Smart Tools for Reporters Using E-mail

By: Steve Outing

More and more reporters are discovering that e-mail is a powerful tool for finding sources and information, and for communicating with their colleagues. Yet there remain a few snags:

* As reporters find their way in the online world, they tend to change their Internet access providers and e-mail addresses frequently.

* It's difficult to track down individual journalists without a central directory of the profession that includes up-to-date e-mail addresses.

* Many small papers share one or a handful of e-mail accounts among several journalists, making it difficult for a reporter to receive private mail. Some reporters still don't have private e-mail addresses.

Houston Chronicle reporter Bob Sablatura has been thinking about those problems, and operates a service called The Reporters Network (TRN), which addresses the needs of journalists using the Internet as a reporting tool.

Sablatura is an experienced investigative reporter who works out of his home. In his spare time away from newspaper work, he and his wife and college-age, computer-savvy son operate TRN as a public service to the journalism community. It offers several useful services:

* A directory of journalists, with entries from about 3,500 writers and editors to date. Anyone who calls him/herself a working journalist or writer is allowed to create an entry by filling out a Web page form.

* Discussion forums for staff reporters and freelance writers, plus a journalism jobs board.

* A free e-mail service that lets journalists have a "permanent" e-mail address that forwards mail to whatever Internet provider a reporter might be using, no matter how often he or she might change providers. About 650 journalists from around the world currently use the service.

* And a POP mail service that supports multiple e-mail addresses on a single e-mail account. This is useful for smaller newsrooms that have one or a handful of e-mail accounts that are shared by several reporters, or for a reporter who does not currently have a mail account but does have Internet access.

Except for the latter feature, it's all free. The POP mail service currently costs $3 per month, which is just enough to cover Sablatura's costs for running the service. He eventually would like to make that feature free, as well, possibly finding corporate sponsors to fund ongoing operation of TRN.

Be e-mail savvy

Sablatura says that reporters do need to become more sophisticated about how they use e-mail. Switching e-mail addresses frequently can cause a writer's contacts, built up over time, to get lost, hence the desirability of using a permanent address that can redirect mail to whatever access provider you might use in the future. It's also a good idea for reporters to keep business and personal e-mail separate, with more than one address, he suggests. That's useful if you ever get mail-bombed, so there's still a usable e-mail account available.

Reporters during their work also tend to leave tracks when they use e-mail, Sablatura says, which can have legal implications. Don't leave your e-mail on an independent Internet provider's server, he advises, because there will exist a record of your e-mail correspondence. Should litigation occur over a story and law enforcement officials demand to see a reporter's e-mail trail in covering the story (in effect, asking to see a reporter's notes), an ISP is likely to comply with the demands and turn over its logs. When a reporter uses an in-house server for e-mail, the logs are stored by the news organization, which is more likely to try and protect a journalist's source materials and e-mail records, Sablatura says.

For those reporters who use TRN's POP mail services -- in which mail is stored on the TRN server until the user picks it up -- Sablatura says that he does not keep records of reporters' e-mail activity. Server log files are routinely destroyed when they are 24 hours old.

Sablatura hopes to keep the TRN service operating over the long run, and perhaps add new features such as free Web space for journalists to create personal pages. While TRN is not a profit-making enterprise, he professes to be committed to keeping it going. To insure that his "permanent" addresses are functional in the future, Sablatura says that should he ever move on to other projects, he'll hand the reins of TRN over to another group.

Contact: Bob Sablatura,

Has your site been framed?

The TotalNews Web site has gotten into some trouble with the technique of framing non-affiliated news sites and positioning their content next to TotalNews advertising. For a slightly different angle on the framing controversy, take a look at how US West's Dive In site handles links to media sites in the 10 markets it has entered with the online community guide.

Within Dive In's "Newsroom" area are links to the Web sites of local media. But these are not traditional links that take Dive In users to the media sites. Rather, they include a brief review of a news site and a 1- to 5-star rating for the site as determined by Dive In users, who are invited to rate the site. On the review page for a newspaper site, for example, there is a link to the site itself. Clicking on the link brings up the news site in a frame that takes up about two-thirds of the computer screen; the bottom third of the screen is filled by a Dive In user review form. No matter how much you may surf within the news site, the Dive In frame always remains.

The Dive In site is new, so things could change. But for now, within Dive In these are the only links to local news media Web sites. What's troubling is that when a Dive In visitor clicks on a link to a newspaper site, the news site's URL is never displayed, so the news site can't be bookmarked by the user (without also seeing the Dive In frame). Also, the user cannot escape the US West frame and going through the US West server to access the news site's various pages. This is particularly annoying since in the first week of operation for the Dive In site, its servers have been painfully slow at delivering pages. Hence, a Dive In visitor surfing through it to a local news site will experience a slow-loading page, even though the news site's own server may not be at fault.

I surveyed a few media site managers in Denver, where Dive In has a new site. Most weren't fond of their sites being "framed" by Dive In, but felt that since US West was presenting the links to their sites as part of a consumer review process, they can't really complain. Still, they'd prefer to have legitimate links to their sites from within Dive In pages.

With uses of frames like Dive In's, I'm coming to the opinion that frames are an unfortunate development. While they have some useful applications, sites like TotalNews and, to a lesser degree, Dive In are putting them to poor use.

We're family

My recent column about the interactive features of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's StarText Web site brought this response from S-T user Randy Lovelace:

"Thanks for the nice words you wrote on StarText in your column. I have been on StarText for a few years and have met many interesting friends online and at the Interact meetings put on by S-T and Gerry (Barker). I'm also one of the Brisbee residents you wrote about and I run the Brisbee Bakery. My online name is what else but Cakeman. You were right when you said S-T was like no other online newspaper, it's family."

I'm taking a break

There will be no Stop The Presses! column on Friday, due to the Good Friday/Easter holiday, nor on Monday, because I'm taking a day off. The next column will run on Wednesday, April 2.


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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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