At the Toronto Star, the drab-brown hermetically-sealed high-rise by the lake, sits a pile of paper. It lies on a desk, a dozen snaking turns down the early-seventies hallways, stuccoed and beige, among the editorial offices.
“Dear editor,” each page begins.
They go on to document, argue, insist, clarify or plead. But first, they have to get out of the pile on the desk. Welcome to the office of The Star’s letters editor.
The letters page has been around as long as there have been newspapers to contain it. It is something of a relic that way, an old-fashioned forum for public debate. Before there were blogs and message boards and chat shows, there was a letters page.
And before there is a letters page, there is the pile.
The pile is about four inches tall. It comprises, on any given day, about 150 letters, about the same as a similar – though electronic – pile at the Globe. At The Star, the pile is always paper, even the 70 per cent that come in by email are printed and stacked, sorted by hand. The other 30 per cent are faxed sheets or real letters, written out and mailed to The Star.
The letters editor pares down the pile to the 13 or so letters that will appear in the paper the following day.
It is Gabe Gonda’s last week at the job, his last week in this small, windowless room. Next week, he moves to the city desk in the open concept, possibly more socially stimulating newsroom.
Maybe it’s this move that has made Gonda, like a good letter, reflective about his subject. At 27, he has been letters editor at The Star for three years. Stylish, witty and articulate, he can discern the types of letter writers and the qualities of great and important letters.
There are distinct types of letter, Gonda explains in a deep voice, and dozens of regular writers. There are those who write four times a week, possessed by a single subject, a single viewpoint. These are the anti-Chretiens, the anti-Bushes, the anti-Israels, the pro-Israels.
There are other regulars, skilled, eloquent, thoughtful. “It’s almost like it’s a professional class,” he says. “It’s rare to get a good letter to the editor from someone you haven’t heard from before.”
“Some of the most thoughtful letters come by snail-mail,” Gonda says. “People who have learned to write in elegant longhand, express themselves in complete sentences, before email and the Internet destroyed people’s ability to write anything other than fragmented thoughts.”
Unfortunately, says David Watson, Gonda’s Globe counterpart, very few paper letters get used, because their subject has, like their form, become obsolete.
The Globe has a few dozen regulars, who write about once a week. One, a local high school history teacher, was subsequently hired to write a few Comment pieces.
The level of skill in writing and argument is sophisticated at the Globe, Watson says, adding he looks for wit and wisdom in equal measure.
To get out of The Star’s pile, letters should be “short, pithy, funny,” Gonda says without hesitation. “It’s nice to get letters that put a human face on a policy debate. Someone who can take a sort of bare bones news story and put flesh and blood on it,” he says.
“People who can play against type. Westerners who are pro-Toronto. Arabs who are pro-Israel. Israelis who are pro-Arab. Torontonians who are pro-suburbs. It’s nice to confound people’s expectations on the page. It’s nice to be contrarian.”
All of these contradictions behind the news and the newsroom, they are all in the pile. Whether or not you read the letters page, there is something about the idea of it – something direct, honest, real.
In most papers, letters usually run with the editorials in a half-page of popular opinion. The Star, on the other hand, runs letters across from the editorials, gives it a whole page – space, Gonda notes, usually reserved for op-eds and opinion pieces.
Sifting through the competing opinions, Gonda describes the job as equal parts referee and traffic-cop. “You’re in the crossfire internally, because you are criticizing your colleagues or refereeing criticism of their work. You’re also in the crossfire as a representative of the paper, because people have complaints about your coverage.”
But by day’s end, the pile whittled down, readers-turned writers-prepare to be printed, read, ripped apart and rebuked. And by morning, there will be a fresh pile on the desk.