E-Mail Bombs and Journalists

By: Steve Outing

It could happen to any journalist. It probably will.

It happened to James Coates, a computer writer for the Chicago Tribune and author of the Binary Beat column. In his December 27 column, Coates wrote about Apple Computer's plans to adopt the operating system of Steve Jobs' NeXT, a move that could, he suggested, eventually leave existing Macintosh users as holders of orphan technology -- much like Beta videocassette users after the VHS revolution in home video.

Apple partisans didn't much like Coates' column. ... No, that's too weak; they despised his words. "Mac evangelist" Guy Kawasaki, who's on the Apple payroll, went so far as to urge the Mac faithful to e-mail Coates with their displeasure about what they felt was an erroneous and damaging view of where Apple is heading. They did, and Coates' primary e-mail account came crashing down as a result. He's been spammed and mail-bombed by readers, and but good.

Coates wrote in a follow-up column after being mail-bombed: "My America Online e-mail account, at jcoates1@aol.com, is all but unusable, clogged with angry and often abusive notes from some of the very best and some of the very worst people in the Mac orbit. When I log on to check out the torrents of notes, my own Mac's time-out beach ball spins and spins, gradually building a queue of waiting messages with titles such as 'Your Apple Column Stunk,' 'Responsible Journalism Violated,' 'Ignorance for the Masses' and 'Coates must die!!!!'"

While this reaction is no different than in the "old days" when controversial columns would generate a flood of letters and phone calls, it's much easier for disgruntled readers to flood a journalist's e-mail account with hundreds of messages and deny the journalist e-mail access temporarily.

Unprepared for attack

Coates says he's been putting his America Online e-mail address on his column since Binary Beat began in 1993, always encouraging readers to send him feedback and tips. Never in all that time has anything like this happened. He thinks he's received more than 2,000 angry messages due to the Apple column, and the jcoates1@aol.com account remains unusable to this day. Most of the notes were individual flames, but a number of people mail-bombed his account, sending multiple copies of messages designed to bring down his e-mail access.

The columnist has numerous e-mail accounts with various providers, but jcoates1@aol.com holds special meaning. He's spent three years with that address being his primary public cyberspace mailbox, encouraging readers to write him. "Overnight, it became unusable," he says. He even missed hearing about a niece's new baby, because her e-mail telling about the birth got lost amid the flood of Apple hate mail.

Coates expects to use the address again, but it will probably take several more weeks for things to calm down. Part of the problem is AOL's clunky mail interface, which is ill equipped to deal with a torrent of mail. Coates says he would have switched providers long ago, but he's invested too much into publicizing that address.

Advice for the un-spammed Obviously, an incident like this can happen to any journalist. And it doesn't take a whole army of disgruntled readers; a single person with a little technical know-how can mail-bomb an e-mail account easily, shutting down a writer's e-mail link to the Internet. And as more people get online, the more likely it is that a journalist can get attacked by e-mail.

The best advice for journalists who have a high public profile is to have at least two e-mail addresses -- one given out to the public and another used for truly important communications. Coates uses an address with a Chicago area Internet service provider as his primary private account, giving it out only to a select few people. When he's done an e-mail interview with Bill Gates, the Microsoft chairman gets Coates' private address. "That's also helpful in confirming that it's really Bill Gates" who's sending the note, he says.

So, what wisdom can Coates impart to other journalists based on his experience? 1) "Don't write about Apple and you'll be OK," he quips. 2) Get at least a second e-mail account and protect it the way you would protect a personal fax number. And 3) don't use as your primary mail account services like America Online, Prodigy or CompuServe; rather, use a full-featured e-mail client application and work with an Internet service provider. They'll be better equipped to help you deal with such an e-mail emergency.

Should your public account get mail-bombed, with an ISP you can have mail addressed to the attacked address rerouted to the trash bin until things calm down again. Meanwhile, use a backup account.

Do be prepared for such an incident to happen to you. If you write about controversial issues -- and Macintosh vs. Windows is one of them -- it's just a matter of time before it's your turn.

The Apple incident wasn't all bad for Coates. "I got to walk away with a small appreciation of the democracy of this stuff," he says of the voice the Internet gives to newspaper readers. At 53, Coates has done a lot of rough and tumble journalism, including infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan and writing about it. But never a reaction like this. "It's just wonderful," he says.

TV stations join online city guide stampede

As if the fledgling online city guide industry isn't crowded enough already, Warner Brothers has announced that it will develop a series of local and national, ad-supported Web sites in the U.S. called CityWeb. The city sites will be built around local TV broadcasters' branding and news programming. National content will come from Warner through partnerships with CNN Interactive, People Online and Lycos. Rollout is expected for this summer.

A local CityWeb reportedly will appear to be entirely the product of its affiliated local broadcaster. Warner has its own TV stations in many major markets, but these are not expected to be CityWeb principal affiliates, since most of these "second-tier" stations lack news operations.

As quoted in Media Daily this week, Warner Online senior vice president Jim Moloshok said: "Just as radio stations evolved their local franchises into brand-new television franchises 50 years ago, CityWeb allows a television station to evolve its present franchise and reputation for servicing its community into the interactive world. It allows stations to protect and extend the brand that they have spent the last half-century building while positioning themselves for the digital future of their industry."

The TV stations will provide local news content online, and be involved in attracting local classified ads to the CityWeb site. They'll also be required to air a 30-second spot on their broadcast new program to promote the Web site. Primary revenue streams will be local and national advertising and classifieds.

For TV stations, CityWeb offers the ability, in theory, for them to hang on to an audience that's vulnerable to inroads from new media. (Studies have shown that Internet usage steals more hours away from TV watching than from newspapers.) In cyberspace, then, newspapers and television are beginning to compete on equal footing.

College Press Network needs new Web host

The College Press Network, which catalogs the campus press online, is looking for a new host for its Web site. If you can offer assistance or have the ability to host the site, contact Julio Fernandez at cpnet@aol.com.


Previous day's column | Next day's column | Archive of columns
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


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here