by Ken Sands, Online Publisher - The Spokesman-Review
Ken Sands, the Online Publisher of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, wrote this essay about using e-mail in reporting in new and inventive ways. You can visit The Spokesman-Review at www.spokesmanreview.com.
At a time when the credibility of newspapers is in question, it seems imperative that we interact with our readers whenever appropriate and whenever possible. With e-mail, we have the unprecedented ability to include our readers in nearly all phases of the news-gathering process.
Help with Idea Generation
Communicating regularly with large numbers of readers by e-mail is easy, efficient and begins to challenge the deeply held notion that newspapers are unapproachable. Once you have established an on-going e-mail relationship with readers, they are much more likely to tell you about breaking news, feature ideas or enterprise stories.
Experience suggests that simply asking readers to "tell us your story ideas" is not an effective method of interacting with readers. Rather, you need to plant specific suggestions.
For example: The Spokesman-Review is featuring an "Innovator" on the front page of every Monday paper in 2002. In order to jump-start the feature, I sent out e-mail to 300 readers asking them to nominate people who have found creative, practical solutions for dealing with work and life. We received nominations for people who are breaking ground in technology, business and medicine, and for a man who creates authentic stage coaches by hand. After 18 weeks, we're
running low on nominees, so I plan to send out more e-mail.
Help with Reporting an Enterprise Story
Most reporters and editors are skeptical and will embrace a new technology only when it's proven to make their jobs easier and more effective. Most of the experiments we've conducted so far with e-mail have been wildly successful, and the reporters have begun to embrace the newest tool in the toolbox. Here are some of the different ways in which e-mail has been used:
Needle in the haystack: A reporter was doing a feature story about the state Capitol dome closing for three years for repairs. That building is 300 miles away, but he wanted to find local people with fun, personal anecdotes about the building. So we sent out e-mail to 100 people, hoping to find one or two good tales. Here's the note I received the next day from the reporter: "Hey, if you ever need an example of why this data base is valuable, here's a great one. I'm writing an otherwise droll story about renovations at the state Capitol, and here's a woman in remote Wilbur, who, 37 years ago, was stuck atop the dome during a honeymoon tour with her (still) husband. It's a great anecdote and she was a fun phone interview. I don't know how we ever would've found her any other way."
Tough nut to crack: Sometimes, it's difficult to find people who are affected by a touchy, controversial subject, or to get them to talk on the record. In Spokane, racial profiling by police is accepted as fact in the small minority population, and greeted with much skepticism by the vast white majjority. That's why many people in the minority community are reluctant to talk about it. When the issue surfaced in 2001, a reporter spent a great deal of time and energy - without success - trying to find someone to go on the record with complaints. Initial public meetings were sparsely attended. So the initial news stories didn't have the RH (real human) factor. I stumbled upon an e-mail list of about 200 members of the minority community and sent them a message asking for their personal experiences with racial profiling. The quantity of response was low, but the quality was outstanding. We published guest columns and a half-page of letters to the editor on the opinion pages, and provided the reporter with enough good RH sources to write a decent advance of a public meeting with the police chief. Partly as a result of our thorough coverage of this issue, the public meeting was packed, and testimony went on for hours.
Community comment: Sometimes an enterprise story begs for comment from regular citizens, whether it's about an asphalt plant proposed for a residential neighborhood, the proliferation of potholes in the city, or a registered sex offender moving into an up-scale neighborhood. We've asked readers to comment on these stories, and many others, with great success.
Help with Reporting a Breaking News Story
Needle/haystack: At 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, I sent out e-mail to nearly 1,000 readers, asking for their personal connections to the terrorist attacks. Within minutes, the responses began pouring in: the husband of one reader's cousin had just exited the World Trade Center when the first building collapsed and his cell phone went dead; several other readers had friends or relatives in the air, in the Pentagon or in the World Trade Center. Some of their comments were included in that afternoon's special edition.
