum for readers

By Jerry Burris
Advertiser Editorial Editor

Time and again we are told, in informal conversation and in polls, that the letters page is by far the most popular feature in our daily and Sunday editorial sections.

People say they go to the letters either (a) first or (b) most regularly. And why not? Where else will you get such a lively, informed, engaged — and yes, irritating — bunch of writing all in one place?

Others who have looked at The Advertiser over time almost always remark on the vigorous use of the letters page by readers and residents of Hawai'i. Why is that?

Part of the explanation may be historical. Hawai'i has a long history of an active public press, through which residents argue out the issues of the day. It traces back to the monarchy, when there were any number of papers — many of them in Hawaiian — that stood as the preferred forum for public discussion.

To this day, Hawai'i residents use the press as a place to argue out the issues that confront their community. (Just look at the flood of letters over the Kamehameha Schools admission policy).

The other explanation, I think, is that those of us who live in Hawai'i care about our home, our islands, our society, in an intensely personal way. One theory is that it's because we are isolated from the rest of the world; we have no other choices.

But whatever it is, very few people come to Hawai'i as sojourners; they quickly become part of this place. And that leads them to throw in their 2 cents' worth in the best forum possible: The letters page.

At The Advertiser, we receive 50 to 100 letters a day. Technology has caught up with us, and most today come via e-mail, with faxes and old-fashioned snail mail coming behind. The form you use to send your letter has no bearing on whether it is selected. In fact, we have a slight, perhaps sentimental, tilt toward well-thought-out letters that are written by hand, placed in an envelope and carefully mailed.

How do we decide which letters we will use? We tend, obviously, to favor well-written, succinct, pointed commentary. We favor letters that disagree with our editorial policy over those that agree. We look, to the degree possible, for a diversity of opinion, meaning letters from various parts of the state, various communities and various points of view.

Although our friends in public life are not always happy with the policy, we tend to favor letters from private citizens over those from politicians and captains of industry because the latter have other means of getting their ideas before the public.

We try to restrict letters to one per month per individual, in pursuit of the greatest possible variety. That's not a foolproof policy, of course. Sometimes a writer will slip in more than his or her share (we know who you are), but, determination is a quality we all admire.

Letters are selected by myself (or colleague Dave Polhemus when I'm away), are put into our computers and cleaned up by colleague Sarah Montgomery and then skillfully edited by John Strobel, whose task is to capture the essence of a writer's thinking in the briefest possible length.

In short, it's not an easy task to go from the idea of writing a "letter to the editor" to seeing it actually published. But don't be daunted. Write, write, write.

Jerry Burris is The Advertiser's editorial page editor. Reach him at jburris@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8095.