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Rick Carroll: Above the Fold

The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

Aspen has a wide range of opinions – from passionate and educated to nasty and shallow. As a community newspaper, we feel it’s important to try to allow the free exchange of ideas, thoughts and opinions on our letters pages.

The letters section is our version of the town square, where we can learn about our community members and the issues that both trouble and inspire them. Some come out looking brilliant; others hang themselves with their own words.

But – and here’s a shocker – we don’t print every letter that’s submitted.

My email inbox has a special category, termed “letter rejects,” which is designated for those offerings that don’t get any sunshine.

Three letter submissions qualified for that spot last week, two of which were anonymous.

One ridiculed this newspaper for last week’s story about the decline of locals discounts at Aspen business establishments. “Wow … is there really no other news in Aspen to report than the ‘longtime discount suspended at Aspen bar’…wow and front page news too! Oh my goodness !! Shocking news!” barked the nameless scribe.

I had no problem with the letter; we are open to criticism and can take it just like we give it. I emailed the writer back for a name. “You can print: Ms. Edwards,” he or she responded. We’d need a first name, too, I replied. At that point, the writer surrendered.

Next was a letter from a “concerned citizen” about the Aspen Police Department’s failure to pursue an assault case. I asked the writer to sign his name to the letter for it to be printed. He declined. “If you can’t print it … oh well, guess fascism wins again,” he replied.

Not quite. Our policy is clear about letter submissions – we ask for their phone numbers in case we need to verify their names. We also require the author’s name and hometown to be printed.

But the tricky part comes with this language, as outlined on our online letter-submission form: Form letters and letters considered libelous, obscene or in bad taste will not be printed.

The editor makes these calls, but it’s not always clear-cut when determining whether a letter was written in bad taste. For every letter you might find offensive, your neighbor might deem it utterly harmless.

With that, here are a few suggestions on what not to do if you want your letter printed:

Making unsubstantiated allegations: Last year, we received a number of letters accusing an elected official of having an inter-office affair a good decade ago. We did not print the letters, and the writers accused us of coddling the official. Not so. The affair, if there ever was one, was not reported by the press in the first place, and we had no inclination to spend several days, or weeks, trying to corroborate such allegations just to print a letter to the editor.

Misquoting famous people: A certain group of letter writers like to use quotations from the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Gandhi to make their points. That’s fine (if hardly original). Here’s the rub: Make sure to quote them correctly. Often our copy desk has Googled these quotations, only to find them butchered. That makes not only the letter writer less credible but the newspaper, as well.

Presenting something as your own thought when it’s not: We’ve gotten pretty good at sniffing out letters in which the author simply cut and pasted from an email making its rounds and presented it as his or her own thought. This outright showcase of plagiarism is especially common during election season.

Along with that, here are a few other tips:

Use Spellcheck: It takes about 20 seconds.

Re-read your letter before you submit it: Your name is on it, so have a little pride. Don’t rely on us to correct everything.

Less is more: Yes, we have a 500-word limit for letters (one that’s often ignored), but readers are more prone to read short, concise letters than long, rambling ones.

Other than that, letter writers are encouraged to keep them coming, all guns blazing or peace pipes burning. The opinion page is one of the most enlightening and entertaining sections of the paper, often shapes opinions in this town and is yet another way to get to know your neighbor.

Rick Carroll is managing editor of The Aspen Times. He takes comments, complaints, questions and news tips at rcarroll@aspentimes.com or 970-429-9141.


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