Does it seem hopelessly old-fashioned to care about letters to the editor? Maybe, but I’m not alone in doing so. The Democratic National Committee are asking people to write after Michael Steele’s comment that “a million dollars is not a lot of money.” Maybe not for you, Mr. Steele, maybe not for you…
Such initiatives rely on the existence of something I call the “letters institution”, a small aspect of the larger news institution though which newspapers make it possible for a few citizens to raise their voice and express themselves in public with a larger audience than most bloggers and tweeters have.
I think letters to the editor are interesting for much the same reason I find both new media technologies and old organizations like political campaigns interesting-they constitute a way in which people can take (a small) part in politics.
Anyway, I wrote an article about letters to the editor and the letters institution as it operates in Danish newspapers a while ago. It is now out in Journalism.
Abstract et al is below (thanks to Michael Schudson, Anker Brink Lund, and Lucas Graves for their helpful comments on earlier versions).
Participation through letters to the editor: Circulation, considerations, and genres in the letters institution
Rasmus Kleis Nielsen
This article analyzes who participates in newspaper-mediated debate through letters to the editor, how they come to do it by passing muster under six editorial considerations, and what the three genres (storytelling, criticism, and appeal) of letters allow them to participate in. The starting point is a sedimented ideal of media that citizens can use — an ambition for media that are not only watchdogs, sources of information, or entertainers, but also enablers of participation. The contemporary incarnation of this ideal in printed newspapers is what is here identified as the ‘letters institution’. Its patterns of circulation and contribution, editorial considerations, and narrative genres constitute a fragmented contentious zone between politics, the media, and the private life of the limited number of citizens who get a chance to express themselves through the concrete operations of one of the institutions that gives the abstraction ‘the public debate’ whatever reality it has.
Key Words: editorial considerations • letters to the editor • media criticism • participation • public • public debate • public sphere
Journalism, Vol. 11, No. 1, 21-35 (2010)