Back in the good old days of traditional media, when newspapers ruled the world and editors were a law unto themselves, the Letters section of the paper was what passed for interactivity with readers. Anyone could write a letter expressing their thoughts on an issue, mail it to the newspaper, and if they were lucky their letter (or part of it) would get published. The exact process by which certain letters were chosen and others discarded was a mystery — just one of the many mysteries of the newspaper business. And let’s face it, lots of journalists liked it that way.
The old ways are getting harder and harder to maintain, however. For a good illustration of how that is happening, look no further than the recent dust-up between General Motors and the New York Times over a column written by Thomas Friedman, which Mike at Techdirt summarizes here. Like many columnists, Friedman went a little overboard with the colourful rhetoric when he was describing GM — calling it the equivalent of a “crack dealer” and so on — and needless to say, GM wasn’t impressed. So they wrote a letter to the editor. And that’s when things started to get interesting.
The Times balked at the letter idea, at first because it was too long — a fair enough point, since the letters section isn’t really the place for a 500-word essay from a company spokesperson. Then, however, things degenerated into a debate over the word “rubbish” and whether that was appropriate language for the letters section (the Times wanted to change it to “We beg to differ” and then to “Not so.”) So what did GM do? They wrote about the whole affair on a GM blog — and included the text of the emails.
As Jeff Jarvis notes, this all makes the Times look not just arrogant, but woefully clueless about how the Web has changed the balance of power when it comes to traditional media — just as clueless as the reporter who wrote a series of emails to Mark Cuban not that long ago and then watched as the billionaire posted them on his blog for everyone to see. As Tom mentions here, the Times is used to having voice, not in giving voice.
Should the Times have caved in right off the bat and let GM run a 500-word letter defending itself? No. But it should have been smart enough to know that treating the company the way it did over a simple word like rubbish (which InOpinion notes has been used many times in the NYT letters section) would backfire. The Letters section is no longer the only sandbox that readers (and advertisers) can play in.