Can Readers Easily Contact You?

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By: Steve Outing As a journalist covering the Internet business, I run into the problem constantly. I visit a Web site of a company that I plan to write about, hoping to find the name and contact information of appropriate people to interview. Alas, the names are hidden away or non-existent and I'm forced to dig out the information in more time-consuming ways. Too often, I can't even find on a company's Web site the main phone number of the business.

Does your site make it easy to contact the key people at your company? If not, it's not only the press you're annoying (and perhaps thus missing out on publicity), it's your users. Since the name of the game in Internet publishing is "interactivity," it's important that your site make it easy for users to interact with your staff -- to offer feedback, suggest a tip, get a question answered, place an ad, etc.

Because I think this is an important issue that too many Web news sites don't do well at, for this column I am going to visit a sampling of news Web sites and critique how they handle staff contact information and how well they facilitate interaction with their readers.

Editor & Publisher Interactive

It's only fair that I include E&P, publisher of this column, in this survey. And fortunately for E&P, it does it mostly right on its Web site. On the E&P home page at the bottom of the page is the main phone number, and the names and e-mail addresses of the top executives and most of the Web staff. Most columns (including mine) include the writer's e-mail address, although some of the news stories do not include a way to get in touch with the writer.

New York Times

It took me four clicks to get to a page that lists contact information for the various departments at the Times. This wasn't easy to find; I first clicked on "site index," then on "help and feedback," then on "contact us," then on "newspaper contact information." Once at that page, I am invited to send an e-mail message to staff@nytimes.com, which is an automated response address that sends me via return e-mail a listing of the newspaper's staff. Whew! You have to be really dogged and determined to find out how to send e-mail to Timesfolk -- though at least a list does exist.

As is typical for newspaper sites, some of the columnists publish their e-mail addresses, and most of the Internet reporters and CyberTimes writers do so. But for the most part, Times reporters do not have their e-mail addresses attached to their bylines, even though they have them. A nice feature for some of the CyberTimes writers is a "Bio" link next to their bylines to a biography page, which includes a few paragraphs about their backgrounds and a photo. I'd like to see this for every writer at the newspaper.

CNN.com

CNN Interactive appears not to want it to be too easy for the public to contact its broadcast personalities. It does have a very nice page (which was tricky to find) that features profiles and photos of all the anchors and reporters. (This is a staff page that other sites might want to emulate.) However, the biography pages contain no e-mail addresses or any indication of how to contact the TV news personalities. The least CNN could do is put in an e-mail form that allowed viewers to send CNN staffers their comments or tips.

MSNBC

MSNBC.com does a fairly good job in this department. Some bylined pieces include an e-mail "mailto:" link on the writer's name -- something I'd like to see every news site do. This seems to be the case mostly for staff writers; many stories by freelancers lack the e-mail links. If you want to contact writers for the business staff of MSNBC, you're in luck. There's a great contacts page that features profiles, photos and e-mail addresses for all the staff writers. There are also phone numbers on this page for the business desk and MSNBC news desk. Other sections of the site do not have similar pages, so there's no way to know who works on them or how to reach those people.

The Telegraph (London)

European papers, especially the larger ones, seem to share with many of their American counterparts the same desire to shield their staff from e-mail incursions by readers. At The Telegraph's Web site, there is a page containing a long list of e-mail addresses for various departments at the paper. That's great, but I still think it's a disservice when news sites don't include e-mail addresses for individual staff members. On articles posted to the site -- even those on the topic of technology and the Internet -- I could find no writer e-mail addresses on the stories. (The exception was the occasional link to a columnist's personal Web site, where you can dig out their contact information.)

News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina)

The N&O has a serious commitment to facilitating contact by readers with its editorial staff. How the site handles reader interaction and contact is something I wish more news sites would emulate. On the home page is a "Contact Us" link, plus the phone numbers and postal address of the newspaper. (This points to a pet peeve of mine. I think every site should include this simple bit of information right on its home page, where it's easy to find.) On the Contact Us page is a form allowing readers to send e-mail to any of many departmental addresses. In the text above the form, the N&O describes its commitment to making access to its staff a priority: "Your feedback is important, and The N&O staff want to make it as convenient as possible for you to contact us. The following form allows you to direct your comments to our specific reporting sections. You have a direct line to our desks!"

The best part, though, is that on every bylined story, at the bottom, is a line containing the writer's e-mail address and phone number. Truly, the N&O "gets it" -- that facilitating journalist-reader communication is good for the newspaper and good for the public. It remains a mystery why more papers haven't followed the N&O's lead. (You might be interested in a column I wrote last year about this newspaper's experience with publishing reporter and editor e-mail addresses.)

Wired News

Even the News & Observer doesn't include on its site a Web page that lists all the staff and their contact information. But Wired News does, as you might expect from an Internet-savvy, online-only news organization. Check out its staff page, which is nothing particularly innovative, yet this is one of the few such pages on news Web sites; it contains a full staff list with everyone's e-mail address. Notice that at the bottom of the page is Wired's main phone number and postal address. I've seen some other staff pages that contain only e-mail contact information, but even online denizens prefer to pick up the telephone once in a while, so accommodate them with a phone number.

Wired News also includes e-mail mailto: links on all writers' bylines.

Los Angeles Times

Generally, I found that newspapers are less likely to offer up contact information for individual staff members than are cyber-only news operations like Wired News. However, the Los Angeles Times does present a good role model in this regard. From the home page, click on the Talk to Us link to get to one of the best contact pages on an online newspaper site. The page offers addresses to send mail to specific departments, send a letter to the editor, send in a press release, etc. And there's a full list of all Times employee e-mail addresses. This one is done right.

