By Tamara Baluja, Associate Editor
Letters to the editor are a dying breed. Although a long-standing tradition at newspapers, they just don’t jibe with today’s media landscape of immediacy and urgency. The Winnipeg Free Press is changing that by bringing social media to snail mail. J-Source interviewed editor-in-chief Paul Samyn about the new direction of the paper’s editorial pages.
J-Source: How do you bring social media to letters to the editor?
Paul Samyn: This is quite an interesting thing we’re trying. When we’re writing an editorial, we’ll send a tweet saying we’re looking for insights on topic X and ask our readers to tweet us their views with the hashtag #wfpvent. Then we’ll take the best of those tweets and print them alongside the editorial. It’s a great way of broadening the conversation, and these Twitter conversations are in that same spirit of hearing from the audience.
J-Source: Why go in this direction?
PS: I really like the letters to editors, and they’re a great way to hear what our audiences are thinking. But for us, the number of people who are sending them is going down, and I’m sure that’s the case with other newspapers as well. Letters to the editors are just not how most people share their views anymore. By the time you send a letter in and it gets published in four to five days, it’s quite possible that topic is outdated because of some new developments to that story. Or it’s completely irrelevant. But we know when we post content, there are all these great conversations happening on Twitter immediately when the stories are posted. So we decided to put our energy there instead.
J-Source: How have people been responding?
PS: Really good. We launched it on Aug. 9 and it’s gaining traction with more and more people tweeting. Some people are saying we have a double standard…. You see, with the letters, we ask for a name, an address and telephone number to be able to verify the sender. But that’s not the case with the Twitter comments we select. I don’t see it as a double standard. They’re different mediums, so we treat them differently.
J-Source: Will you ask for feedback on other social media platforms?
PS: Possibly in the future, but for now we’re concentrating on Twitter.
J-Source: You’ve also hired a new perspectives editor. Tell us more.
PS: Yes, that would be Shannon Sampert, who is a bit of an unusual choice. She’s an expert in Canadian politics and media and she’s an academic joining us from the University of Winnipeg. But she’s no stranger to the journalism world—she worked as a radio and television reporter before getting her PhD. And it’s quite exciting, because Shannon will be the first woman to oversee the Free Press’ editorial pages since it launched 142 years ago. It’s also long overdue. She’s there as a resource for the newsroom but will also be writing columns.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The Winnipeg Free Press has also created a video to help readers get their letters to the editor published.