I've been a big fan of newspapers and magazines all of my life, and I've always had a particular fondness for their "letters to the editor" sections. Not only do they tend to highlight some contention, but they're generally direct and to the point, frequently a bit emotional -- and, most important, help me develop a sense of community with other readers. I think they're one of the best innovations of print media.
When I read letters to the editor, I tend to read them from the "bottom up." I scan the names, location -- and titles, if they have them -- first. It immediately gives me a sense of the writers, and hopefully their perspective or bias or their area of expertise. This is especially true when reading letters in some of our great publications, The New York Times,The Wall Street Journal, Atlantic Monthly and The Economist, among others. It's not unusual to find letters in those publications from literary luminaries, cabinet officials, ex-presidents, Nobel Prize winners and, quite often, the actual subjects of the stories the publications are covering at any moment.
How is it that none of these same publications permit real-time comments by sources and principals in the news stories they publish on their Web sites, a service Google News is now testing? USATODAY.com recently opened its site up to comments -- for which it should be applauded, but we haven't yet seen the other large "publications of record" create high-profile sections in their online news pages where they invite and promote further comment and criticism from the folks chronicled in those same pages.
Why should these publications open up to their readers -- and story subjects and sources? Here are several reasons:
Of course, haven't several large publications had some high-profile mistakes in this area? Yes. Some have opened up their pages to comments and found them overrun with negative and attacking comments, spam and profanity. That problem can be managed. Reader commentary can be moderated; just look at how well Gawker Media has done it. They have used the "velvet rope" approach to both attract high-quality comments as well as to control what appears on its pages. There are also many technology solutions that can help in this area.
Imagine if the news coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign on the Web sites of many of the top news publications was opened to comments from the candidates and their campaigns. These could be the most amazing wikis or blogs. They could use some high-profile moderators, just as the debates do. We could have months and months of ongoing debate and discussion and commentary. Not only would this strategy make those news sites much more alive and involved in the campaign, but it would give them tons of material that they could use for their offline publications. At the least, it would be great to watch. What do you think?