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No spike in reader e-mails

By Andy Alexander

When The Post last year began putting reporter e-mail addresses at the bottom of stories in the newspaper, the newsroom braced for a flood of more comments from readers. To the surprise of many, it’s been only a trickle.

In an informal newsroom survey of two dozen reporters, most said they have experienced little or no increase. Only two have seen a rise that’s noticeable, but they said it’s hardly overwhelming.

Adding e-mail addresses to the end of stories was a good idea. Anything that increases the interaction between The Post and its audience helps build a bond that yields greater credibility and brand loyalty.

For years, online readers have been able to easily e-mail Post writers simply by clicking on the byline of a story appearing on the Web site. But months ago, when the newsroom was told that e-mail addresses would be added to the end of newspaper stories, some Post journalists privately cringed. Several told me they were barely able to respond to 15 or 20 reader e-mails a day, at a time when they had been stretched thin by staff reductions and increased demands to file to the Web. They feared that adding e-mail addresses to print stories would cause overload. Their fears were unfounded. Why?

Several speculated that print readers are simply less inclined to turn on their computer and type an e-mail address. It’s what Post National desk politics and government reporter Alec MacGillis calls a “convenience gap.” Online readers simply “click on our bylines to fire away,” he said. But “the reader at the breakfast table” typically needs to walk elsewhere to sit down at a computer. It’s less spontaneous and more of a chore for those who do not live online. And, of course, many print readers are older and have not fully embraced the Internet.

Many Post journalists surveyed said they have not seen an increase in e-mails for routine stories, but they have experienced a spike from print readers in response to stories that spark deep interest or an emotional reaction. And, of course, those stories also generate a sharp increase in e-mails coming from online readers who click on the byline and quickly shoot off a message. So a “hot” story can typically generate hundreds of e-mails to a reporter. But most agree that’s rare.

Several also said they have seen an increase in e-mailed press releases. Having reporters’ e-mail addresses at the bottom of stories apparently has been exploited by Washington’s large army of public relations specialists.

Readers often share with me the e-mailed responses they’ve received from Post staffers. In the vast majority of cases, the journalists are prompt and courteous. Still, rarely a week passes without a reader complaining to me that they received no response after e-mailing or calling a writer. That was the case recently with Jane. J. Tannenbaum of Annandale. She was upset about a column that appeared Jan. 12 and e-mailed a complaint the following day to the writer, top Post editors, the publisher and the ombudsman. Hearing nothing, she fired off another e-mail this past Monday.

“The [writer’s] e-mail addresses are given in each article, presumably so readers can contact them,” she wrote. “But what’s the point if (they) don’t respond? They’re not all reporting from war zones where they’re under fire.”

By Andy Alexander  | February 9, 2010; 5:15 PM ET
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I wonder if Ms. Tannebaum expressed herself courteously. There was a very sound statement years ago that appeared on the Santa Barbara News-Press "Letters to the Editor" page (print edition), which I think all major newspapers might want to use:

"Disagree if you must, but try not to be disagreeable."

Personally, I would substitute the words "may not be" for "try not to be." "May" is a courteous way of saying.. "hey, bub, we editors can decide bottom line if your post is appropriate."

At the same time.. the "auto-reply" is now a sophisticated program, and acknowledgement of receipt should be only a click of a button.. or am I wrong? And if a post is extremely offensive, perhaps a subtle list of rules of posting here be included in the response? But for e-mails, tho, not print page requiring snail mail. Too costly I would think in terms of time, etc.

As a former debate coach I find the name-calling posts by some readers not worth the candle. The one error that automatically loses any argument is the ad hominem fallacy... literally "against the man"… (and not the issue).

People seem to think that attempting to insult someone whose ideas are not in sync with his/her own makes a case. Nope. Does the opposite.

Calling a person an idiot, jerk, brain-dead, sub-zero IQ … I have seen all of these terms in posts. Frankly, it defines the one writing those words… not the person he/she is attacking.

This is not to be confused with questioning another’s sources, factual assertions, and opinions… but rebuttal can only be the same, with sources, contradictory facts, and logic (logic is a delight to use against “opinions” but logic is tricky… cannot stand on flawed premises).

all that said... I like the comment sections on publications' material on the net... simply a more vociferous form of Letters to the Editor which have traditionally been carefully screened... and should be.

That is what is lacking now... Screening. I suppose the ease of sitting down and venting on a keyboard is so copius that it makes legitimate screening a thing of the past and of course antagonists would whine "censorship" even if attempted.

I would take on anyone, however, who would use that argument ... lol. But that goes beyond the object of this post. Back to my first question.

Was the poster who complained of being ignored, er... screened?

Only other answer I can think of was that her computer may have had a glitch that didn't send when she "sent" the email.

Posted by: ktidid | February 10, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

P.S.... a tad off the subject. I admire the concept of "ombudsman," but almost did not read the article on spiking emails... however, the headline intrigued me.

I really do not Twitter, Tweet, or Blog... do those terms, those words, do they define ... er.. the emotional maturity and/or the intellectual prowess of our culture?


Posted by: ktidid | February 10, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

Some reporters are very responsive to e-mail inquires. At the same time, others are not. While I cannot possibly know why individuals act the way they do, I do have an opinion. I believe that most reporters simply want the readers to accept everything they write at fact value and do not want anyone to question them. Simply put, the elites do not want to be questioned.

