Many journalists know the feeling. They write something groundbreaking, provocative or controversial, and the next morning they come to work and find their e-mail inbox overflowing with feedback from readers -- not all of it printable in family publications. What should they do? Respond to every single e-mail? Delete the obscene ones? Foist the work onto an assistant?
E-mail is especially well-suited as a communications medium, allowing almost instant response and queries. But it has bred untold trillions of spam messages and flame e-mails that would never have been said face-to-face. As more newspapers and their Web sites publish the reporter's e-mail address, journalists are finding themselves caught in an avalanche of their own creation.
The practice varies widely from newspaper to newspaper, and from news site to news site. In the wake of the Jayson Blair fiasco, The New York Times prints a special box with e-mail addresses for corrections and feedback, but NYTimes.com has no uniform policy on including e-mail addresses of reporters on stories or columns. The Washington Post gives reporters a choice whether or not to run e-mail addresses.
The Wall Street Journal runs some columnists' e-mails in print, but nearly every online story has an e-mail address with it. The San Francisco Chronicle runs an e-mail address in print or online with every staff-written story.
CBSNews.com includes e-mail addresses for some columnists, but more general mailboxes for particular CBS News shows. MSNBC.com also runs some e-mail addresses with in-house stories, though rarely from NBC News personnel. Finding specific e-mail addresses on CNN.com is like finding a needle in a haystack.
The issue of running e-mail addresses with stories (or not) erupted on Romenesko's boards recently after Don Wycliff, public editor of the Chicago Tribune, noted that readers were complaining that they couldn't find reporters' e-mail addresses on the paper's Web site. It seems that the "E-mail the Staff" link was taken off the home page in favor of a convoluted route to the page through "Customer Service."
But Stephanie Strom of The New York Times questioned why readers would have an automatic right to reporters' e-mail addresses. "Will Mr. Wycliff soon be arguing that readers have a right to our mobile phone numbers and home telephone numbers and addresses?... Every morning I waste time deliberating over whether to open anywhere from 25 to 75 e-mails from unknown correspondents, most of whom are spammers."
Strom was then chastised by various reporters and editors who believe that journalists should be available for readers' responses, no matter how ugly they get. But the issue remains a more nuanced one, especially for reporters covering politics or other highly charged issues -- and especially at large metro newspapers or big broadcast sites.
Len Apcar, editor of NYTimes.com, told me the situation was complicated at the Times and would involve a lot of meetings to iron out issues -- if they wanted to come up with a policy. "While some reporters say, 'Hey, what's the big deal? I'm ready to do it' -- others are not," he said. "If people want to get ahold of our reporters, we give them many staff e-mails [online], bulk e-mailboxes, we list them in the paper. Judging by the volume of e-mails that we get, we don't think there's any mystery in the minds of the readers as to how to get ahold of the reporter or their boss."
Tangled rivals in Chi-town
The Wycliff column and Romenesko diatribes highlight an interesting case study of sorts unfolding in Chicago. While the Tribune online has done a good job of hiding its staff e-mail list, the rival Chicago Sun-Times hyperlinks nearly every byline online to a reporter's email address (which pops up a blank e-mail message to send them).
In print, the Tribune does a much better job of providing e-mail addresses, at least for columnists and general sections. A recent tally of a weekday Tribune found about eight e-mail addresses in the paper for feedback, including letters and the public editor. The Sun-Times, however, ran only four e-mail addresses, including letters.
In a redesign a couple years ago, the Tribune's column width was narrowed, making space an issue; plus the Tribune leaves the issue of including e-mail addresses up to columnists. So rather than run some e-mail addresses for reporters who wanted them in the paper, the Trib decided to run general e-mailboxes for each section, according to Stacy Sweat, associate managing editor for design and graphics.
Moreover, in the Romenesko boards, Tribune travel writer Alan Solomon sung the praises of e-mailing readers, while Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg was called out for sending derisive form e-mails to readers who sent foul or racist comments to him. So which paper really wants to hear from readers, and which one is in avoidance mode?
Wycliff's complaints -- and those of readers -- brought a planned change to the Tribune Web site, with a new left rail line on the home page , "Contact us," coming next week, according to Tribune communications manager Patty Wetli. It's not clear how easy it will be to get to e-mail addresses from that link, but it's a step in the right direction.
Solomon told me he loved having his e-mail address attached to his travel stories, and he has a fervent belief that replying to e-mails is part of the job description of a journalist -- no matter the beat.
"[Reader e-mail] lets me fill in the gaps -- information my story should have explained and didn't," Solomon said via e-mail. "I can be the reason the O'Briens, who were hesitant, got to see the Parthenon. That's chilling. It can tell me when I've screwed up -- and that gives us a chance to make that correction both in the paper and, at least as important, in our archives. ... I simply don't understand the logic in not communicating with the people we're actually working for. The readers are why we do what we do. Without them, we're nothing, zero, bupkiss."
