E-mail Delivers Sources for Newspapers

By: Joe Strupp

When the Norfolk Daily News wanted to gauge reader reaction to the Nebraska state-budget shortfall several weeks ago, editors were able to contact dozens of residents almost immediately, compile their opinions quickly, and publish the results right away.

Was it quick-dialing reporters or sneaker-clad staff writers who were responsible for such rapid reporting? No, editors credit a new e-mail-based reader-connection program that the paper launched last month.

Under the program, which came about through the Associated Press Managing Editors’ (APME) National Credibility Roundtables, the Daily News — and dozens of other papers — are compiling e-mail addresses of readers and sources that can be used for any number of stories and opinion reports. So far, the 17,617-circulation Daily News has 150 names and addresses in its database from people who have agreed to respond to e-mail inquiries at a moment’s notice.

“It’s a great way to get different names and people in the paper,” said Editor Kent Warneke. His paper’s e-mail messages seeking reaction to the state-budget issue received 58 responses, several of which were included in a package of stories published Jan. 22. “It takes time away from having to call and interview that many people.”

While several papers, most notably the San Francisco Chronicle, have instituted similar database programs, the APME initiative is the first attempt to implement it in many newsrooms at once. Using portions of a Ford Foundation grant, APME also has made as much as $1,000 available to each of the 28 papers involved in the program. “We want to encourage newspapers and journalists to have communications with readers,” said Carol Nunnelley, project director of APME’s National Credibility Roundtables.

Ken Sands, managing editor for online and new media at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., has been training editors at many papers involved in the program. He instituted the idea at his paper in 1997. “We use it primarily for finding sources on a specific issue,” said Sands, whose database has more than 4,600 e-mail addresses. “You can find people who have expertise in something or live in a certain area.”

Other editors using the approach said it’s already paid dividends. Jim Lee, editor of the 23,906-daily-circulation Carroll County Times in Westminster, Md., said the Times‘ 60-person database came in handy when the paper covered a local high-school-basketball scandal, in which nine players were suspended. “We wanted to see what people thought of us naming some of the players,” he recalled.

At the Detroit Free Press, Public Editor John X. Miller found the database useful for getting reader reaction to President Bush’s State of the Union address. “We placed many of the comments on our Web site,” he said. “It helps get a broad cross-section of people into the paper.”

Right now, each newspaper involved in the APME project is compiling addresses for its own use. But Sands said APME hopes to build the effort into a national database that newspapers can share. “There could be a national story written about an issue with comments from 50 or more cities,” he predicted. “It would be kind of like AP in reverse.”

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