Person on the street: I've been giving presentations on this e-mail tool for over a year now, and a handful of other newspapers have begun to use it. Roger Smith, a staff writer at the Vindicator in Youngstown, Ohio, recently won an AP public service award for a series in which half of the people participated via e- mail. Here's his description of how the e-mail tool was used: "Congressman James Traficant was convicted in federal court on all 10 counts of bribery and racketeering against him about 4:30 p.m. A few minutes later I sent a query asking for thoughts on the conviction. We're a p.m. paper so I didn't need to turn it around immediately. If we had been on deadline, we had 30-some comments available to run within two hours. Nonetheless, I was given until about 11 p.m. to produce something and 'keep it under 40 inches.' I went home, ate dinner, walked the dog, watched TV (not a bad for being 'on deadline) and came back to the office about 9 p.m. I got 60 e-mails between 4:30 p.m. and 11 p.m., edited - them based on their focus to the verdict and where they came from, and spun out 32 comments. Three other reporters assigned to 'man on the street' reaction across five counties that evening produced 30 people in their stories COMBINED. And they didn't get to eat dinner at home or walk the dog that night. "
Creating a New Story Form?
During the week of Sept. 11, I sent out e-mail to 3,708 people on 10 different topics, and received back 665 responses (a rate of 18 percent). I asked readers: What they were doing specifically to cope; Whether their travel plans would change; Whether they would change their views on personal freedoms; If their view of patriotism had changed; Whether high school football games should be played on the National Day of Mourning; and whether their investment strategies would change. In each case, I put together a "story" in which the lead, transitions, and paraphrasing had all been stripped out. Everything, in fact, was stripped out except for an editor's note and the direct quotes from the readers. In this case, the reader reaction WAS the story, and this approach allowed for much more information to be contained in a relatively small amount of space.
Generating Opinion Page Commentary
Directed letters: The newspaper's opinion pages should be THE community forum for discussion of public policy issues. Our Idaho edition of the newspaper's traditionally has not received a large number of unsolicited letters to the editor. So, once a week, the editorial staff sends out an invitation to readers to comment on the "hot topic of the week." Each Wednesday, we publish the letters along with an editor\'s note indicating that the letters on that topic were solicited.
Letters on breaking news: On Sept. 12, we published a full page of letters to the editor on the terrorist attacks. Those letters were solicited along with the news tips. The opinion staff has recognized the value in reacting immediately to big breaking news stories in this manner.
Opinion projects: Two major issues are on the May 21 ballot in Spokane: whether to spend $95 million on a convention center; and whether to incorporate a city of 80,000 residents in the Spokane Valley. On four Sundays leading up to the election, the three opinion pages were devoted entirely to one of these topics. We wrote editorials, solicited guest columns and published a page of letters that had been solicited by e-mail.
- Readers tend to be flattered by the e-mail invitation and rarely react negatively, even if they don't have anything to say. People have a much stronger sense of being "part of" the paper. They know what we're working on before it appears. And soliciting their input also de mystifies the paper and how news-gathering works.
- It's amazing how much time readers are willing to take, and how open they are, about addresses, phone numbers, occupations, etc. They also tend to be more cooperative in follow-up phone interviews.
- We've had much better luck finding articulate, well-informed, untainted sources with e-mail than with some of the alternatives: cold-calling people out of the phone book or contacting people suggested by agencies or interest groups.
- The response rate varies dramatically depending on time of day and day of week, but varies primarily depending upon the nature of the question.
- While the use of mass e-mail is not a true, random sampling, the variety of responses typically crosses the entire spectrum. (Often beyond what you even imagine.)
- To quote Spokesman-Review reporter Rich Roesler: "I continue to feel a bit guilty about using this method to find people for stories - it feels too easy, like cheating."
- The use of e-mail is not scientific and should never be characterized that way.
- The use of e-mail is not a substitute for connecting with your community in more traditional ways. In fact, if you use e-mail, you need to be very diligent about reaching out to communities that are under-represented in the digital age.
