Does the Albert Lea Tribune print all the letters?Published 11:28am Tuesday, April 30, 2013
Column: Pothole Prairie, by Tim Engstrom
Once in a while, a reader asks me this: Do you print all the letters people send you?
The answer is yes.
But really the answer is yes, as long as they meet our letters policy and meet a few other rules we have.
Our letters policy prints each day in the newspaper on the Opinions page either in the letters section or below the editorial on the left. The headline says, “How to send a letter or column.” It reads:
“Send letters via mail to Letters to the Editor, Albert Lea Tribune, 808 W. Front St., Albert Lea, MN 56007, or via email to email@example.com. Letters cannot exceed 500 words. They must have one author. Petitions are not printed. Letters must include address and telephone number for verification purposes — only your name and city of residence will be printed. Each author may write one letter per calendar week. Letters are published as soon as space allows. To request a guest column, contact Managing Editor Tim Engstrom at 379-3433. Feel free to call if you don’t see your letter.”
Simple enough. Just stay under 500 words, provide contact information and have the letter be from just the writer.
But there actually are a few other things that can keep a letter from getting printed in the letters section. They are:
• When letters become a list. The Opinions page is about dialogue — people sharing thoughts and ideas. We are happy to run thank-you letters that are prose, where people write sentences and have a voice: “I would like to thank Addie’s Floral for providing flowers for cancer survivors at no charge.” But when a letter becomes a list, readers stop reading. People write, “I would like to thank the following businesses: Hy-Vee, Nelson’s Marketplace, Hanson Tire, Dave Syverson Auto Center, the Elbow Room, the Freeborn County Shopper, Fourteen Foods, Korner Mart, Security Bank Minnesota, Albert Lea Tailors and Tiger City Sports.” We print those letters or other list-sounding letters in the Lifestyles section under “Nice to Know.”
• When letters are preposterous. Just like a restaurant reserves the right to refuse service, the newspaper is not obligated to print a letter. We like it when the letters section has a vibrant discussion and like it when people feel like they will get their letters printed without much red tape. However, if someone sends a letter about heffalumps and woozles that makes no point or is gobbledygook about nothing at all, common sense says do not print. Usually, when editors at any paper get one of these, there is an assumption that the sender might be mentally unstable, so there is another reason for not publishing them.
• When letters are libelous. This rule is fairly simple and applies at any media source, including social media people create in their daily lives. It goes like this: People can call a politician untrustworthy, but they probably cannot call him or her a crook. Why? Because one term implies criminality. To avoid libel and slander, don’t say or imply someone has done something illegal unless they have been convicted of it. Letter writers can call former Freeborn County Commissioner Linda Tuttle a crook, if they like. She was convicted of wire fraud and sits in a federal prison. There are more details to libel, slander and defamation laws, but that’s that major thing to know.
• When letters are repetitious. Of course, writers can’t send the same letter over and over. But writers also cannot send quite similar letters that harp on the same points. Sure, letter writer Paul Westrum writes frequently about immigration, but he has new points to make, often reacting to what’s in the news lately concerning immigration. So I don’t mean the same subject — because every subject has nuances. What I mean is essentially the same letter written in new ways, as if to beat a dead horse. I rarely need to enforce this rule.
• When letters compare prices or services. People cannot write in to tell us they will save 50 cents on hammers at Mike’s Hammer Store. By the same token, people cannot write to complain about the lousy service. If, for instance, Mike’s Hammer Store did something controversial in public, like erect a sign saying happy birthday to Gen. Robert E. Lee, that’s fair game for letter writers to complain about.
• When letters are ad hominem attacks or racist. An ad hominem argument is when someone attacks the person, rather than the issue. For instance, if I argue that disc golf is a great sport, and you argue that I am a idiot, that is an ad hominem attack. That said, it is common to allow a little dose of personal attacks when it comes to public officials. Calling a president a name such as Bubba or Dubya won’t hurt anything. Neither will calling members of Congress “a bunch of idiots.” Calling a private citizen a name such as “bonehead” is uncalled for. Broad-brush comparisons to the Nazis will get your letter killed. It goes without saying that any letters using racist terms or any kind of slurs are killed.
• When they are mass-produced letters. There are people in these United States who like to send letters to every newspaper in the country on a weekly basis. Uff-da! These are easy to catch. There are also some lobbying organizations who provide forms for supporters where writers don’t actually pen their own thoughts. They send the same letter to newspapers but from different writers, sometimes even local writers. These are hard to catch. Most editors wish the organizations would give them an outline but let the writer put down their own words. One other point: We indeed would allow a letter writer who penned their own letter and sent it to several newspapers in the region. That’s common.
OK, that’s about it. Except that it’s not.
When I say we print every letter, I mean that for writers from the region. For writers from outside the region, we usually check to see if they are writing about something connected to an item that was in the Tribune or about a pertinent local or regional issue. If someone from Chicago writes about an issue relevant in Chicago, like a new beluga whale at the Shedd Aquarium, the Albert Lea Tribune, of course, wouldn’t print that. If a writer from Chicago described support for the Mayo Clinic’s intentions to build what it calls a “Destination Medical Center,” we would print it.
I am amazed at how good the people of Albert Lea and its vicinity are about writing letters to the editor. We love getting letters. Keep it up!
Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.