COLUMN: Letters to the editor promote civic engagement

Carter Dibble, 10 of Niskayuna, stands outside the Schenectady County Public Library Niskayuna branch on Tuesday, December 15, 2020.
ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Carter Dibble, 10 of Niskayuna, stands outside the Schenectady County Public Library Niskayuna branch on Tuesday, December 15, 2020.

The coronovarius has put a serious damper on many facets of life this year, but civic engagement hasn’t been one of them.

Record-breaking numbers of Americans voted in this year’s presidential election.

Black Lives Matter demonstrators have taken to the streets in masses that have made the civil rights marches of the 1960s look like quaint little gatherings.

And countless mass food-distribution efforts have been staffed by tireless volunteers in communities across the country.

Americans, it seems, are eager to get involved.

Our reporters and photographers have been busy documenting the surge in engagement at every turn.

I’ve lost count of the number of demonstrations, food giveaways and election-related issues we’ve covered this year.

It’s been staggering.

But there’s one metric that we have been able to monitor to gauge civic engagement and interest — and the numbers are up. Way up.

Our letters to the editor have, as they say, blown up this year.

As of today, we’ve published 2,145 letters to the editor in 2020 and we’re on pace to top 2,200, a number that will easily smash our previous annual high of roughly 1,700.

There’s a good reason why we call the letters section, “Your Voice.”

It’s not difficult to figure out what’s behind the spike in letters.

This year has been a perfect storm of generational news events, what with the pandemic, a super-charged presidential contest and civil unrest across the land.

These national stories have local implications and impacts, here and everywhere.

As a result, our readers — I’m looking at you — have been eager to express their views about big issues like Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and the contentious Trump-vs.-Biden race.

But the big national stories are only half the story.

Sure, the coronavirus has been the No. 1 topic for our letters this year and the presidential race hasn’t been far behind.

These biggies, however, are only the tip of the letters pile.

At last count, our writers had opined about hundreds of different topics in their letters this year, many delving into narrow issues in tiny communities around the region.

These are usually my favorites.

On a daily basis, the letters stream into the newsroom.

Some arrive via the U.S. Postal Service, usually handwritten missives on special stationary that looks like it’s been around a while.

Others are hand-delivered to our front desk and quickly whisked up to the editorial department.

Still others come to us on our last-remaining fax machine. No, really. We still get letters via fax!

But most letters come the way of the internet, filling our Gmail inbox at a clip of over eight letters per day on average.

All of this makes for some busy days and evenings for the two-person team that handles our letters.

Submissions are first read by Editorial Assistant Martha Melville, who deftly manages the influx and verifies the authenticity of each and every letter and letter writer.

Next in our letters-processing line is Editorial Page Editor Mark Mahoney, who vets every letter for issues like factual accuracy, potential libel and plain old ‘Does this make sense’?

The ones with falsehoods or defamatory claims are modified or rejected.

But on balance, Mahoney does his best to publish as many letters as possible.

Under his tenure as editorial page editor the past six-plus years, we’ve expanded the volume and breadth of letters.

We’ve started running two full opinion pages on some days just to accommodate the volume.

Mahoney’s method of procedure, quite simply, is this: If he can find a way to run a letter, he’ll do so. The more the merrier.

As a result, our letters are easily one of the paper’s most vibrant and compelling features.

I receive more feedback — sometimes good, sometimes not — about our letters than almost any other part of the paper.

Nary a day goes by that we don’t run at least one letter that makes you shake your head in surprise or marvel at the compassion and humanity in our community.

Take, for instance, my favorite letter of 2020.

We received it in late April, as the first wave of pandemic-induced lockdowns was starting to take a toll on our collective psyche. It was a thoughtful piece. Short, simple, poignant.

But this wasn’t just any old letter.

It was written by a 9-year-old boy from Niskayuna.

Despite the unusual circumstances, our crackerjack opinion team of Melville and Mahoney recognized its value and shared it with The Gazette readership.

It was so good and so sincere that I’d like to share it again today.

— — —
Don’t let covid take away our libraries

We need to open our libraries. If only “essential” businesses are open, why are libraries not open?

If liquor stores are considered essential, why aren’t libraries?

There are many reasons why we should open libraries.

For example, lots of people do not have books or learning resources at home.

Books are a wondrous thing.

They teach us and entertain us, especially when we cannot leave our homes.

Normally, the library is not even that crowded. If we do open the libraries, here are some precautions we can take.

First, we can wash our hands after we touch a book. Next, if the library gets crowded, we can have a limit on how many people are let inside.

Books are a wonderful thing.

Please do not let COVID-19 take them away from us.

Carter Dibble, Age 9


Miles Reed is editor of The Daily Gazette.

Categories: Opinion

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