E-mail fosters a two-way dialogue

Online newspapers are missing the most elemental ingredient of the Internet: interactivity

This column appeared in the March 1998 issue of The American Journalism Review.

Online news publications have been so swept away by the graphic grandeur of the Web that they’ve all but ignored the truly revolutionary promise of the Internet: interactivity.

Go to nearly any newspaper Web site and you’re met with an impenetrable wall of silence. Want to ask a question of a reporter whose story you’ve read? Want to send a compliment, fire off a complaint, point out an error, or offer a useful story tip to a particular writer or editor? Good luck.

The reasons vary for this Old Media mindset: newsrooms that breed aloofness and insularity; managers who turn apoplectic when employees voice their personal opinions in public; a reluctance to update antiquated computer systems; a lack of understanding about the nature of the Net.

But such thinking threatens to make papers less relevant in the digital age, especially when interactivity is a central component of Web sites that do get the Net. Newcomers such as HotWired, Women’s Wire, iVillage, Cafe Utne and others are doing a good job building relationships with readers through the use of e-mail or threaded discussions.

A few newspapers have begun to take the e-mail plunge. In November the Christian Science Monitor began including reporters’ e-mail addresses with their stories. “Initially, reporters were worried they’d be overwhelmed with e-mail, but that hasn’t happened,” says Tom Regan, online editor of the paper’s Electronic Edition. “We manage to answer every e-mail within 24 hours. The staff’s reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.”

Regan told of one columnist who wrote a story about the national dialogue on race. “He was just blown away by the 40 e-mails he received, many of them quite long and thoughtful,” he says. “It really gave a sense of how organic things are on the Web. Your column doesn’t end just because it goes up on the Web.”

In Raleigh, N.C., for the past year the News & Observer has been including reporters’ e-mail addresses and phone numbers at the bottom of all local bylined stories in both the print and online editions. And the sky has not fallen.

After a trial period, says online managing editor Norman Cloutier, “we all agreed that the input from readers was often useful and did not dramatically increase the amount of time they spent on the phone or reading e-mail. I think one of the best things about the policy is what it does for the paper’s credibility. Simply seeing a name and phone number or e-mail at the end of every story makes the newspaper seem much more accountable. Even if you never call or write, I think it has an impact.”

An added bonus of the N&O’s new policy: Plugged-in users have provided staffers with valuable tips and story ideas, including inside information that led to the paper breaking two prison scandals.

At USA Today Online, sports editor Steve Klein reports that e-mail feedback has helped build better relations with readers: “The phone doesn’t ring like it does at a small-circulation newspaper, but the e-mail is a constant flow. If someone offers constructive criticism, I write back and ask them to become watchdogs in their area of interest. By nurturing a relationship with these users, they’ll often write back to alert us of upcoming events, broken links, or stories in their community that we would never have known about.”

THE KNOCK AGAINST printing e-mail addresses? Time is one concern. But in truth, only the rarest stories generate more than a handful of messages, and shortcuts — like using the “cc” function to reply to readers en masse, or having a standard response at the ready — can save considerable time. Flaming, too, is a concern. Yes, reporters will be subjected to a certain amount of e-mail that’s angry, abusive or off-the-wall. That’s what the delete button is for. Spam — unwanted advertising pitches and PR press releases — is also an irritant, but it comes with the territory, and software that filters out unwanted junk mail is getting better.

Such quibbles are a small price to pay for connecting directly with the public. If newsroom staffers and editors just open up to the possibilities of a responsive, two-way conversation, they’ll find a dialogue with their readers to be terrifically rewarding rather than a threat or distraction.

Regan himself engaged in an e-mail discussion with a young man who disagreed with a poll the paper conducted on gay rights. “At the end of the exchange, the guy wrote, ‘I feel like I’ve been heard.’ And that’s the difference. That’s why papers are in trouble. People feel like they are not being heard.”

To my mind, this is the single most important step newspapers can take to regain the trust of their readers.

JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT