Our Opinion: Times revives annual awards for letter-writers

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They weigh in on the happenings from Wilson to Washington, joust over politics, heap praise on unsung heroes and lay humble the high and mighty.

Sometimes the scribes summon the blunt force of a sledgehammer, and sometimes they wield a scalpel, making their points with exacting precision. Many missives reel in responses, starting a chain of correspondence that holds the attention of fans and critics alike.

At their best, the letter-writers of The Wilson Times shine a light on problems in our community and propose compassionate, pragmatic solutions that spur stakeholders to take action.

To recognize the contributions of those who submit letters to the editor, the Times is reviving an annual contest that highlights excellence in local commentary. Letter-writers’ work in 2018 will be eligible for the Jefferson Award and the Elizabeth Swindell Award.

Both names formerly described the same yearlong competition — the Jefferson Award for letter-writers was rechristened in honor of the Times matriarch and longtime publisher in 2008. In the contest’s new format, the Times editorial board will select the Swindell Award-winner and an online vote will determine the recipient of the Jefferson prize.

A letter of the month will be chosen for each award, and the 12 Swindell and Jefferson finalists will compete for the top honors at year’s end. Plaques will be presented to the winning letter-writers and certificates to the monthly nominees at an awards banquet, time and location to be announced.

We’re still ironing out some of the details, but we’re announcing the competition today in an effort to motivate and inspire our regular correspondents and bring as many new voices as possible out of the woodwork.

Analysis and commentary are a vital part of the Times’ role as an independent community watchdog. Judges of the North Carolina Press Association and Inland Press Association journalism contests have recognized the thoughtful tone of our editorials and the balance and local focus of our opinion pages with recent awards. But we can’t claim sole credit for sustaining the editorial page ecosystem.

Letter-writers play a pivotal role in shaping Wilson County’s forum for the free exchange of ideas. This page would not be the daily destination it is without your contributions. Some particularly persuasive offerings influence Times editorials and cartoons by Dave DiFilippo, and in turn, our cartoons and editorials inspire more letters. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

The Times accepts letters on just about any topic under the sun. We don’t publish letters that promote commercial products, form letters written by someone other than the signatory, consumer complaints or letters containing unverifiable claims of fact. Letters should be 350 words or fewer and include the writer’s name and hometown, along with a phone number for verification purposes.

Email has supplanted ink-on-paper as the predominant method of delivery, but we still receive typed and handwritten letters in the mail, and we gladly accept them for publication.

Send your submissions to letters@wilsontimes.com or The Wilson Times, P.O. Box 2447, Wilson, NC 27894.

During the 2007 Jefferson Award luncheon, former Assistant to the Publisher Dave Jones recalled a press seminar he led in Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. A participant Jones described as “a prominent member of the Georgian government” told the American presenter that he feared newspapers.

“Why? Because the free press is uncontrollable and therefore unpredictable,” Jones explained. “And because the free press might print the truth. Your letters help us do that.”

“Those of you who have written letters to the editor,” Jones said in his remarks, “have chosen to make yourselves an active and visible part of the free press.”

The First Amendment isn’t just for reporters, editors and broadcasters. It’s a framework of foundational American rights that belong to every citizen. With the Swindell and Jefferson awards, we’ll honor the exercise of those rights here in Wilson County.