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The E-mail Paradox: Bane and Boon for Journalists' Productivity


Reporters get swamped with e-mails from readers and PR people -- along with spam and viruses. But they also depend on e-mail more than ever for news tips and reaching more sources. A deeper look at the love-hate relationship with our in boxes.

Close your eyes and imagine a world without e-mail. No more SoBig viruses, no more spam, no more forwarded jokes. Gosh, what would you do with all that free time? Maybe you'd be more productive. That's the thinking behind the internal office e-mail ban at British mobile phone company, Phones4u.

That's all well and good, but for journalists, an e-mail ban is like going back to the Stone Age. Media folks depend on e-mail for news tips, feedback from readers and discussion lists. Journalists are the power users of e-mail and the Web, so that leaves them with a paradox: The constant barrage of e-mail does as much harm as good.

Ros Taylor, editor of The Wrap for the Guardian Web site, sums up the situation for journalists. "[E-mail is] fantastic for making and developing contacts," she told me via e-mail, "a mortifying, exhilarating, terrifying channel for both praise and blame from your readers; utterly, lethally distracting; and an excellent way of complimenting fellow journalists."

Research bears out many of the positive and negative aspects of e-mail in the workplace for journalists. The Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management released a survey last year called "The Virtual Trail: Political Journalism on the Internet." Though it was based on interviews with 271 political journalists, the results can likely be extrapolated beyond politics.

Forty-five percent of respondents said they use the phone less now. E-mail usage was heavy, with half of the respondents sending and receiving more than 30 e-mails per day, 25 percent handling 50 or more and 5 percent with more than 150. While one political reporter hailed e-mail as the biggest positive change for productivity, others were burdened under the weight of it.

Chuck Raasch, a reporter for Gannett News Service, told researchers that he deletes a third of his e-mail unopened and only reads a third of what he actually opens. "I've told sources a number of times that if they really want to get my attention, send me a fax," he said. "We don't get many faxes."

A study by Pew Internet last year found that U.S. workers overall had a "moderate" e-mail experience, with the majority handling only 10 e-mails per day and getting very little unsolicited spam. Those findings rubbed some journalists the wrong way, according to Pew Internet director Lee Rainie, a former managing editor at U.S. News & World Report.

"One of the more interesting things when we issued that report was that a couple places refused to cover it because reporters said, 'This is not my experience,' " Rainie told me. "Our basic finding was that most people think that e-mail in the workplace helps in a variety of ways, and they don't get a lot of spam. But journalists are a very special subclass of workers. They love the supply side of e-mail, and they hate the demand side. They're also much more intense e-mail users than 99 percent of the population. And they're much more likely to be spammed because almost all of them have their e-mail address available in a public place."

Pros and cons of e-mail, IM interviews

Beyond the simple time-consuming nature of e-mail overload, there's the growing trend of e-mail interviews, which some experts decry as shallow. Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said technology tends to pin journalists to their computers, desks and offices, where they spend time synthesizing material instead of doing original reporting.

"This is part of the new pack journalism, not a conscious pack mentality but one driven by journalists keeping up with each other, or synthesizing the same mass e-mails," he told me via e-mail. "Generally speaking, but not absolutely in all cases, the more journalists can get out of the office, into the scene they are reporting, and meeting their source face to face, the closer they can bring readers to those events. The more virtual one's reporting, the more virtual what the public learns."

Mike Barton, a technology writer for the Sydney (Australia)  Morning Herald, ticks off his own preferences for doing interviews: "Face to face first, phone second, and e-mail last -- in terms of quality. When I get e-mail responses, they sound so much more canned." Ironically, I corresponded with Barton via e-mail.

But Pete Clifton, editor of BBC News Interactive, told me that two-way discussions often result in more informative exchanges than e-mailed ones. He also touted the usefulness of face-to-face interviews. "It can give journalists a chance to try out their shorthand (remember that?) and you can also record conversations for use on the site, and take some pictures if you are meeting face to face," Clifton said via e-mail.

Clifton said he expects journalists at BBC to do more than send out multiple e-mails to prospective sources. "One of the (many) things that will send me crimson is a journalist saying they tried for a response from the company but didn't receive one -- when it turns out their attempt to get a response was, in fact, sending an e-mail," he said. "No good, unacceptable. E-mail clearly has a role for everyone in a busy newsroom. Keeping a number of colleagues up to date on a story, sending attachments, organizing meetings. The list is endless, but journalists should be talking to people." 

But some reporters find advantages to doing e-mail interviews beyond the quick and cheap aspects of the format. The Guardian's Taylor told me a recent face-to-face interview with a company CEO didn't turn up much. "If the interviewee is determined to put across their points in the way they choose, they will do it offline as well as online," she said. "Sometimes e-mail gives the interviewer and the interviewee the chance to really think about their questions. You don't always want to put people on the spot, particularly if you're not accusing them of anything."

Still, Taylor said she has mixed feelings about the e-mail format, and suspects that some execs have their PR people write answers to e-mailed questions. "When I suspect they've done that, I just don't quote them," she said. "Contrary to what many of them suppose, it's not my job to do their PR."

Instant messaging has been a good informal medium for making contact with sources. But Taylor said she doesn't use it at work because it would break her concentration, though she thinks IM would have value if it were more confidential than e-mail.

Like all other tools, e-mail is a means to an end. "It enhances the tendencies of everybody," says Rainie at Pew. "The lazy become lazier and the more aggressive and engaged become more aggressive and engaged."

Related Links
Australian IT: Life at work without email?
Guardian's The Wrap
IPDI's The Virtual Trail report [PDF file]
Pew Internet: Email at work