Posted by: jeffreed | February 10, 2010 3:37 PM | Report abuse

In the past, I used to send emails to online papers on issue where I thought I could contribut another point of view or a reasonble criticism. In every single instance, I received only a form letter in return. Dunno if anybody apprecitated the time and effort that went into writing at all. And even when I pointed out factual errors, the article wasn't corrected. And you say that's different at the Post? Sounds like a fairy tale to me.

Comments, on the other hand, are published, other readers react on them, and if a commenter raises a compelling point, others will support that, and the outrage may reach a critical mass. That can't be ignored so easily. This makes an important difference, and is more rewarding.

So, no surprise journalists hate comments. They can't be so easily swept under the carpet.

Posted by: Gray62 | February 11, 2010 5:28 AM | Report abuse

Would that all on-line posters read and adhered to the sensible guidelines suggested by ktidid in her/his first post. When I read some (all too many) posts, I find myself thinking the poster should use a hand sanitizer (along the lines of washing the mouth out with soap).

Posted by: vklip1 | February 11, 2010 9:47 AM | Report abuse

Check the comment threads at the NYT, vklip! Much more reaonable discussions there, without the obscenities that rule here. Of course, that's because the NYT moderates every single posting. That's why the difference between the readers' feedback to both papers is so striking. And why the Post increasingly looks like foulmouth central. I wonder how much longer Don Graham will tolerate seeing the reputation of his paper ruined by the trolls...

Posted by: Gray62 | February 11, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse

Based on the columns and you and your predecessor, it's clear that most reporters aren't interested in and don't want feedback from their readers. Why bother?

Even though you respond to readers' complaints and have pointed out where the Post was wrong, only the most superficial changes are made. The Post still seems to think that their paid "salons" were a PR problem, not a basic problem with credibility and integrity. The editorial page still prints opinion pieces where the author has serious bias and/or conflicts of interest without pointing them out.

Why complain about things when the feedback is unwanted and ignored? When it comes to reading the Post, caveat emptor is the rule. The Post is no longer a credible source by itself.

Posted by: hgillette | February 11, 2010 4:29 PM | Report abuse

Yonkers, New York
13 February 2010

Right off the bat, I say that reporters cannot be expected to respond to readers who email their reactions to whatever stories they write.

Reporters simply don't have the time to do that.

They need all the time they have available to do the research and the fact-checking on a story--and then the time to write it.
They are also subject to deadlines.

I am a regular reader of the Post's online version. I comment routinely on articles, stories, editorials and columns. But I don't see the need to send an email to a reporter to react to a story.

Mariano Patalinjug

Posted by: MPatalinjug | February 13, 2010 6:21 AM | Report abuse

One problem with the Post's comment system is that on many stories the posts are upside down: newest to oldest. The rest of my comment is written that way, line by line, so you can see why that's bad.


6 It's not my newspaper, so this is not my call to make. However, on the local news site I'll be editing here in Florida starting May 1, the comments *will* be displayed in the correct order. It's a one-click change in your CMS. So please make it happen.

5 This is obviously not true. Even on stories with the upside-down comments setup, posters are often talking amongst themselves.

4 Posting bottom to top (latest to oldest) assumes that each poster is responding to the article itself, not to another poster.

3 Another reason is to encourage true conversation among the posters, which tends to cut down the troll level.

2 If someone else has already said what I meant to say, I am not going to say it again.

1 The main reason to post "oldest first" is to prevent duplication.

Posted by: roblimo | February 13, 2010 10:26 AM | Report abuse

I agree with roblimo about the order of the posts. It is VERY frustrating.

As for writing directly to the reporters, this is what I usually do. I want to comment on what the reporter wrote and not have it lost among the vitriolic comments other readers make. I have received a personal reply from some reporters and an automatic response from others. The only one who never replied was the late William Safire, who was one of my favorite columnists, politically and in his language columns. I also enjoy reading Charles Krauthammer but never read the comments because I can't stand the vitriol. I do not see how some of those comments are allowed to go through.

I enjoy reading the Ombudsman's column and wrote two comments to the late Deborah Howell, which she graciously replied to.

Posted by: orawh | February 13, 2010 4:14 PM | Report abuse

Well, does that cover the problem? You have a much more serious problem at the Post in communicating with your readers.

It has to do with that the news has been so squeezed out by sloppy, opinionated spin articles on politics. To get any news you have to go to the NY Times and that is never sufficient in America.

And your stable of columnists--Krauthammer, Will, Gerson, Kristol--are obscene ideologes and propagandists. Aren't these column spaces supposed to be of an inquiring thoughtful nature? Even Richard Cohen and David Broder have long lost any thoughtfulness--they've been beaten down and brainwashed by living in the sick world of Radical Conservative Republican propaganda.

By the way, I looked for the email of two columnists recently and I could not find it anywhere as in the past. So either I am stupid or your claims in this blog are inaccurate.

Posted by: walden1 | February 15, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

It's too bad you could not be as forthcoming and detailed when you discussed the Turque blog posting incident. But I'm sure it's easier to dump on a news clerk than on the managing editor.

Posted by: usemark1 | February 16, 2010 6:15 PM | Report abuse

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