Times bylined stories on the Web site also often include a mailto: link on the writer's name.

What you should do

I can only surmise from my surfing of news Web sites looking for writer and editor contact information that many publishers remain tied to the idea that making it too easy for readers to contact their staff is a bad thing. The sites that include next to every byline an e-mail address and maybe even a phone number are far outnumbered by those that don't.

If the idea of publishing e-mail addresses on your Web site makes you fearful, keep in mind that most sites that have done it have described it as a good experience. Writers tend to like the e-mail contact from readers, and only a minority will feel overwhelmed. I have covered this issue on and off over the last few years, and it's only on rare occasions when a reporter or columnist writes something controversial that they get bombarded with e-mail from readers.

Over time, Internet users will come to expect easy access to the writers of what they read online. Eventually, I think all news sites will make it easier for the public to reach their staff members. Here's my list for what your site should do to be more "interactive":

Put your main phone number and postal address on your Web site's home page. Don't make Web users hunt for something that should be simple to find. Create a page -- reachable from the home page -- that contains a list of e-mail addresses for your site. This should include addresses to send a letter to the editor; send in a news tip; send mail to a number of generic department addresses; report a problem with the site; send a message to the publication's ombudsman; etc. Create a page -- again, reachable with one click from the home page -- that contains contact information (e-mail and phone numbers) for all publication staff (print, if relevant, and online). Include e-mail auto-responders for common requests. (How to place a classified ad; how to order a reprint; how to use the online archive; etc.) Include writers' e-mail addresses in every byline; ideally, do as the News & Observer does and include their phone numbers, too. Include a "Bio" link for every writer to accompany their byline, which leads to a text description of their background, plus a photo, and e-mail and phone contact information. I prefer the idea of having the byline link lead to a biography page, where the reader can pick up an e-mail address if needed, rather than have the byline be a simple mailto: link. Particularly if a piece of writing is controversial, readers want to know something about the writer. Often, they may look at a writer's background to try and find something that would explain some perceived bias in what's been written. I say let the sun shine in; let the public know about your writers. This also creates a better relationship between reader and writer, since the journalist becomes more human in the reader's eyes. Remember, the Internet is a two-way, interactive medium, and act accordingly.

Insulting the overweight: Follow-up

My last column about the Web-zine Tabloid and a controversial article it ran insulting overweight people brought a fair amount of mail. The majority of those who wrote in thought that the site got what it deserved when ad banner network Flycast disconnected its ads from Tabloid. Here's a sampling of opinion:

"Interesting story ... but I suspect that if the piece had been written about someone who was black/Asian/Jewish/etc. and included derogatory terms describing them, we wouldn't have heard a peep as FlyCast yanked their advertising. ... I find your sentence "Can free speech on the Web be influenced by an advertising company?" a bit misleading. Hate speech is usually not considered at the same level as 'free speech', and I'd think this falls into that category. ... For a content provider to cry foul when an advertiser withdraws support based on content, that's truly a matter of judgment on the part of the advertiser. ... Advertisers typically succeed by marketing to the mainstream. If your publication is off the beaten trail (or has taken a sudden swing away, as in this situation), then expect to either have to find niche advertisers, or not to have advertising at all."
--
"Sorry, I don't buy this as a 'free speech' issue. The writer wrote something that offended a certain segment of the population; activists within that population segment gave full voice to their displeasure, wisely targeting the advertisers supporting the site ... and the advertisers apparently agreed with them. Happens all the time, and it's just part of doing business in the media world. ... Advertisers are under no obligation to underwrite a publication that they find offensive, and readers have every right to express outrage and exert any kind of (lawful) pressure on the publisher they like. And both readers and advertisers are always entitled to vote with their feet. That's democracy (and economics) in action. Publishers who aren't prepared to cope with this should find another line of business."
--
"For someone writing a media criticism article you're really showing an alarming lack of acumen regarding how media and ad agencies function in relation to each other. Media whether it be a Web site, a TV station, a newspaper, is responsible for its own revenue streams. If it becomes dependent on one source and that source decides for whatever reason to advertise elsewhere, it is the fault of the media unit for putting all its eggs in one basket.

"Internet ad agencies are not responsible for the economic well being of Web sites. They are not ethically or morally bound to develop a 'reasonable policy' for Web sites. They are morally and ethically bound to their own clients to provide effective means of advertising those clients' products and if they are a publicly traded company they are obliged to engage in business practices that will increase the value of that company.

If Web sites feel stifled they should look for alternate sources of funding much like marginal print magazines do. Start by selling their own content (i.e., subscriptions) and reducing their dependency on advertisers and their whims. No one is obliged to pay for their opinions."
--
"I'd recommend helping independent web sites like Tabloid draft contracts with advertisers that makes it clear they are buying an ad because of the traffic a Web site attracts, not because they deserve, or will get, any control over content. The Wall Street Journal, Slate and Microsoft buy space on my Web site because of the traffic and readership -- and a good part of both come because our writers don't mince words or cover the true meaning of what happened with euphemisms. Likewise, people read Ken Layne's publication (Tabloid) because they like his mix of news and parody draws a large audience that should be attractive for advertisers. Flycast should be more interested in the majority readership that sees its ad banners than in kowtowing to a minority of special interests."

One final note: There was a sentence in that column that I regret writing -- "This poses a private-sector-driven threat to freedom of the press and free speech." Of course, the whole Tabloid-Flycast controversy is a private-sector matter, and I confused matters by using terminology that should be restricted to discussions of government involvement. That was a poor choice of words, for what I meant to say is that the Web ad networks can exert economic pressure that might stifle the variety of content and diversity of voices on the Web.

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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