Ted Vaden, the public editor at The News & Observer, writes today on the editing of letters to the editor. The letter in question is one from Richard Burr, one of North Carolina’s two GOP senators. Burr was annoyed that the N&O editorial department had condensed his response to a recent N&O editorial on food-labeling legislation he’s sponsoring — so annoyed that he took out a full-page ad in the paper with his full letter.
Like most papers, the N&O limits the length of letters to the editor. In the interest of saving space and allowing as many voices into the letters columns as possible, the N&O puts a 200-word cap on letters. (It used to be 250 words until recently.) And like most papers, the note soliciting letters points out that letters will be edited, presumably for style, punctuation, grammar and other fundamental issues as well as for length. On occasion, the paper will publish longer letters, usually with a note that the 200-word limit has been waived to allow a fuller response from a person mentioned in a story or editorial.
The N&O word limit is typical. It’s fair to ask people to express their views quickly and coherently. (As sports radio host Jim Rome says: “Have a take. Don’t suck, or you will get run.”) Here’s what other papers allow:
- The News & Record in Greensboro, like the N&O, has a 200-word limit. Unlike the N&O, it also posts the letters online in a format that allows others to comment, blog-style.
- The Charlotte Observer’s limit is 150 words. Some of the letters are only a sentence or two.
- The New York Times has a limit of 150 words. The paper offers its rationale and other tips to readers in this column.
- The Washington Post doesn’t have a cap, but it does say that letters are “subject to abridgement.”
The editing of letters to the editor for space reasons is as necessary and inevitable as the editing of news stories. In the finite world of print, the numbers of words and paragraphs (among other elements) will not match the size of the page without some give and take.
In each case, thoughtful editors must take care to ensure that nothing vital to the meaning of the writing is lost. Editors who fail to do that open themselves to the possibility of accusations of chicanery.
That was the heart of Burr’s complaint, even though Vaden, the public editor, found no indication of bias. Perhaps a better option for the N&O in that situation would have been to reject the letter with an encouraging note to the senator to “revise and resubmit” within an agreed length, with the caveat that the paper still reserved the right to do some editing.
UPDATE: Nicole Stockdale of The Dallas Morning News continues the conversation on this topic at her blog, A Capital Idea.