- The use of the e-mail tool is not a replacement for traditional reporting, and is not appropriate for many stories. It is simply a cool new tool and should be used judiciously.
- You must avoid Spam and adhere to Internet etiquette.
So how do I set up my own e-mail system?
Bear with me: this is not as complicated as it sounds, especially if you have at least one savvy tech person on staff... There are three main hurdles to get your e-mail "Reader Advisory Network" off the ground.
Hurdle 1: Getting the e-mail addresses.
- You can simply put a blurb in the paper inviting readers to join the RAN and have them send you their personal information. They should provide the same information that you require of letters to the editor writers (name, address, phone, e-mail).
- You can collect e-mail addresses of readers who comment on your Web site (if you have this mechanism set up already).
- You can collect e-mail addresses of readers who have to register on your Web site (if you require registration).
- You can ask all staff members to pool the e-mail addresses of their RH (real human) contacts.
- You can collect e-mail addresses of everyone who submits a letter to the editor via e-mail (in our case, 60 percent of writers).
- You can ask the circulation department for whatever e-mail addresses they have collected (as long as they understand you never will share your addresses with them).
- Regardless of which combination of methods you use, you must plan for a continual stream of new people and new addresses.
Hurdle 2: Deciding how to store the addresses
This is a big decision. Your data-base options range from "simple, but limited" to "complex, but flexible." Here are a couple of ideas (there are undoubtedly many others).
- In 5 minutes or less, you could set up "personal distribution lists" in your Microsoft Outlook e-mail program. You could set up separate lists, for instance, of residents of each city or county in your readership area. This method, though, is not very flexible and you're likely to outgrow it quickly. It is a great way for someone to experiment with the idea to get a sense of how it works.
- Set up a Microsoft Access data base. This requires a little bit more time and expertise. It also requires data entry for each person on the list. But the program is extremely flexible and searchable. This is what we currently use. We also have written programming that allows the e-mail addresses selected in an Access query to be sent e-mail automatically through Outlook.
- Set up a data base through your Web site. We have something called SOL Server, for instance. It allows us the capability to put a page on our Web site where people can join the Reader Advisory Network automatically. This saves an extraordinary amount of time because the readers do their own data entry. This also creates a potential headache, however, because of a large percentage of incorrect data entry (how many different ways can you spell Coeur d'Alene?).
Hurdle 3: Avoiding missteps
You've collected the addresses, and you've stored them in a database. What now? It should be a simple matter of deciding what you want from readers, and figuring out how to ask the right questions. Some of this will require trial and error. Here are some tips, though, to keep the errors to a minimum.
- Always, always make sure that the e-mail addresses of recipients are placed on the Bcc (blind carbon copy) line of the e-mail. If you don't know what this means or how to do it, ask someone for help. Trust me, this is really important. Otherwise, every recipient will have access to the e-mail addresses of every other recipient. That will make them really cranky.
- Be very careful about what you put in the subject line. Readers are especially suspicious and may not open the e-mail message if they don't recognize the name of the sender or if the subject line is not clear.
- Be careful how you phrase the question. Readers will react negatively to any perceived bias.
- Don't send e-mail to anyone more often than once a week. More than once a week, and readers will consider it Spam and will ask to be removed. If you have multiple staff members using the database, this becomes an issue to consider when devising the database.
- Have a sense of how you plan to use the responses, and roughly how many responses you need. Tell the people who respond how you plan to use the responses. And try not to generate too many responses when you have room for only a few. Try to find room on the Web to run all of the responses, even the ones not used in print.
- Always be very clear about the fact that you're asking the question on behalf of the newspaper and that their replies might be published. This is new and different and you don't want anyone to be surprised by their words being in print.
- Always include an "opt-out" line at the end so that people can ask to be removed from the list. Here's an example: "(P .S.: We occasionally ask readers for their input by e-mail. If you'd rather not hear from us, let me know.)"
- Choose topics that are likely to have great public interest. (In other words, no amount of prodding will make people interested in inherently boring topics.)