Reporters' E-mail Addresses Published; World Does Not End

By: Steve Outing

The sky did not fall.

Some eight months ago, the News & Observer (N&O) in Raleigh, North Carolina, made a bold move. It began putting reporters' phone numbers and e-mail addresses at the end of every bylined story in the newspaper. Readers of the print newspaper would be able to call directly to a reporter's desk, or send the writer a private e-mail note.

Many in the newsroom -- indeed, throughout the newspaper industry -- were skeptical about this new policy. They feared that reporters would be overwhelmed with e-mail and voice-mail messages. The time spent dealing with communication with the public would take away from reporting time. E-mail boxes would overflow, and when journalists could not respond because of the weight of the mail, the newspaper would look worse than before.

Now eight months into the experiment, it's safe to say that those fears for the most part have proven unfounded.

Newspaper policy

The N&O announced the policy to the public in March 1997, and began putting "taglines" (also sometimes called "shirttales") at the end of every bylined article in the print edition. (The same policy applies to stories on the paper's Web site.) Each tagline contains the writer's phone number (which rings directly to their desks or voice-mail) and e-mail address. In the majority of cases, the contact information is direct; secretaries and clerks are not intermediaries to the public.

While not every journalist on the staff likes the policy -- "It's the worst idea I have encountered in 30 years in this business," comments a N&O metro reporter -- no one is exempt. Like it or not, reporters must deal with the open public access to them that the taglines allow. They are expected to deal with all legitimate correspondence by the public, which in practice may be nothing more than dashing off an e-mail reply that says only, "Thanks for writing." Staffers are expected to accomplish this during their normal work hours, and no dispensation is given for extra time that this might take.

The N&O is one of the U.S. newspaper industry's pioneers in electronic publishing and computer-assisted reporting; it spawned, one of the first serious newspaper online services, now a busy national news Web site. Everyone in the newsroom has Web access and Internet e-mail available on their workstations. Only a couple of writers don't have e-mail, and their taglines contain only their phone numbers, according to Norman Cloutier, the paper's managing editor for online services.

Staff members definitely were concerned about the policy at first, says Cloutier, who was part of the committee that initially assessed the feasibility of the concept, but after a few weeks, their fears were allayed. The policy was launched with a 3-month trial period, and newsroom managers were preprared to put a halt to the idea should problems arise.

The paper's North Carolina editor, Rob Waters, says that overall he's pretty happy with the tagline concept. "One of the good things is that it's a signal every day, on every story, that we're interested in feedback and response, and that we're accessible," he says. "This is a natural way to get that across" to the reading public.

No tidal wave of e-mail

Overall, phone calls and e-mail to reporters increased only modestly, with occasional blips for particular stories that are controversial, or where a reporter leaves out pieces of information that readers want. Cloutier thinks that part of the reason is that because readers see the taglines every day, they become blase? about them. In general, people are not so much more inclined to contact a reporter because of the taglines, so volume of phone and e-mail has not been onerous except in rare cases.

What reporters do get as a result of the taglines is more feedback about stories. Books editor Peder Zane says that he typically gets 5-10 e-mail messages a week about his regular column, and the vast majority compliment him on his work. The critical feedback often comes in the form of pointing out spelling or grammatical errors.

Zane says he was fearful when the tagline experiment started that "everybody and their brother would try to establish a relationship" and engage him in time-consuming discussions, "but that has not happened." He acknowledges that the taglines make it easier for the "kooky" or annoying people to contact newspaper writers, but those people "are going to do it anyway," whether the paper publishes e-mail addresses of not. Rather, the process of making it easier to communicate with writers encourages more of the "nice and normal people" to send in an e-mail comment, he says.

Also, e-mail correspondence saves time. Zane says he often feels obligated to answer paper letters, and doing so ends up consuming more time than he'd like. Responding to e-mail often can be limited to a one-sentence reply that acknowledges that he received and appreciates the reader's opinion.

Waters says it's the columnists who really love the taglines. "It's their job to hit a nerve" with readers, and when they succeed they get a lot of e-mail and phone calls. One N&O columnist says he gets about five column ideas a week via e-mail from the public, and three times as many e-mail messages from readers as paper letters.

The occasional problem

Cloutier says that there have been no truly horrible experiences as a result of the taglines, though there have been some annoyances for reporters, as you might expect. Occasionally, phone calls to a reporter will overwhelm a reporter's voice-mail box, and the company reacts by expanding capacity for that staffer temporarily. Cloutier says the paper has a competent technical support staff that can help a reporter stem the flow of e-mail should they get mail-bombed.

Sometimes the stories you don't expect generate the most public response. An investigative reporter wrote a story about a meeting of Beanie Baby aficionados, and that turned out to generate more phone calls and e-mail than anything else the writer had done. The e-mails continue to arrive, well after the piece was published.

On the other hand, the same reporter now embraces the taglines after receiving numerous tips via e-mail that have resulted in stories.

A frequent problem is that readers contact reporters thinking that they are a source about the story topic rather than a journalist. A N&O business writer complains about callers who think they are reaching the company that is being written about; or they want to buy stock. The writer is lobbying for the taglines to be changed to make it clear that the e-mail and phone contacts are for a reporter, to tip off those inattentive members of the public.

This may be one of the biggest fears of journalists about publishing contact information -- that the "less than bright" among a paper's readership will annoy or harass reporters. While that's certain to occur to a degree when you publish individual journalists' contact information, the N&O's experience seems to indicate that the problem is less severe than many editors and reporters may have feared.

Part 2 on Monday

Check back again on Monday, when in my next column I will include comments from N&O staffers about how they have experienced the use of taglines and how it impacted their jobs.

Contacts: Norman Cloutier,
Rob Waters,


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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

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


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