Annoying the boss, entertaining friends
A couple blocks away at the Sun-Times, Steinberg takes a more jaundiced view of some of the e-mails he has received. He has gotten into personal spates with readers, where he responded to hate mail by blasting back with invective, leading to a vicious cycle that upset his editors. In fact, Steinberg even included a conversation he had with his editor on the subject of hate e-mail in a recent column item. The editor told him to just delete the e-mails or send one of his form letters.
Steinberg told me that he didn't have his e-mail address in the newspaper for a long time, but in a redesign they began publishing his e-mail address along with many other columnists. "I'm a writer, not a social service," he said via e-mail. "And I don't like to spend my day holding hands with anonymous correspondents. But I haven't asked to yank [the address in the paper] yet either -- I'm still working my way toward a balance."
One of those ways is sending humorous form letters to people who go over the line. Here is a slightly condensed version of a recent form letter of Steinberg's:
Thank you for your kind letter. Unfortunately, due to the volume of mail from fans such as yourself, it isn't possible for me to answer each letter individually. But rest assured that I did read -- or will read eventually -- your comments, and deeply appreciate your taking the time to share them. Since many reader inquiries fall into three general categories, let me answer these quickly, in case this satisfies a question you may have.
1. Yes, I do speaking appearances, host dinners and such.
2. No, there are no more spaces left on Neil's Fun Cruise this February.
3. Signed copies of The Cream of Steinberg II and More Cream are on sale at the Sun-Times store.
Anyway, I hope that this answers your question. Or if you were just writing to pass along your good wishes, thanks, and toodleloo!
The Tribune's Solomon is circumspect when sending e-mails to ranting readers, telling me he assumes that the response will be read by one of his bosses -- "That keeps me from telling them to shove something, animate or inanimate, into sensitive orifices."
Steinberg's boss, Sun-Times Editor-in-Chief Michael Cooke, didn't seem to mind when I forwarded Steinberg's form letter to him. "This is Steinberg being Steinberg," he told me via e-mail. "He's a treasure ... and remember (and this is important) he only sends this reply to e-mails that are foul and/or racist."
When I asked Cooke about the disparity in running so many e-mail addresses online but very few in print, he bluntly told me it wasn't about space or reporters' time, but was something they just hadn't done yet. "There's no reason we don't include e-mail addresses at the end of reporters' stories," Cooke said. "We ought to do it, but we haven't got round to it."
Getting readers involved
Some online news sites have gone beyond simply running an e-mail address and have regular online-only columns that offer the best of reader e-mails. The Wall Street Journal Online, for example, runs various "Exchange" or "Mailbox" columns such as Capital Exchange with David Wessel, columnist and deputy bureau chief in Washington. For financial or business journalists, running an e-mail address with a story can mean a treasure trove of new sources or tips.
Dick Meyer, longtime CBS TV producer and current editorial director of CBSNews.com, said he enjoys the feedback he gets for his online political column, which dwarfs the feedback he used to get doing TV. He told me he averages 100 to 200 e-mails per week, but controversial subjects might push that up to 1,000 e-mails. Meyer tries to answer every one of them, though it might sometimes include some cutting and pasting.
Meyer said he doesn't believe that every journalist is in a position to answer a lot of e-mail. And he thinks an e-mail address should only be listed if the reporter can respond. "I don't think it makes sense to do it unless you can give a meaningful response to people who are writing in," he said. "I think if you can't give a meaningful response, then what you're engaging in is a marketing gimmick, which cheapens both your organization and the process of interactivity."
Meyer also believes that reader feedback can counter the elitism that sometimes creeps into an editor's thinking. "It's very interesting to realize how intelligent our readers are," he said. "Not all of them, but it's a real check. I see an unbelievable diversity of political opinion."
In theory, a lot of reporters and editors find it useful to include reporters' e-mail addresses with stories. Richard Hendrickson, assistant professor of communications at John Carroll University, is conducting a survey of journalists on that very subject. In preliminary results, he found that 90 out of 100 reporters said e-mail addresses on stories were extremely, quite or somewhat useful, while 30 of 32 editors felt the same (of course they don't have to answer that e-mail).
Plus, nearly 70 percent of reporters thought providing e-mail addresses would help improve the credibility of newspapers, while 75 percent of editors agreed. You can check out the full survey or participate by visiting Hendrickson's site.
The e-mail avalanche will continue to cause headaches for overworked journalists. But as e-mail becomes an indispensable tool, it will likely become more ingrained in a reporter's day-to-day life. Whether news organizations decide to include all e-mail addresses or some of them, the result will mean more tips and feedback for reporters, and a better understanding of the newsroom process for readers.
-- Additional Chicago research provided by Craig Neuman