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THE DEATH OF LETTERS TO THE EDITOR: Has Twitter killed the letter to the editor?

This story first appeared in the December 30, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Pre-Internet and, in turn, before the dawn of that 140-character microblogging site, if a reader had a complaint or compliment on an article, they’d put pen to paper, drop the letter in the mail and hope they’d be one of a lucky few that either earned a response from the editor in chief or actual publication in the magazine. At one time, magazines such as Time and Newsweek used to have dedicated staffers who read through incoming mail and typed up individual responses. But now, readers e-mail editors directly, and those who don’t have time to draft flowery prose to an editor use comment areas on blogs and Web sites, Facebook and other social networking outlets.

“I don’t think [editors] are getting too many perfumed notes from snail mail,” said Andrea Chambers, director of the Center for Publishing at New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies.

But a few still trickle in. Vanity Fair said it handles a combined five snail mail letters or faxes a month. Overall, the magazine receives at least 150 letters a month, although only two or three years ago it averaged closer to 250 letters monthly. And yet, Vanity Fair still publishes four pages worth of reader mail in its “VF Mailbag” section each issue.

At Real Simple, managing editor Kristin van Ogtrop receives 600 e-mailed letters to the editor every month. “We get very few handwritten letters, which I mourn,” she said.

At Seventeen, editor in chief Ann Shoket said, “We get about 20 handwritten letters a week. A lot of them are parents or teachers. They say congratulations, thank you for talking about this important issue. The handwritten letters are coming from an older audience.”

Elle, too, said it still receives handwritten notes. Editor in chief Robbie Myers said when the magazine put Miley Cyrus on its August cover, “we got a lot of handwritten notes from a younger audience.” But Myers also said she gets a letter every month from one particular 74-year-old woman — on lined paper, very detailed — to say how much she appreciates Elle’s youthful spirit. “They’ve been coming for a long time.”

Glamour receives 30 to 40 handwritten notes a week, compared with 1,000 e-mailed letters. Both are a fraction of the 5,000 comments receives online. New York magazine editor in chief Adam Moss noted the publication gets roughly three snail mail letters and 100 e-mails a week — that’s only 1 percent of the feedback it compiles. One story on can elicit 3,000 comments in a week on the site.

In effect, letters to editors have not, or will not, die. Instead, they’ve simply morphed into different forms.

As editors noted, people are focusing more of their time and energy on connecting with others via social networking, and are more apt to post reactions to magazines or newspapers on their own blogs or Facebook pages. When Chambers conducted an informal survey of graduate students in one NYU publishing class, 90 percent of them said letters to the editor were still valuable, but that they were more likely to tweet than write a fully formed letter. The difference, said most editors, is that letters are more thoughtful and personal than comments or tweets.

“Our letters often offer additions to stories — an extra bit of information we missed,” said Nancy Novogrod, editor of Travel + Leisure. “Comments on articles via Facebook and Twitter are more public and mass. Letters are often addressed to me personally, and show a level of engagement in our subject matter rather than the off-the-cuff remarks in social media.”

Editors have recognized the digital influence on feedback to the magazine: In 2007, New York changed the name of the “Letters” page in the magazine to “Comments,” since most reader feedback was arriving digitally. Since then, other magazines also have renamed their letters-to-the-editor pages with names like “Inbox,” “Your Words,” “What You Think” and “Yours Truly,” with most of those comments arriving electronically. Additionally, more editors are blogging and have their own Twitter feeds to respond to readers instantly, more than just through their own letters pages. All of which provides a two-way dialogue with the magazine, something e-mailed letters cannot offer.

For editors, the benefit is a no-brainer. For one, it’s a no-cost focus group at their fingertips. “It used to be a big laborious thing to drag your team to Dallas and watch 10 women picking your magazine apart,” said Glamour’s editor in chief Cindi Leive. “Not to say that doesn’t have some value, but I can watch 10,000 women in any given morning dipping in and out of the stories I have online. It’s a much bigger, instantly gratifying, cheap way to get feedback.”

It also helps fine-tune content toward what triggers readers’ emotions. At New York, Moss responded to critics of its “Reasons We Love New York” story by inviting bloggers who knocked the editor’s picks to participate in the story next year. At Glamour, the popularity of Lizzie Miller, née “The Girl on Page 194,” of Glamour’s September issue, was fueled by readers responding to her naked plus-size body in the magazine via e-mailed letters. Those e-mails prompted Leive to blog about Miller (which drew hundreds more comments to the post); sparked interest from the “Today” show, “Oprah” and “Ellen,” and eventually led to a spread in the November issue featuring full-figured models posing naked. And InStyle launched its Ultimate Beauty Black Book, a guide to salons, spas and services, from readers asking for that kind advice.

Will such feedback lead to user-generated publications? Editors argued that their jobs are not in jeopardy because a newspaper or magazine still needs a filter. “When there is a massing of responses in one way or the other — a collective voice — we take it seriously,” said Novogrod. “We ask our readers to tell us about their experiences, offer their ‘Readers’ Finds’ and travel tips, but our editorial is reader-sensitive rather than reader-generated. We still think our role is to lead the way.”

“I don’t think anyone would suggest that you run an entire print magazine just by looking at what does best for you online,” added Leive. “But you’d be an idiot not to pay attention.”  

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