by Pete Mazzaccaro

The essayist Chuck Klosterman once noted that when you ask people what they’d like to see in a newspaper, they’ll want to see more of and less of all the same things, providing a net feedback of suggestions that weighed together will equal zero.

For every person who wants more sports there’s someone who wants less. For everyone who thinks we don’t cover Mt. Airy enough, another will say we cover it too much.

I was reminded of this when, while interviewing a source for a story, he lamented that there wasn’t enough controversial material in the Local’s letter section.

For every person who felt the way he did, I know I could find someone who felt the opposite, that the letters in the Local, when controversial or just plain critical, are detrimental to the well being of the whole neighborhood.

What was further interesting about his observation, though, was his reasoning.

“I used to really like reading that,” he said. “Now I guess you don’t publish that stuff anymore.”

It’s a fairly reasonable assumption to make. The Local had weeks when we could have filled three pages with letters. Some controversial, others totally bland.

But those days are gone. And it’s not because we refuse to publish letters. We just don’t get them.

We definitely have guidelines for letters. We won’t print libel. We won’t print stuff we know to be false, but we have a liberal letters policy, which I like to differentiate from other papers with this explanation:

Other papers look for compelling reasons to publish letters. We must find a compelling reason not to publish a letter. The Local has always promised readers that they can have a place in print if they so chose. All that is required is to compose a letter and send it to us. Now it’s as easy as sending me an email.

Why our correspondence has thinned out is a bit of a mystery tome. While we definitely don’t dwell on the inside game of CHCA politics, there are certainly big issues in the Local’s pages on a regular basis. From parking to property taxes, we write and editorialize about every local issue we can find.

One might suspect that the energy for responding to the Local has moved to the Web. We certainly get feedback online to our stories, but even that feedback is slim.

Another newspaper professional I talked to who lives in Chestnut Hill continues to be amazed at how quiet Hillers are in print and online.

“Get a drink in their hand at a social gathering and they’re never short on opinions, but ask them to put their name behind that opinion in print, and they no longer have an opinion,” he said.

To me that might be the phenomenon most responsible for the sharp falloff in reader correspondence. It dates back approximately to the same time we moved the Local to a daily, online publishing platform that has a much wider reach. Our readers, aware that their opinions and comments will be stored on remote servers in perpetuity for the world to call up with a simple Google search, are opting to zip their lips and leave that angry email as a draft in their outbox. It’s one thing to vent, but another to attach an opinion to your online identity.

Maybe I’m wrong, and people just aren’t interested in writing in. Maybe we don’t have the stories that interest them (though my weekly review of our online analytics tells me our stories are ever more popular with readers).

What do you think? I’d love to hear your opinion, if you’re willing to share it.