I love the opinion pages of newspapers. Even in this day of blog comments and Facebook posts, a point of view expressed in print has a power that only comes with that bit of independent validation. After all, an editor passed judgment on it.
Of course, readership isn’t what it used to be. You can’t assume that the people who might act on your opinion will read your letter. So the letter must be re-delivered via the distribution channels you or your cause control.
Push it out with a Tweet, a Facebook and Google+ post or a blog post. Don’t forget that old standby: email. Send a short, personal note with the letter text pasted in the message with a web link to find the original on the paper’s site to a targeted list.
For example, your letter responding the NRA’s press conference should be forwarded to your Congressional aides assigned to gun violence issues. If you are identified in the letter as representing an organization, then that organization’s donors should receive a short courtesy note, too.
Simple stuff, true, but too often we fail to maximize the opportunity.
Getting published at all is no gimme. When my recent letter to the New York Times was under consideration, I was sent an auto-reply outlining the paper’s letter policies, which are representative or the industry and worth sharing:
Letters should preferably be no longer than 150 words and may be shortened to fit allotted space. They must be exclusive to The Times (no prior submission to, or publication in, any other medium, including the Web). They should generally refer to an article that has appeared within the last seven days. We reserve the right to edit letters.
To be considered for publication, letters MUST include the writer’s name, address, current location (where you are writing from) and daytime and evening phone numbers at your current location (for verification, not for publication).
We generally do not publish more than one letter from the same writer within any 60-day period. (This applies to the daily letters page, but feel free to submit letters to the weekly sections.) If we select your letter for publication, you consent to our right to republish it, in any and all media, and to license third parties to publish it as well.
If you submit your contact information as a result of this automated reply, please re-send the letter with it. (In the subject line, please indicate the headline of the article you’re responding to, and delete “automated reply.’’)
Because of computer security concerns, we do NOT accept attachments; they will NOT be opened. Please resubmit your letter pasted into the body of an e-mail message.
Shortly thereafter, I received an email from the letter editor letting me know they were likely to publish my letter — but she had further questions:
Hi. We are considering your letter for publication in the next few days, either in the printed paper and the Web site, or on the Web only. Below is an edited version of your letter. A few standard questions we ask our letter writers:
Do you approve of the changes?
Do you have a professional affiliation, or any other connection (including financial), that bears on the topic of your letter or that our readers should know about? (If you are writing in a private capacity and not on behalf of an organization, that will be considered in the decision on whether to use an ID.)
Did you write the letter, and is the letter exclusive to the Times?
Has it been posted on any Web site?
Was your letter sent in response to the prompting of a Web site or anyone else?
And, by agreeing to have your letter published, you are consenting to our right to republish it, in any and all media, and to license third parties to publish it as well.
Many thanks for writing.
In all media relations, I’ve followed a simple rule: follow the rules. Reporters and editors have stressed lives, and abiding by their guidelines almost always helps your case, be it pitching a story or getting your opinion piece published.
I wrote back: I approve of the changes. I wrote the letter. I sent it only to the Times. The letter has never been posted on any web site. I sent the letter unprompted by any one else. I consent to the letter’s publication and licensing by the Times.
The guidelines and editor’s questions reveal one of the paper’s main concerns, that letters are not generated from interest groups or businesses. They also augment Hairpin’s standard letter-writing advice:
- Respond. Editors prefer letters that are responding directly to a previously published editorial, op-ed column or news story. Cite the piece by headline and date.
- Move fast. Write and send your letter the same day the piece to which you are responding was published.
- Keep it short. The Times’ preference for 150 words or fewer is a good guideline.
- Stay focused. Make one, maybe two, points in your letter — that’s plenty.
- Be concrete. A reader should quickly grasp your opinion but also your recommended action.
- Add affiliation. If your letter’s topic and position aligns with your organization, include its name with yours. It might boost your group’s profile.
UPDATE: Read my latest published letter following the same rules, this time in the Boston Globe, here.