E-mail, Phone 'Taglines': The Employee Experience

By: Steve Outing

(This is the last of two columns about the News & Observer and the success of its policy to publish attached to all bylined print and online stories the phone numbers and e-mail addresses of all its writers.)

The News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina) went out on a limb eight months ago when it began including phone numbers and e-mail addresses of individual writers on all bylined stories. While the policy had worthy intent -- to give the public greater access to the newspaper staff and portray the company as caring about what readers think -- many staff members initially were skeptical about the impact that these "taglines" might have on them.

Overall, however, the experiment has been judged a success by the McClatchy newspaper's executives, and a good many of its employees.

Because other news organizations are likely to take similar steps in the future, it's worth hearing from some of the N&O staffers who were directly affected by this policy of encouraging the public to directly contact them via e-mail or phone. Here are a few of their stories, collected from an informal in-house survey conducted last week:

Skepticism lost

An investigative reporter initially was suspicious of the tagline policy: "I thought it veered too much toward public journalism, etc. But I've put away the garlic and the crosses now." After writing a story about a lawsuit over conditions at a women's prison, "several employees there e-mailed me to complain about a doctor. We corresponded fruitfully," and a good story resulted. The reporter still doesn't know the tipsters' names. A pending story on another prison scandal came in the same way, as have others, the reporter says.

On the downside, this reporter wrote a story about a swap meet for Beanie Baby (a popular line of stuffed animals) afficionados. "That opus got the most e-mail and phone calls by far. I still get them. They were a pain. But I'll take the good with the bad," he says.

Mixed reviews

Mixed feelings about the policy are common. A metro reporter says: "Shirttails (a.k.a., taglines) are like a relative you're not wild about. Occasionally you're glad they're there, and sometimes you wish they'd go away forever, but most of the time they don't affect you much."

Columnist gives thumbs up

Some employees love the taglines. Says N&O metro columnist Nicole Brodeur: "For columnists, it's vital. It's incredible. I can say without question that I get three times as many e-mails as letters. And I get at least five column suggestions a week. One column garnered about 100 e-mails. I got half as many phone calls. E-mail is a real way for people to be in touch with the newspaper. And when you put your address there, people know that it's going directly to you, not some secretary somewhere. They really take advantage of it."

Editors get mail, too

The paper's features editor, Felicia Gressette, also has seen an increase in contact with the public. She says: "My experience with e-mail and phone calls via taglines has been in response to comics changes and I have NO DOUBT that I heard from a lot more readers than I would have otherwise. On the one hand, it's a good way to get feedback, but on the other, if you have a policy of having to respond, it's tough when there are 100 or more calls or messages. ... People get riled up about the funnies!"

A newsroom manager's view

Metro editor Ned Barnett, who occasionally writes stories and columns, says: "The stories I wrote got a fair amount of e-mail. I found it made the writing more satisfying. It seems like you get more response, and more thoughtful response, than when you only heard from people who called or wrote a letter. As an editor, I haven't heard of a case of reporters being overwhelmed unless it was with a story where (the writer) failed to anticipate a natural public demand for more information.

"In some cases, we've gotten strong tips off e-mail. Sometimes, even when the e-mail is a complaint, it comes from someone who knows a lot about the situation and the complaint itself contains information we can use to advance the story. (And) in the special case of columnists, the result has been strong both ways. (One columnist) gets a lot more instant hate mail, but a lot more encouragement, too. I think it helps a columnist to have that kind of immediate feedback as they try to develop a sense of what connects with readers," he says.

The diplomacy factor

The paper's religion writer, Yonat Shimron, whose work includes a weekly column, says: "On a controversial column that challenges conventional notions about the Bible's attitude toward homosexuality or women, or a column that challenges the notion of the Trinity, I can expect 15 e-mails a day for three or four days. I'll also get about 10 phone calls the day the column appears and several more the following week. A lot of people want to pick arguments with me, which I strictly refuse to do. I'll usually write back: 'Thanks for writing. I appreciate your opinion.'"

Pro ...

Comments the newspaper's health/medicine writer, Catherine Clabby: "I'm very pro tag line. I've gotten good tips. I've spoken to people I never would have heard from otherwise. They e-mail or call. They've never tried to reach a reporter before. Now they can because we've shown them how. I think it gives me a firmer idea about what normal readers care about. The only time I got huge numbers of calls was when we solicited them on managed care stories. I had 50 one day. We had to expand my voice-mail and it took a long time to call them all back, but it was worth it."

... and Con

Of course, there are those who have problems with the tagline policy. Says one writer: "I hate our taglines -- because they don't identify us as reporters. I get calls all the time from readers who think they are calling the company I wrote about. ... I keep recommending that we amend the taglines to say 'staff writer Joe Blow can be reached at. ...' But it ain't happened yet."

Another reporter has the same experience: "I get a lot more response from stories than I did before we started using them, but a surprising number of people who are calling and sending messages don't realize that I'm the reporter on the story, not a player in it. The best example is a story I did a while back on a program to herd and vaccinate feral cats. I got easily three dozen calls from people wanting me to come out and get the damn cats out of their barns and, worse, from people whose cats were missing and they wondered if I had picked them up. ... I spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with the public on that story."

Making the best of it

Features reporter Geoff Edgers is finding ways to make use of the increased public contact. "One way I've made it useful (is) if someone sends me a comment on an arts issue, I send them back a message requesting their age, location, job, and history of attending arts events. That way I can call them for regular feedback on arts issues instead of relying on the same old tired folks who we sometimes call about specialty stuff," he says.

A 'unique' experience

Publishing reporters' e-mail addresses and phone numbers can, of course, result in unpleasant episodes occasionally. One of the newspaper's crime reporters, Amanda Garrett, had one such experience when she wrote about an undercover drug sting at several 'rave' parties. Here's her story:

"Turns out, those who attend these rave parties are also tech heads. They were very angry, not that I printed the names of the people busted on drug charges, but that I printed what one of the officers said about the parties: That most people were either using or dealing drugs there and that some were naked people having sex. Dozens of messages came in. Then it got worse. These Ravers began posting my story around various Usenet groups. Then people around the world started harassing (flaming) me, as well. It was a nightmare."


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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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