Reprinted from Bellingham Herald, March 23 2002.
Letter writers help shape debate

Many scholars of journalism argue that the letters to the editor in a newspaper will tell you more about the community than anything else.  If you think about it, it makes sense.  Few people write letters to the editor that offer "on one hand, on the other hand" perspectives.  Mostly, people who feel the most passionately about either side of an issue are the ones who have something to say. 

Letter writers help shape the debates that are essential to making our community (local, national and global) the place we want it to be.  The letters give us insight into what people are talking about over kitchen tables and cubicle walls.

In 2001, The Bellingham Herald editorial page featured 2,142 letters or nearly six per day. 

What was on people's minds?  The letters give us a snapshot into news stories that irked or impassioned readers the most.

Not surprisingly, the most letters to the editor on any one subject were about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.  They dominated the list of topics in September, October and November when we printed 214 letters to the editor about the acts and their consequences. 

When the year began, readers were most interested in the proposed Sumas Energy II power plant, which dominated the letters column in January with 18 letters on that topic. 

In February and March, thoughts turned to the Georgia-Pacific West Inc. mill as the debate raged over the use of diesel generators to power the plant during the energy crisis.  In those two months, we printed 61 letters on G-P issues. 

April brought the first hints of the proposed shuttering of the Alcoa Intalco smelter at Cherry Point and 25 letters on that controversy.  The plant was idled in May. 

In May, the crowning of lesbian Prom King Krystal Bennett, which made national news, generated more than 20 letters, making it the hottest topic that month. 

The Pit protest dominated letters in June, with 17 people writing to comment on the May 19 takeover of the downtown hole in the ground where the Mason building stood before burning down. 

Further into the summer, there were no particular standout issues for July and August, but the euthanizing of the Sudden Valley golf course geese yielded nine letters in July and in August, seven people wrote about global warming. 

As the initial shock of the terrorist attacks wore off, people turned their attention to more local issues.  The Lake Whatcom subdivision moratorium dominated letters in December with 21 submissions. 

Unlike many newspapers that are quite selective about which letters they print, The Herald seeks to print most letters it receives- provided they follow our guidelines.  We edit them only for grammar and try to let readers' voices ring through.  We limit writers to one per month in order to give everyone a chance to be heard. 

Several writers submitted letters most months in 2001.  Our most prolific contributors last year were: 

Sheila Richardson, 10 letters printed. 
Robert Ashworth, eight. 
John Ruth, seven. 
J.M. Stephenson, seven. 
Tom Clark, seven. 
Dick Smith, seven. 

We value our letter writers and the time they take to share their thoughts.  We encourage new voices to speak out and contribute to our community dialogue.

Profiles of top two in 2001

Letter writer Robert Ashworth

Name:  Robert Ashworth. 

Age:  47. 

How long have you lived in Whatcom County?  29 years. 

Occupation:  Janitor/custodian with some Web design work on the side. 

Place of residence:  Bellingham. 

Favorite book:  (Not a book on paper) The World Wide Web. 

Hobbies and affiliations: Bicycle touring.  Has cycled across the country twice and maintains a Web site of his trips:  Bike to Work Day, Mt. Baker Bicycle Club, gay and lesbian community interests. 

Most irksome local issue:  "So many local people are critical of mainstream corporate consumer society.  They complain a lot, but don't do enough to actually live in a different way.  People seem to want to 'have their cake and eat it too.'  They complain about pollution, pavement and sprawl, but still depend on cars.  They could do more to bike, walk and use public transit.  Too many people seem to want things like higher public school teacher salaries and lower taxes at the same time.  People need to be part of the solution rather than just say, "they should" all the time.  This is a national problem, but especially acute locally as so many folks move here with a vision for a better quality of life, but don't do as much as they could, individually, to actually live it. 

Reason you write letters to the editor?  To be part of the tapestry of public thought. 

Letter writer Sheila Richardson

Name:  Sheila Richardson. 

Age:  56. 

How long have you lived in Whatcom County?   42 years. 

Occupation:  Retired Georgia-Pacific West Inc. painter who has completed paralegal training at Whatcom Community College and will study psychology at Western Washington University. 

Place of residence:  Bellingham. 

Favorite book:  The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. 
Hobbies and affiliations: Horseback riding, sky diving, Whatcom County Republican Party, Vietnam veteran with Marine Corps. 

Most irksome local issue:  Energy issues, G-P shutdown. 

Reason you write letters to the editor?  "A lot of my letters are not one side or the other, I usually try to reflect both sides ... Sometimes I write in appreciation, like for the three sergeants killed in Afghanistan."

Sheila puts her letters on her web site also.  Exit to her site. 

To Robert's
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