I'm a letters junky. When I pick up a magazine, the first thing I look at is the op-ed pages. A letters section can tell you a lot about a publication and its readers. With that in mind, I offer the readers of Modern Healthcare my guide to magazines' letters sections:
1. Does the magazine have a letters section? If it doesn't, the magazine may be telling you that it doesn't care what its readers think, or that it doesn't elicit enough reader feedback to run a regular letters section.
2. If the magazine does have a letters section, how many letters appear in print? A page or two of letters vs. one or two letters is another clue as to how well the publication connects with its readership and how compelling the stories are.
3. When are the letters written? Are readers commenting on articles that ran in the previous one or two issues or are they waxing on about a story that ran months or even years ago? If the letters are stale, it shows that readers aren't picking up their issues right away. And if they are snatching them from the mailbox, the magazine's content isn't prompting them to write in. It's a sign of desperation if a publication is willing to run an ancient letter to show it's being read.
4. Who writes the letters? Are the bulk of them written by well-known figures in that particular field? Are they from individuals who were profiled in the publication, thanking the magazine for a "well-done piece?" Are they from consultants looking for a little free publicity? If the majority of the letters fall into the last two categories, it may mean that leaders in the industry are not picking up the publication and, if they are, they may be falling asleep.
5. What are the letters about? Are they criticizing the publication for its coverage? Or are they limited to letters commenting on hot topics in an industry? The willingness to run letters critical of the publication's coverage shows that the magazine is a true believer in freedom of speech and giving readers their due in print.
6. Does the letters section run letters about other letters? If so, it shows that readers are so passionate about a publication that not only do they read the letters section, they are willing to risk the ire of other readers by criticizing them in print for all the world to see.
7. And my favorite: editor's notes. Many publications will run a short note from the editor below a letter, commenting on that letter. Does the editor's note simply provide information, such as how to find a report that the letter writer is looking for? Or does the editor's note rebut the position of the letter writer in a condescending tone? Responding with a nasty note is a display of arrogance on the publication's part and may discourage future letter writers from expressing their views.
When we redesigned Modern Healthcare some 30 months ago, we carved out the middle of the magazine to build an expanded opinions/editorials section, and we created the position of assistant managing editor/op-ed, ably manned by Todd Sloane, to show we were serious about it. The central feature of the op-ed section was an expanded "Letters to the Editor" section. It was a gamble. If the new Modern Healthcare didn't connect with readers, the expanded section would be a bare patch of earth. But it has bloomed beyond our greatest expectations. Through the first six months of this year, we've printed 141 letters from readers compared with 100, 82, 48 and just 30 in the same period in 2003, 2002, 2001 and 2000, respectively. This week's two-page letters section starts on p. 42.
The Modern Healthcare letters section has turned into a true marketplace of ideas where people all across the healthcare industry-including consumers-share their thoughts about the delivery of healthcare services in this country and about how we cover it. Keep writing. It is your magazine. And we are proud to bring it to you each week.
What do you think? Write us with your comments. Via e-mail, it's [email protected]; by fax, dial 312-280-3183.