death of a letter writer

The Age today reports the death of Constance E Little, a name that will probably mean nothing to anyone outside Melbourne but has distinct resonances for Victorians over a certain age. She was a constant (if you pardon the pun) fixture of the Age letter pages, and her passing  provides another opportunity to reflect on how quickly the media landscape is changing.

Traditionally, letters to newspaperswere part of a very narrow public sphere available to ordinary people, and because the number of people writing in massively exceeded the space there was an elaborate screening process. It was quite an achievement to get your letter published: in various campaigns, for instance, there would be discussions as to how something might be penned as to have the best chance of appearing.

Today, it’s hard to imagine that writing to a newspaper possesses anything like the same social significance. It’s not just that any young Constance Littles out there probably have their own blogs, twitter accounts and so on; it’s also that the newspapers themselves are shifting their opinion content online, in recognition that the debate now takes place instantly in the comments.

In general, that’s a good thing. The old letters’ page was conciously exclusionary. You were far more likely to appear if you already had some kind of public profile (which, of course, meant you probably had other avenues to express yourself anyway). Little became well-known precisely because she was an anomaly: famous for not being famous and thus the exception that proved the rule. In that sense, the new media diversity represents a massive expansion of democracy: check out, for instance, the Twitter feeds coming from Iran.

Still, there’s also something that’s been lost. If there’s infinitely more spaces for debate, those spaces seem narrower than ever before. When you follow particular blogs, you get to know those who regularly comment there but their profile rarely extends to another site, let alone to the real world. The old-style media, for all its faults, reached a substantial chunk of the population, in a way that now seems increasingly rare. Today, if you move from the blogs of the Left to the blogs of the Right, you encounter not just different interpretations of the world but an entirely different set of facts. It’s entirely possible now to surf the internet all day and never read anyone other than people who think climate change is some kind of conspiracy.

Maybe that was always the case. Maybe digital media has simply manifested the previously invisible ways that news has always been interpreted, revealing divisions always present behind the apparent consensus of a one- or two-newspaper town. Cos it’s all such a work in progress, it’s difficult to know. Maybe, in a period of greater politicisation, you’d see more evidence of people changing their minds online, and get less of a sense of the net as a place in which you build whatever reality you want. Dunno. But I don’t think we’re going to see another Constance E Little anytime soon.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. The silo problem exists online as well, sure. However I think MSM did get a huge wake up call when it realised that people enjoyed reading the work of bloggers if they could talk back to them immediately – and that they enjoy the frisson of finding things out fast, and checking the story as it unfolds. New toys, new games.
    Against the problems inherent in niche media (let's face it, isn't a lit journal like that too?) one has to weigh the benefits of linking, and of giving people the chance to attempt (hem) to increase their ability to converse intelligently. So many of us were never published in letters columns, after all.

    I am still struggling with journalists' ingrained tendency to ask closed questions, which seems to have got worse on TV, etc. – it would be nice if that died a bit faster.

    You do realise we are showing our age here, Jeff, even knowing who Constance is. But I'd love to see the anthology of letters being collected for her funeral on Friday.
    Enough , I'm rrramblin'.

  2. i am only 19 and grew up with Constances letters, not only in the sun and the age but also the local paper.
    It was the one name you always looked out for on the letters page, for you knew it would be to the point but also have a sutble sense of humour to it.
    It is ironic that we are posting online about her as we all know, she dispised technology.
    the letter pages will never be the same whether in print or online

  3. Here on the Gold Coast we only have an array of Murdoch rags, so the letter page is the most interesting part of any paper you pick up. There are exceptions of course. D. J. Fraser from Mudgeeraba writes nearly every week to 'The Sun'. Doubt he's as eloquent as Constance. We celebrated a few months ago when he said he was never going to write again. But then he bobbed up a week or so after.

  4. I think Australia Post shall miss her too. Her passing raises some interesting questions about the dying craft of hand-written letters in the electronic age. I wonder how many people chronicle their emails? Letters in bygone days were such important primary sources of information about people, whereas the web has become a potent receptacle for quickly (carelessly) disseminated and erroneously replicated info. Philatelists might not be too happy either.

  5. I don't believe she's dead. For all that she protested about technology I'm sure her brain has been downloaded somewhere and she'll now shoot off emails on a regular basis.

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