A look inside the “readers’ page” from NYTimes Letter-to-the-Editor editor Tom Feyer

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Photo provided by Tom Feyer showing the sheer volume of letters he receives (and reads).

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New York Times, 12/21/16 from New York Times prints our response to “Time to End the Electoral College

As seen in New York Times prints our response to “Time to End the Electoral College, on Wednesday the New York Times printed our letter.

The Electoral College is a popular topic for political junkies so we received several comments, including this one from Jack Bradigan Spula:

Glad your letter was printed, but I side with the Times editors on this one. I believe in “one person, one vote,” and I can’t imagine a fair election in which that is not the governing principle. What’s more, I don’t think there’s any reason to fear that a recount in a close election would be difficult to the point of impossibility. It would be logistically easy — and constitutionally sound — to adopt standardized election procedures and equipment that would make a recount easy as pie. But as with the Electoral College, political inertia in service of entrenched interests keeps a simple solution out of reach.

Jack is absolutely correct that holding one national election, rather than 50 separate state elections, would require “standardized election procedures and equipment.”  Achieving that alone would be one huge benefit from moving to a national vote system.

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The City Newspaper, 12/21/16

I also hope Jack is right that a national recount can be made easy as pie. One problem is that we lack hard data on the subject. Our political pundit Michael Nighan researched how other large nations conduct national elections and whether national recounts have been done.

Michael determined that outside of the US and France, the countries with the larger populations either select their national leaders via a parliamentary system, or run corrupt and controlled popular elections just for show. So while a presidential election determined by a popular national election might well be a good thing, it will be in uncharted territory.

But enough about the Electoral College. Although if you want more, this week the City’s Urban Journal weighed in on the subject.

The letter also piqued my interest in the Times letters in general. I’d submitted dozens and dozens over the years with no previous luck.

So I contacted Senior Editor Tom Feyer. Tom kindly answered a few questions about how he and his associates make their selections.

Tom emphasizes that the Letters page is “the readers’ page, not mine.”

I seek to present an accurate sampling of reader responses, a range of ideas and perspectives, timely and thoughtful commentary, and – I hope – some lighthearted fun as well.  I’m guided by the readers’ interests, politics, obsessions, quirks and so on. The goal is simply to offer a snapshot of what readers care about in an interesting and thoughtful way.

How did you become the Letter-to-the-Editor editor? What do you enjoy about your job?

 I became letters editor in 1999, when I was recommended for the job by senior editors at the paper. I had been an editor at The Times since 1980, mostly on the foreign desk, where I started as a copy editor and eventually worked in several supervisory roles, including day assignment editor, night editor and weekend editor. I’ve been enjoying the letters job for more than 17 years now. There’s something new and interesting every day, and no limit to subject matter: anything and everything under the sun (and even beyond – The Times has a cosmos writer!). I have smart, dedicated colleagues, and The Times has a passionate, intelligent readership that loves to tell us when we’re right and (especially) when we’re wrong.

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Tom Feyer with one of his dogs, Scooter. Photo provided by Tom

How many letters on a topic/subject do your normally receive?  How long does it take to read them all?

That depends on the subject, of course. Some topics, like the recent campaign and election, receive hundreds if not thousands of letters a week at their peak. Some articles generate only a letter or two, if that. Depending on the news, we generally receive 500 to 1,000 letters a day. I read letters constantly, from morning to night and on weekends, but fortunately Saturday is a relatively slow day and I get a bit of a break.

What is your selection process? How might it vary from subject to subject?

 Most letters come by email, and we use filters to tag key words (for example: Trump, Clinton, health, columnists’ surnames) and sort them into email folders. My colleagues and I then work our way through the folders, starring the best candidates. The hardest part is boiling many excellent letters down to a few – chosen because of their arguments, a balance of views, good writing, occasional wit or humor. It’s all subjective, of course, and no two editors would pick the exact same letters.

How much are writer affiliations a factor in making your decision?

If a letter writer has expertise in the subject at hand and writes a good letter about it, that certainly improves the odds. Some writers speak for a government, company, trade group or public policy organization, and all that is taken into account. Many writers with affiliations are responding to criticism in the paper, and we certainly try to give them a chance to respond. We receive many letters from writers with affiliations: academics, political and religious figures, doctors, lawyers, scientists – you name it.

When the letter appeared, I had hoped to receive a deluge of comments. But, alas, the Times rarely open letters for reader response. Staff editor Sue Mermelstein explained this judicious policy.

For letter writers, unlike Times reporters, we like to get their permission before opening up their letter to comments, because commenters can be sharp-tongued, and we don’t want to make our letter writers the target without their consent (though of course we can reject comments).

Fair enough. But what is your 15 minutes of fame without the best and the brightest sharped-tongued barbs sent your way!

Also, some tips from Tom on writing an effective letter.

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