Chronicle Responses to Letters Grow Longer and Longer

The Postmarks section is one of the first things I turn to when reading the Austin Chronicle each week. Unlike letters to the Statesman, which tend to go short and contain reactionary uninformed thought blasts (somewhat like blogs, right?), letters to the Chronicle, though sometimes absurd and eccentric, are often well thought out and even clever. However, as of late, it seems that the Chronicle editorial staff has fallen victim to a “last wordism” in their responses to letters in their Postmarks section, often mocking letter writers who disagreed with their views. In a space where letter writers are supposed to be given the opportunity to express dissenting views to those of the Chronicle, this hectoring can amount to a “We’re right, we’re right, we’re always right” kind of superior dance that discourages others from expressing their views. It’s the Chronicle’s right–it’s their paper and they can do what they want.

In the weekly’s April 28th issue, Rob D’Amico eloquently called out these recent developments:

Dear Editor,

I’ve noticed a trend over the past year or so of an increasing number of responses from Chronicle staff members to letters published – as if the editors and writers have to get the last word in. Moreover, the responses tend to be snooty and sarcastic rebuttals, direct slams against the letter-writers. It’s your rag, but I feel that responses are only justified when the letter-writer states something glaringly inaccurate, and maybe not even then. Letter-writers will tend to be a bit bombastic and/or critical of publications, but that doesn’t mean you have to reply with …

What? You say it is indeed your rag and that if I don’t like it, I don’t have to write a letter and be a target for ridicule. OK, maybe so, but did you really need five responses last week and the week before too? Oh, I’m being hyperbolic, and I can’t count, since it was only four?

Regardless, are Louis Black and Michael King, among others, so thin-skinned that they can’t let a few critical comments and even inaccuracies slide by without challenging them and name-calling back? After all, the letter-writers don’t often get a chance for a rebuttal to the rebuttal, do they?

The Chronicle responded: “The Chronicle’s policy has long been that staff responds only to errors of fact in the paper. Online is open territory. Recently, for a number of reasons, we have gotten lax over restricting the print responses. Thank you for bringing it up; we will be more careful in the future.”

But in the May 12th edition of the Chronicle, of the six letters printed, four received responses, with a couple of those letters (perhaps justifiably) receiving lengthy defensive retorts from both news editor Michael King and former Chronicle columnist and city editor Mike Clark-Madison. Of the 2,477 words in the letters section, 455 were devoted to editorial replies, amounting to almost 20 percent of the letters section being editorial opinion.

Now that the contentious Propositions 1 and 2 have been voted down, one would hope that the letters section could get back to its purpose of being a forum for public discourse on opinions expressed in the previous weeks’ publications. Though the online Postmarks forum somewhat mitigates this problem, the volume of comments there is low, and the majority of readers could have some difficulty even finding the forum. In additions, that leaves out those who only read the print edition.

And as Jeff Beckham pointed out a couple weeks ago, the Chronicle could do more to enhance the interactivity of its online presence (not to say there isn’t a plan in place to do that):

The best piece of interactivity on the site is the Postmarks Online forum, which I noticed on a recent visit because it was promoted in a banner ad at the top of the page. However, on a subsequent visit the next day, I had a hard time finding any type of link to it. When I did eventually find my way to the online version of Postmarks (their letters to the editor section), the forum was promoted at the end of each entry, but in small type that read: “Discuss this letter in our online forum”. The forum itself isn’t very well-trafficked. I counted 50 topics on the first page, which dated back to April 19. In those 50 topics, I counted a total of 45 replies, 20 of which were on a single topic. Also by my rough count, those 50 topics had been viewed about 1,260 times. Take away the busiest topic – “Which Country Is More Dangerous” – which had been viewed some 186 times, and the remainder of those forum topics averaged about 22 page views each.

