How a Columnist Deals With the Digital Hordes

By: Steve Outing

Newspaper columnists are on the front lines when it comes to interacting with a growing Internet-using public that is increasingly comfortable with using e-mail to talk back to the news media. Columnists typically get more public contact than anyone else in the newsroom — which has its good and its bad points.

Technology columnist Dan Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury News gets his share of attention from his readers, with the majority of public contact coming via e-mail. Gillmor’s 3-times-a-week column runs in the print and Web editions of the Mercury News, and is picked up by numerous newspapers around the U.S. His e-mail address, phone and fax numbers accompany the columns, to facilitate public contact.

What Gillmor faces today is what more and more highly visible news writers will face in the future as e-mail usage grows. He says he loves the wider contact with readers that e-mail affords, but at the same time the amount of contact is threatening to be more than he can handle alone — and still perform his job.

Managing the flow

On average, Gillmor says he gets between 15 and 20 e-mail messages from readers per day — offering praise, criticism, tips, and the occasional weird letter or even threat. Like any good columnist, some of his columns are controversial, and any one of those can generate hundreds of e-mail responses. On the “good days,” a column may generate no responses.

Gillmor tries to answer all his e-mail, even if that means in some cases nothing more than a simple “thanks for writing” note. While that’s probably not satisfactory for those letter writers who spend a lot of time drafting a long reply to one of his columns, Gillmor says that many people “express shock that I’ve even responded.”

Any columnist will get a share of crackpot letters, and typically Gillmor prefers to ignore those. “The last thing you want to do is engage them in a conversation,” he says. Overall, he’s noticing that e-mail etiquette seems to be improving. While the number of e-mail users is growing dramatically, the number of people sending bizarre and crazy letters appears to Gillmor to be fairly flat.

Other “strongly worded” correspondence is not necessarily from crackpots, but normal people who disagree vehemently with the opinions stated in a column and who because of the anonymity of the e-mail communication medium author truly abusive missives. For those people, Gillmor has a few boilerplate responses that he sends out with the touch of a macro key. One suggests tongue in cheek that the sender contact his network administrator, because someone has forged his name to an abusive e-mail message received by Gillmor. Another thanks the sender for “writing such a perfect parody” of a crazy person writing a letter in response to a column.

Gillmor’s third boilerplate response simply says that he is willing to engage in a conversation about the issues on which he and the reader disagree, but he responds much better to rationale arguments than personal insults. Almost always in such cases, the reader sends back an apology for flying off the handle with the original message.

While the volume of mail hasn’t drowned him yet, Gillmor does foresee the day not too far off when it will be too much. The solution is likely to be a discussion forum on the Mercury News Web site devoted to reader discussion of his columns. He’s creating an Internet mailing list that his readers can join in order to post comments, and later will probably set up a discussion forum on the Web site. The advantage to this approach is that readers will appreciate that other readers will see their comments, not just the columnist. And it means that Gillmor won’t need to answer every single comment, thus lessening his reader-interaction workload.

Putting your picture on a column in a consumer publication seems to invite readers to contact you. “I didn’t realize how much people respond to the face,” Gillmor says. “It’s a dramatic difference.” Before becoming a 3-time-a-week columnist earlier this year, he was the Mercury News’ computer editor and wrote a once-a-week column.

E-mail crowd vs. phone/letter crowd

Predictably, the feedback that the columnist gets from Silicon Valley readers is nearly entirely via e-mail. In contrast, readers of his column in the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times are much more likely to send postal mail.

Because his phone number is published, Gillmor gets the occasional reader calls, as well. One recent column was about how the Internet will impact the real estate industry, and how digital technologies will put downward pressures on the commissions real estate agents enjoy today. That didn’t sit well with some in the industry, who phoned in to criticize the columnist’s opinion. On the other hand, e-mail responses to the column — which included many from within the real estate industry — were generally more supportive of Gillmor’s view.

Gillmor professes not to allow reader feedback to influence what topics he writes about, though he obviously notices when a particular topic generates a lot of reader response. Sometimes, though, reader response is valuable for follow-up coverage of an issue. Gillmor points to a column about an alleged shortage of high-technology talent in Silicon Valley, in which he expressed doubts that this was the case. That column generated several hundred responses, mostly from people who were older and experienced trouble finding work; the “shortage” appeared to be in talented just-out-of-college workers who require smaller salaries. Gillmor passed along his flood of e-mail to another reporter who used some of those stories in subsequent coverage of the issue.

Abundant reader feedback of course has pluses and minuses. Tips for story topics come occasionally, though Gillmor says that the really good stories seldom come through unsolicited e-mail. He’s planning to add a PGP public encryption key on his Web page, so that tipsters who wish to cloak their identity can contact him. Every journalist should think about doing this, he says.

As a very visible writer, Gillmor is occasionally the victim of a prank or mail bombing. One incident involved him and several other journalists, whose names were forged on a threatening spam e-mail message sent to the U.S. Congress and executive branch. That incident required writing letters to congressmen explaining the spoof, and dealing with a flood of e-mail in response to the spam.

If Gillmor’s experience with an e-mail-enabled public look daunting, there’s some consolation in that he’s likely to share this experience only with other high-profile columnists. As I’ve reported in other columns, news organizations that have experimented with publishing e-mail addresses for all their staff generally have had good results; only a tiny minority of writers get so much mail that they can’t handle it. Despite the occasional aggravations, Gillmor says he wouldn’t have it any other way; the constant give and take with his readers makes the job more enjoyable and his writing better.

Well, there is the spam, of course. Because Gillmor’s e-mail address is on the Mercury News Web site and his columns, junk e-mailers can easily find him. He gets so much spam that “I’m developing a callous on the finger that keeps hitting the ‘D’-Delete key,” he says, only half joking.

Contact: Dan Gillmor, dgillmor@sjmercury.com

Kent symposium off (sort of)

“The Future of Print Media” symposium planned at Kent State University has been called off as a physical event, but the concept will live on in cyberspace. The event, which was to take place June 8-10, was being organized by Roger Fidler, professional in residence at Kent State’s journalism school and the person many in the news industry know as the father of the portable digital tablet concept. Fidler and his co-organizers had assembled a prestigious group of speakers and panelists, but couldn’t get enough commitments for attendees to come to Ohio in June.

This looked to be an interesting event focusing on emerging electronic alternatives to mechanical printing and paper, and on developing standards for digital publications.

According to Fidler, the symposium has been transformed into a virtual one, and will start around the same date. The same “speakers” have agreed to participate online, posting their speeches and then interacting with the virtual audience via a moderated discussion forum mechanism. After each “speech” is presented, Fidler and crew will pose questions to be answered by the experts and combine them with questions or comments from anyone listening in on the Internet. Thus, each event will be drawn out over many days.

In addition to these “general sessions,” the virtual symposium will set up topic “tracks” which will be scheduled throughout the summer. The first tracks will be on display technology; content and presentation; and electronic publishing concepts and business models.

Fidler envisions the virtual symposium as an ongoing resource for the electronic publishing industry, with additional tracks being added and new speakers added throughout the year. The symposium is free for anyone wishing to listen in or participate. You can find more information at http://www.lci.kent.edu.

Contact: Roger Fidler, rfidler@saed.kent.edu

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company

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