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Larry Lough

Second Opinion: 2014 a rebuilding year for letters to editor

OK, readers – time to pick it up.

You had a down year in 2013; hey, everybody hits a slump once in a while.

But this is a new year. And that calls for a new attitude.

So, let’s hear it! (Literally.)

We want to hear from you.

LETTERS TO THE Editor in this newspaper took a dip last year.

That kind of thing happens – especially in a year with no big elections.

After readers set a record (1,282) for letters in 2012, we thought the momentum might carry over – even without a November election.

But according to editorial assistant Cindy Dahl, in 2013 we received only 958 letters, the lowest total since 2007.

More than 1,000 letters had come in every year since 2008 – until last year.

Still we are expecting big things from you in 2014.

Sure, we will have a big ballot this fall to choose a U.S. senator, U.S. reps, governor, attorney general, and most seats in the Illinois Legislature – plus sheriff and county board – among other state and local positions.

But every community has its own issues, too, involving local government, schools, police ... things that matter to you because they’re so close to home.

And you have opinions and ideas about all of those things.

No better way to share those thoughts than by writing a letter to the editor.

For details on how to do that, check out the “Share your opinions” information at the bottom of the previous page.

This is going to be a comeback year!

ALTHOUGH WE GIVE readers plenty of options to express themselves, they have in recent years continued to use the newspaper’s letters column for a serious discussion of issues.

Comments from registered users are welcome on stories posted to our website, and our nearly 12,000 Facebook friends offer instant feedback on the news we publish there.

We appreciate that readers have made Sauk Valley Media – in print and online – the forum for discussion on matters of local concern.

Facilitating that public debate is an important role of a newspaper.

We’re happy to do it.

LOTS OF PUBLIC discussion and debate usually follows our investigative reports.

Being a watchdog of government is another essential role of the press.

Not everybody is happy with our performance, but most readers seem to be.

“Please keep up the good work,” one reader said in a post. “It’s wonderful to have people help to hold others accountable for their actions. Far too long have the people in this area been subjected to the hypocrisy of poorly elected officials. I for one have loved the direction this paper has taken in the last year or so and recently renewed a subscription to the newspaper because of it.”

“Thank you for not letting these things fall through the cracks/go unanswered,” another reader wrote. “For all of the community’s sake, we need to know when public records are being refused to the press. And I’m glad to know you’re pushing on. Thank you!!”

And then there are dissenters.

“No matter how you justify it, [the newspaper] is viewed like a tabloid,” one reader said in an online post.

We assume that wasn’t a compliment.

SOMETIMES READERS don’t understand how the newspaper works.

After the editor’s recent column about the New Year’s resolutions made by the news staff, this was posted to the website.

“Noted very few included accuracy in their resolutions, ...” the post said. “Sounds like 2014 will be same old paper selling less than factual sensationalism that most are growing weary of.”

Accuracy is a bare minimum requirement for journalism.

We publish a policy on Page A2 every day that invites readers to let us know about factual errors they detect in our reporting. We will correct them promptly.

And if you want to point out what you consider to be errors in our news judgment, we are always willing to offer space in our letters-to-the-editor column on the Opinion page.

You won’t be the first.

THAT LETTER ALSO wondered about the process of reporting in this newspaper.

“By the way, should not the meetings and notes of the SVM editorial board where headlines and story assignments and angles are decided be open to the public?” the reader asked. “What is being left out of the stories? Who is being targeted and why? Why does the headline not reflect the facts?

“Are not these questions we deserve the answers to? If SVM is truly the public’s watchdog should not their transparency be at least as open as the governmental bodies they are quick to call foul?”

Our weekly editorial board meetings (its members are listed at the bottom of the previous page) involve a discussion of issues on which we plan to offer our opinions. We sometimes discuss additional reporting that needs to be done to get information so that we can write an intelligent editorial, but we don’t get into the details of story planning.

Story assignments come from ongoing discussions among editors throughout the day, though most ideas for articles are developed by the reporters themselves – responding to what they see and hear, and what tips they get from readers. Deciding the “angles” comes from those informal discussions that editors and reporters have.

Suggested headlines are placed on stories by reporters and editors, but the people who design the pages are responsible for the final form to make sure it fits into the available space – one of the toughest tasks in this business.

As to “Who is being targeted an why?” – well, we don’t choose those targets.

By their actions, they choose themselves.