The reason I spent so much time (and math) on the forum is that the Chronicle took a shot at the Statesman earlier this year for that paper’s efforts in creating blogs for staffers and readers. Calling the Statesman’s efforts “bland” and “not ready for takeoff”, the Chronicle did concede this point:

(Full disclosure: the Chronicle does not currently offer blogs on its Web site, although a handful of readers have turned the “Postmarks” online forum into a running town hall meeting on everything under the sun. – Ed.)

The point is, there’s not a lot of activity in this area, which presents a terrific opportunity for the Chronicle to jump into blogging as a way to foster discussion and debate. Editor Louis Black’s Page Two column is tailor-made for online production. His passionate and acerbic style practically begs for immediate reaction, and I’d love to see Black engaged in a two-way discussion with his readers. Other featured writers – Moser, Jordan Smith, Christopher Gray – would all contribute greatly to the local scene if turned loose in a more interactive format.

In the past and now, the Chronicle has served as a respected voice for the progressive heart and soul of Austin, and a much-valued alternative to its rival, the Statesman. If it could welcome public discussion and criticism in both its print edition and a new online format (yes, we’re talking blog-like things like allowing comments on individual articles), I think it would only serve to enhance its reputation.

5 Comments so far

  1. Jeff (unregistered) on May 15th, 2006 @ 9:40 am

    Thanks for the shout-out, Tim. This seems like an easy win for the Chronicle. I hope they’re dedicating some time and money toward improving the conversation with their readers.

  2. Edward (unregistered) on May 15th, 2006 @ 11:42 am

    The editors (and also, apparently, freelance article contributors) of the Chronicle come off as whiny petulant children and have definitely not taken the opportunity to demonstrate any level of professionalism and rise above the fray. Even after this was so well pointed out to them by Mr. D’Amico, the Chronicle has continued to use mocking headlines for readers’ letters (“Bunch Davidians”?) and then spends well over the 300 words given to readers in one of their own retorts. Most people stopped playing the “I know you are, but what am I” game in Kindergaten, but consider this gem from Clark-Madison’s lengthy response:

    “…Being a whore doesn’t pay as well as the Bunch Davidians think. In fact, it pays a lot less than being the trust-fund baby of an oil and sprawl fortune like SOS moneybags Kirk Mitchell, who’s dumped far more money into this race than any developer or ‘insider.’ By the Bunch Davidians’ own standards, their own side should be deemed untrustworthy and corrupt, because it’s funded with dirty money (and, as an added bonus, has violated numerous campaign-finance laws)…”

    Well that truly sheds light on the issue. Thank you for that. Why do Chronicle editors continue to feel this sort of thing is necessary? The only reason I can think of for this level of defensiveness is that the criticism is hitting too close to the mark.

  3. Louis Black (unregistered) on May 18th, 2006 @ 6:08 pm

    From Louis Black: Defending neither Postmark headlines or overlong and/or unnecessary responses, let me whole-heartedly agree with you on the interactivity issue. When Jeff Beckham wrote “The point is, there’s not a lot of activity in this area, which presents a terrific opportunity for the Chronicle to jump into blogging as a way to foster discussion and debate.” he is absolutely on target. Unlike many print publications we have always willingly invested in our website, perhaps not enough. However, in the same way I sometimes can’t get my 15 year old to do what I would like him to, the paper is very much an independent creature unto itself. So the reasons we’ve moved slowly (or not much at all) are plentiful. And not that I am without personal fault, during the last 18 months I’ve been very involved with projects outside the Chronicle that my attention, follow-thru and committment have not been there. I thank you for your comments and will take them very seriously.
    I respond at this length because of the tone and intelligence of your discussion. Stupid pot shots, complex insults and general disdain get wearing after awhile.

  4. omit (unregistered) on May 18th, 2006 @ 6:18 pm

    Thanks for the comments as well. I was somewhat hesitant to post about this because I know you do get a lot of criticism and I respect your contribution to the community. I know you have a lot on your plate as well. I look forward to seeing what you guys come up with in the future re: interactivity.

  5. ttrentham (unregistered) on May 19th, 2006 @ 3:04 pm

    Apparently, Louis has been quite busy lately.

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