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Some Newspapers Using Telephone ‘Letters’ to Editor

August 27, 1986

CHICAGO (AP) _ Some newspapers have begun using a telephone answering machine to augment one of journalism’s most hallowed institutions: the letter to the editor.

One industry observer predicts it could be a wave of the future.

″Newspapers have been interested in the last few years in trying to get more input from readers,″ said Elise Burroughs, publications director of the Reston, Va.-based American Society of Newspaper Editors.

″I think in the near future it’s something a lot of newspapers will use,″ she said.

The way it usually works is this: a newspaper hooks up a recording machine to a telephone and invites readers to call in with their comments and opinions. Most do not require the callers to leave a name. The comments are transcribed, edited and printed, usually on an editorial or op-ed page.

″If you don’t have to put your name behind it, it gives you a little freedom,″ said Stuart Rose, editor of The Delaware County Daily Times in Primos, Pa., which began a ″Sound Off″ column based on such recorded comments in 1981.

″I am really sick and tired of hearing about the marriages of British royalty,″ a recent caller complained to the Journal & Topics Newspapers, a suburban Chicago group which has been publishing a ″Speak Out″ column for over eight years.

″I’m tired of the Cubs losing all the time,″ said another.

Two youngsters, Sid and Johnny, called ″to complain about old people who always complain about how bad rock music is.″

Todd Wessell, managing editor of the group of 16 weeklies and bi-weeklies - six of which use the column - called the column ″a fantastic success. I think it’s the best-read thing in the paper.″

Readers call a number and have 30 seconds to leave a message on a recorder, on any subject they choose, Wessell said.

The most troubling calls are from people threatening to commit suicide, Wessell said. When that happens, his paper prints the comments with advice urging the person to seek medical help, he said.

There are no reliable figures on how many daily and weekly newspapers around the country use such a column. Ms. Burroughs estimated the number of dailies at about a dozen.

The papers include The Miami News, The Daily Journal of Wheaton, Ill., The Daily Dispatch in Moline, Ill., and the Sunday Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y.

Woody Wardlow, associate director of the American Press Institute, a Reston-based industry trade group, said he tried the system while managing editor of The Buffalo News in New York, but scrapped it.

″People don’t speak in complete sentences, or with good continuity of thought,″ he said. ″Sometimes you aren’t sure what the point is.″

He also said it was expensive to transcribe and edit the comments.

Rose said problems with the system are that it attracts ″people who are angry at something,″ and ″people unfamiliar with the laws of slander and libel.″

But The Miami News prints about six good comments per day, said editorial page editor Lou Salome.

Jim King, news editor of The Daily Journal in Wheaton, said such columns are a sign of changing times.

″Unlike 100 years ago, when people wrote letters, nobody’s writing anymore,″ said King. ″They use the phone.″

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