The letter I have before me was clearly intended to go right to the top. No messing around. Action was what the writer wanted, not bureaucratic delays and waffling. Consider, if you will, how it was addressed:
United States of America
When you want something, go for it. Right?
Well, after being passed from hand to hand, after lying in this basket and that and then teetering on the edge of a trash can, it has ended up on my desk. I can't tell you how. Certainly, it's not because I'm The Editor of The USA. While I am a The Editor, it's of The Virginia Weekly, and that's clearly quite a few notches below who the writer hoped would end up trying to solve his problem.
Mind you, it's not a big problem, at least not by most people's standards. It's just a letter from a 12-year-old boy in the African nation of Ghana who wants some American newspaper to print his name and address so he can find a pen pal.
Now, it may not pose a problem to you. But it does to me and other The Editors who have to decide what should go into the paper and what should not. See, even though there's no justification for my printing it, how can I -- or for that matter, anyone -- refuse any youngster audacious enough to mail a letter that's addressed only to The Editor of The United States of America?
Unfortunately, there is a well-founded body of sound reasoning that editors turn to in situations like this. And it generally bodes ill for youngsters like that Ghanaian.
For instance, there's a matter of sheer practicality and fairness. There are probably thousands of other youngsters around the world who want American pen pals. If word got out that The Post printed the addresses of anyone looking for a pen pal, I might get buried in a landslide of similar requests. (Don't laugh. Things as crazy as that have happened to newspapers.) There's no way we could print them all, so (the reasoning goes) it would be unfair to make an exception.
And then there's the question of allocation of news space. Take the last issue of The Weekly. I had to hold out six or seven stories because we just flat ran out of room. Stories like the one in this issue about the teen-ager who had a perfect score in the college boards. Could I have justified holding that story another week because I was going to run something about a boy from Ghana wanting a pen pal?
I think not.
Is it even news and therefore worthy of consideration at all? Surely, he's not the first -- or last -- Ghanaian boy to want an American pen pal. If he were, that might be news. Or, if we just knew something more about him, perhaps there would be something that would justify a feature story. Like maybe he's an orphan with dreams of coming to Northern Virginia because he's a fan of Fairfax County's Jack Herrity.
Now that would be a news story.
That raises the issue of whether I should assign a reporter to look into such a possibility. Were my staff of unlimited size and expense no object, I might peer out from under my green eyeshade and yell, "Give the kid a call. Find out everything about him."
But my staff has all it can handle right now covering local news.
Then, sometimes articles are published only because they provide a valuable service to a particular, albeit small, community of readers. Maybe, for instance, Northern Virginia has a sizeable Ghanaian community.
But even if it did, I doubt they'd be interested: the boy wants an American pen pal, not a Ghanaian one living in America.
And so on.
Well, I turned it over and over in my mind and finally decided that there was only one possible justification for printing the boy's name and address. That was if I could use his letter to point out how editors deal with problems of news judgment, thereby justifying a column that would help readers understand the news business a bit more.
You see, I'm afraid I just couldn't stand the thought of that boy waiting in vain for a pen pal's letter because The Editor of The United States of America didn't have enough imagination to get his name in the paper.
So, Northern Virginians, flood the mails with letters to Francis Azumah, State Fishing Corp., P.O. Box 464, Sakondi, Ghana, West Africa.
And tell him The Editor said hello.