I ran across a couple of journalists complaining about the poor quality of many of the letters that are submitted to their newspapers. Fair enough.
Poorly written, slogan-chanting, venomous letters, that sort of thing, I'm guessing.
There was a sad fatalism about their complaints that caught my eye. How can we possibly improve the quality of these submissions?
Here is my hunch about an answer to that good question. An experiment.
Papers could trade something they have in decent supply (readers, column space) for some better letters from thoughtful people in town. Here's how it could work:
1. Do something different with the weak letters.
a. Put all the venomous letters that you must for some reason publish on a web page called Venom? yourpaper.com/venom, that sort of thing.
b. And the letters that recite talking points instead of helping readers think freshly about an issue? A web page called Slogans: yourpaper.com/slogans.
In other words, isolate and label the weak letters that you for some reason must publish.
c. If that's too bold, then just put all the weak letters online only. "No print for you! Next!"
2. Now, about attracting stronger writers.
d. Every week, rain or shine, offer the the most thoughtful and informative letter writer a three-column guest spot. Maybe one column a month on the writer’s favorite issue, edited well by one of your best people so that it's as well done as the letter that won the weekly contest. (There is a shortage of good content at most newspapers these days, right?)
e. Run a free two-hour workshop on how to write a contest-winning, column-quality letter. Tape it, post it online. Run it again from time to time. Show people you'd love to see them writing better letters, and here's how.
f. Maybe critique your syndicated columnists once in a while, too, as part of the teaching-how. Their pieces vary in quality more than they should, yes? Use these critiques to help teach the winners how to write good columns.
3. Tell everyone the new rules.
g. Be sure to do that. That check back in a month and see if you don't have some people trying hard to win the guest-spot contest each week by submitting good letters. (And maybe a few folks won't want their pieces to appear on the Venom or Slogans page and will therefore try a little harder.)
h. See if the weekly winners are turning in thoughtful, issue-oriented monthly columns. I bet most of them will take this opportunity very seriously.
4. Bottom line.
Worth a try? I think so. You’d be explicitly trading access to your readership for good letters and good columns. I bet you every town in America has some thoughtful people, some careful writers, who would like that deal very much.