Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Things that are lost forever: The letter to the editor

I was angry. More than angry, I was pissed off.

The local newspaper, The Palm Beach Post, had run an article about the postal facility where I worked, and the story it had run had been a total wash.

It was the late 1980s, and there was this one supervisor – who is still working there, by the way – and he was the master of torments and mind games. You’d think postal managers then were focused on moving the mail, but many were trained to be abusive toward their workers. New hires would show up and vanish within days or weeks, worn down by not only abuse but forced overtime that sometimes had them working 12 hours a day (and a half-hour for lunch) and seven days a week.

Managers even bragged that they had 100 percent turnover in their areas, and were breaking newly hired workers down to nothing.

This one particular supervisor was an interesting case. He’d been a union representative and had a mouse-like face that seemed to betray innocence and compassion, but he was brutal. Newly hired workers would find themselves facing disciplinary action on their first day (actually, their first night) on the job. The top postal brass didn’t care since some of them were faking the numbers anyway, but there was a lot of hate and anger building up against this supervisor.

He supervised a letter-sorting machine, and I was always glad that I had entered the mailhandler craft, because it could be a torture machine for employees. The people who worked the machine got paid more, but to me it wasn’t worth it. First, you had to pass the training, and then you had to learn a scheme – and if you flunked, you were fired – and then you had to work your ass off and be subject to secret testing.

A good supervisor – and there were a very few, despite the purges – could make the job tolerable. A bad one – like this guy – could make it hell. The union’s efforts had been for naught.

He’d been assigned to the machine and unleashed a reign of terror, with disciplinary action and more. He loved to torment female employees, and finally it all came to a head one night. The next day, the employees on the machine had marched en masse to the plant manager’s office and demanded that something be done about this boss.

It got out to the local newspaper that a rebellion was brewing, and action was taken. The supervisor was moved to another operation, where he unleashed another reign of terror in revenge, but the message had been sent.

The story had turned up in the paper, though, and the plant manager – a burned-out type named Paul Pickard – said something like: “I had no idea this was going on. I talk to these people all the time.”

I almost blew a blood vessel at that assertion, because he never came out where the work was done, and we were under orders to never approach him or talk to him.

I called the newspaper and talked to its ombudsman (a person who would take complaints about stories from readers) and explained the chain of command to him. He advised me to write a letter to the editor, and I did.

My letter was given the brilliant headline, “Postal Service managers insensitive, incompetent.” When it appeared in the paper a few mornings later, I was stunned, surprised and happy. I didn’t care what happened to me and knew that the union could protect me (plus I was beginning college and planning a future outside the Postal Service) but I figured there was going to be a reaction.

For a few days, I was a minor celebrity at work. Even a couple of managers walked over to me to thank me for expressing what they, too, believed. I had struck a blow in the right way, in print, and not through violence or gunfire. I had always believed that the pen was way mightier than the sword, and this proved it. It certainly got attention, and showed that not everyone in the post office was a terrified, shrinking violet.

The letter says it

So, what’s the lesson here? It’s that writing a letter to the editor drew attention at a time when most communications with a news outlet were through letters. I learned in journalism classes that the opinion pages were the most-read parts of the newspaper, and the letters got the most attention. Before the Internet, “flame wars” raged in the letters pages of newspapers, with letters for and against an issue or topic – and for or against letters on the issue or topic – could dominate the conversation for weeks.

Today, letters still are an important part of the editorial page of newspapers, but they are fading. Instant comments on news stories seem to be a substitute, but the quality is way lower. I like to note that the spelling often is creative, you have some people who comment on things irrelevant to the topic at hand and if the story involves the police or minorities, the comments can be pretty nasty.

The letters page of a newspaper was where discussion and debate, while spirited, took place in an arena that was managed. People might become convinced that a bias was evident on the part of the staff in that department, but I worked at countless papers where we ran letters condemning us for being biased, as well as for hating America, wanting the Soviet Union or al-Qaida to win or being in the tank for Obama.

I will miss the letters to the editor pages when newspapers stop running them. It always gives me a thrill when I write a story for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, and someone takes the time to comment on it, whether it’s a letter to the editor or a relevant online or Facebook comment.

It shows that people are reading what I’ve written, and that’s always good.

Will people put as much thought into an online comment as they once did into their letters to the editor? At some point, I believe they will. In some areas, I actually write my comments in Microsoft Word, save them, think about them and then edit them before copying and pasting them into the box for comments.

Maybe someday online news sites will solicit online letters separately from comments and showcase them as the views of the people. I think there are a lot of good possibilities there, and maybe I can be a part of it.

In any case, anything that can be done to elevate the level of online discourse will be a step in the right direction.


June 4, 2012 - Posted by | Life lessons, The news business | , , , , , , , , ,

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