Confessions of a Sound Off! editor

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COMMENTARY: Like a lot of editors before me — and probably a lot of readers — I have a love-hate relationship with Sound Off!

Las Cruces Sun-News managing editor Sylvia Ulloa

Courtesy photo

Las Cruces Sun-News managing editor Sylvia Ulloa

When I’m reading several pages of transcripts filled to the brim with negativity, bellyaching, insults and sometimes even hatred and racism, it can bring a person down.

And then a hilarious comment will make me snort-laugh. Or a veteran will thank a good Samaritan for buying his dinner. Or a stranded driver will thank others for helping her push her car to the nearest gas station.

For better and worse, Sound Off! has been giving Las Crucens a way to express their anger and frustrations since 1991, when former Managing Editor Harold Cousland introduced the column by telling readers, “It’s an answering machine on which you can vent your wrath, anonymously if you wish, about something going on in the community that you don’t like.”

There’s been plenty of wrath.

Recently, two local, and I believe well-meaning politicians, urged the Sun-News to discontinue the long-running and hugely popular column. We gave state Rep. Bill McCamley and Mayor Pro Tem Greg Smith a chance to make their case before our editorial board and also gave them a forum on these pages to make their case to readers.

We agreed with many of their arguments — yes, the negativity can be poisonous and can feed the polarizing of public debate. Yes, some of the comments are just plain dumb and sometimes just plain wrong.

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But I and the majority of the editorial board believe that what Sound Off! brings — a chance for people to air grievances, to take government to task, to opine on issues like increasing the minimum wage, the sales tax or the recall of city officials — outweighs the column’s shortcomings. And to the politicians’ point, we are working to make room on the Opinion page for Sound Off!

Lemme tell you, when I put a Sound Off! in the paper about a pothole or a street light that’s been out for months, it mysteriously gets fixed. We know city leaders read Sound Off!, and there is power in that for our readers. We’ve gotten news stories from tips called or emailed anonymously in to Sound Off! Plus, it gives us at the newspaper and in the community a sense of the public sentiment.

Different editors have had different philosophies on editing Sound Off! and I thought I’d share some of mine.

Previous editors have printed comments that were plain wrong, with the idea that it reflected the sentiment of readers. Now that I’ve been editing the column for a year, I’ve changed a few things. Mostly, I try to filter out blatantly inaccurate comments with some quick checks of snopes.com or politifact.com. I don’t catch everything, but our trusty commenters help me out there.

When someone asks a question or sends in a questionable statement, I have taken to answering it or explaining in an editor’s note. (Editor’s note: Not everyone loves that.)

I don’t try to achieve “balance” of political views. If one day’s calls are mostly liberal, then that day’s column will be mostly liberal. If the next day all the conservatives decide to chime in, the column will lean conservative. What I do try to do is provide a good mix of comments. Seven comments on President Obama’s boneheaded diplomacy or six on the outrage of the recall effort starts to get boring. I do have a little fun with back and forth commentary. (I’ve got to make it interesting for myself — and hopefully readers, too.)

For Sound Off! hopefuls, here’s a few tips on what’s almost guaranteed to get in: Compliments and kudos about people and things in our community; and complaints about the Sun-News. We make our living on freedom of speech and of the press, and we provide a forum though Sound Off! for people to take potshots at politicians and policies — so we should just take it on the chin when you rightly and wrongly call us idiots. What won’t get in: When you call others idiots.

Comments on letters generally won’t make Sound Off! because those readers signed their names to their opinions, Sound Off! callers don’t. It’s only fair. However, if you’re a columnist or a politician, you put yourself out there. You are fair game.

I’ve gotten some recent comments that the editor — me — has take over Sound Off! and changed it, taking it away from the callers and writers. The truth is, every editor changes the flavor of Sound Off! to some extent. Everyone finds different things interesting. We get about two to three times as many submissions each day than we can print.

But here’s the thing, if you don’t like it, give us a call. It’ll probably get in.

Sylvia Ulloa is the managing editor of the Las Cruces Sun-News. She may be reached at sulloa@lcsun-news.com or 575-541-5438.

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