User-generated content can take many forms. In fact, since we’re all users, we’re kinda creating it all the time.

We thought it would be fun to look at user-generated content in a different way. To talk to people who deal with ‘users’, and the content they create, in their day jobs. First up, someone who’s probably seen it all: a former newspaper letters editor. 

These are their stories. 

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Confessions of a newspaper letters editor

All human life passes across the Letters desk of a daily paper. I had regular light relief from a guy who faxed saucy one-liners, sometimes alluding to his wife, which he seemed to have run up on an old-fashioned typewriter and photocopied – and stamped with a picture of a frog next to a childish, looping signature. “Ribbit, ribbit!” he’d sometimes add.

There were the racist rants, the religious nuts, the regular who scribbled out geekily well-informed views on aspects of politics and local administration so obscure and historic that they were unusable, and the enigmatic person who sent diagrams of components with Masonic-sounding slogans.

“Mad mail”, my colleagues called it when they picked it up from my pigeonhole. But the quirks of more demonstrably sane correspondents, who prefer email to green ink could be no less infuriating. My heart sank when I came across the name of a familiar pedant, grouch or twisted nihilist. The cycling/immigration/Israel single-issue brigade and those fixated on a particular idea or writer they didn’t like were bugbears themselves.

Finally there were the unforeseen contributors, as newspapers rely on Letters pages for functions such as making corrections or to include comment that can’t fit elsewhere. I found myself strongly protesting to the editor about a letter giving a false impression of the paper’s reporting from a journalist-turned-PR who was about to go to prison.

Equally, to my shame, I screamed at press officers for sticking by what their bosses wanted to argue. An early line manager said he wanted letters about Sienna Miller – cue me chasing around for someone interested in writing about her and some nifty ventriloquism when I couldn’t find enough takers. Rob Johnson and Tina Akawari were two favourite pen-names: I had strong ideas of what their characters were.

This is not to detract from the dozens of genuine, stalwart correspondents who week after week kept the paper supplied with letters tackling current issues, making observations and hotly contesting arguments with other writers. Many of these were deadly serious; funny letters were welcome, like a spring in the desert. To give some pithy examples –

My six-year-old granddaughter was watching Wimbledon and trying to fathom the rules of tennis. “So,” she said. “every time you get a point, you win a towel?”

– Tony Abrahams

Of course proportionately more is spent on transport in London than in the regions. No doubt proportionately less is spent on agriculture.

– Tom

Industrial action on BA, railways and the Tube – watch out Brown, I make that three strikes and you’re out.

– Ronnie

I want to see perky, attractive, young presenters on the BBC. If I want a tired and clapped-out face I’ll look in the mirror, thank you.

– Jane

The Isle of Wight is very diverse; it even has a mosque. Didn’t Emma Thompson mean to slag off the Isle of Man?

– Sue

“Giant blue cockerel approved” – but Spurs are only in fifth place…

– @Scottrose79

The new Victoria’s Secret bra shop will surely be a haven for London’s teenage “sorority” rather than its “fraternity” – unless that is you’re expecting some kind of Father Ted-style invasion.

– Diane Ridley

Some letters were fun flights of fancy, such as a Valerie Weber musing whether terminally late-arriving buses are being sucked into black holes or beamed up by spacecraft:

“The bus that eventually arrived came in a pair: obviously the drivers were worried they might suffer the same fate and stuck close for safety”.

Edwina Currie offered young women working in politics a forthright list of tips to avoid unwanted male attention. - Highlight to share -

One reader gave a heroic, eye-watering account of how much he drank working as a hod-carrier in the 80s. Another had composed a paean to Gareth Bale, finding a dozen passable-to-ludicrous rhymes for his name. Edwina Currie offered young women working in politics a forthright list of tips to avoid unwanted male attention. Tracey Crouch, subsequently a Tory MP, provoked joshing in the England cricket team dressing room with a 2005 letter asking how a male writer had dwelt on the attractions of Freddy Flintoff but not “other rather yummy players”, including “thinking woman’s crumpet Ashley Giles and the cute but needing-defending-from-media-criticism Geraint Jones”.

Through rapid technological change, newspapers have stuck with Letters pages as a key part of their offerings, and they generally are still called “Letters” even though the vast majority of contributions now come in by email, and some by SMS and social media. It’s a way for them to show they are in touch with readers and a cheap way to fill pages. There’s evidence to show Letters pages are well read (one US study found 50% of readers turning to them) and a strong sense that they are more trusted than professional opinion writers, for example. The headline of a compilation of letters to the Telegraph over 150 years gives a sense of the value associated with them – “Readers’ first draft of history”.

UGC has a fine heritage in a forum where it has attracted great respect, which is carefully mediated but also genuinely open to all. - Highlight to share -

So could a marketer learn ANYTHING from Edwina, Diane or Scott?

There seem to me two lessons in this for the worlds of media and marketing. One is that UGC has a fine heritage in a forum where it has attracted great respect, which is carefully mediated but also genuinely open to all. The other is the potential for UGC to achieve almost limitless levels of penetration, quality and detail.

Contributions to letters pages help inform content of the rest of the newspaper, and provide expert commentary and feedback. If material is solicited, in an appropriate way, as well as coming in spontaneously, great reserves of expertise and enthusiasm can be tapped, and the channels for the exchange of comment are multiplying and deepening.

The proliferation of below-the-line and social media comment is often seen as overwhelming and dumbing down debate. Letters pages show it doesn’t need to be like that.

In a rapidly changing media landscape, letters are still a way to hear the authentic voice of a consumer. Somehow they can seem more trustworthy than a columnist with an axe to grind. Letters may now get sent by email, or by text or by social media but they’re still a way for people power to make an impact on tomorrow’s fish ‘n’ chip paper.

Confessions of a newspaper letters editor