One of the many lessons I learnt from wise editors was that you could tell the strength of a newspaper by the strength of its letters page.
The logic, I guess, is simple: If people care enough about what they’ve read to write in and have their say, you’re probably doing something right. I suspect it is also a reason why those mass send-out charity appeal letters were so frowned upon by some editors I’ve worked with.
Increasingly, we’re seeking the same metric online too – what’s the signal that we’re engaging with people and making such an impact on our lives that they want to get involved in what we’re doing. I’ll come back to that in a future post!
But the letters page has surely served another purpose over the years – to give newsrooms a reality check of what, if anything, matters to readers. We think council corruption, the letter writers may actually be more angry about dog fouling, litter or parking tickets.
I was in Tamworth last week, and picked up a copy of the Tamworth Herald, which has four pages of letters, including this one:
A complaint which I’m sure many local journalists will recognise – the town centre isn’t as good as it can be. Social media editors everywhere will know that any post about new or departing shops are guaranteed to travel far and wide – everyone has an opinion on the strength of the local high street.
And, indeed, not a new issue either, as this snippet from the Herald’s nostalgia page two pages later confirmed:
Proof, perhaps, that in the ever-changing world of local journalism, some things remain consistent in the minds of our readers? Maybe.
Footnote: And perhaps the Herald’s nostalgia page also reminds us that council cock-ups aren’t a new thing either. Here, from 50 years ago, is the story of a council which had been unable to put down sports pitches on a new park it had acquired, because the park wasn’t flat enough … while the local soccer clubs weren’t able to use other pitches they’d hired for most of the season because the neighbouring river kept flooding. Proof perhaps that a good story is always a good story?