How accessible do journalists really want to be?

Social networks have helped make journalists more accessible by breaking down barriers between the public and the media. But there’s a disconnect between journalists’ accessibility on social networks and their accessibility on news sites.

As a media reporter, I’ve often been frustrated by how hard I have to look for journalists’ contact information on news sites — and by how few usable results I get. I sometimes find nothing more than a generic email address, or a list of emails for departments instead of people.

This is a problem — not just for media reporters who want to contact journalists for stories, but perhaps more importantly for readers, viewers and listeners who want to get in touch with them. The problem partly stems from poor site navigation and design. But it also points to a larger philosophical question: How accessible do journalists really want to make themselves?

Making ourselves accessible on social media

One of the exciting aspects of social media is that it gives people a chance to interact with others in ways that they traditionally couldn’t. Viewers may never have the chance to talk with Katie Couric or Diane Sawyer or Chuck Todd in person, but they can see what they’re saying on Twitter and Facebook and respond. There’s a “magical feeling” that comes with being “inside with the insiders,” as a New York Magazine story recently pointed out.

But just because you’re a journalist on Twitter doesn’t mean you’re making yourself accessible. Brian Williams, for instance, has more than 54,000 followers but has never tweeted. Journalists who do make themselves accessible respond to followers’ questions, acknowledge people’s criticisms, and tap into their followers for sources and ideas. Some reporters make themselves even more accessible by including their contact information in their Twitter bios — or on personal sites that are findable via search.

Finding reporters’ contact information on news sites isn’t so easy, though.

How difficult is it to find contact information on news sites?

To answer this question, I turned to Poynter librarian David Shedden, who helped me research how 35 U.S. news sites (as well as a couple in the U.K.) present contact information. The research shows that there’s inconsistency in what contact information is included and where it’s placed.

Many of the news sites we looked at have Contact or About pages but only list generic email addresses and phone numbers. This was the case with ABC News, USA Today, The New York Daily News, and some local TV news sites.

The Dallas Morning News includes writers’ email addresses in stories, but you can’t see the email addresses on articles that are blocked by the site’s paywall. The site has a Contact page, but it includes just two phone numbers. The page advises people to first read a (18,000-word) FAQ and then fill out a generic email form if they can’t find the answers they’re looking for.

The Louisville Courier-Journal links authors’ bylines to an email address. The Miami Herald includes reporters’ email addresses in stories. The Denver Post, meanwhile, sometimes links to reporters’ contact information in stories and sometimes doesn’t.

The Chicago Tribune has a helpful About page with staffers’ names and links to their contact information. And The Journal Register papers have Contact pages with editors’ names, email addresses and phone numbers, broken down by department. Their article pages include each writer’s title, email address and Twitter handle.

I was happy to see that Slate’s Contact page includes an email address readers can use to report corrections. But I was turned off by this note: “Many of our staff members and contributors provide their email addresses at the bottom of their stories. If an author chooses not to, we do not forward correspondence to him or her.” In other words, good luck contacting them.

Jim Brady, Journal Register Company’s editor-in-chief and a sometimes Poynter consultant, told me via email that news sites that make it difficult to contact staffers “are probably doing it because they either haven’t thought of it or don’t want to subject their staffs to a lot of e-mail or calls, and that’s too bad. It shows the stubbornness of old thinking. The reporters that are being ‘protected’ in that scenario are being poorly served by their bosses.”

Benefits, drawbacks of including contact information

If you’re serious about news, particularly breaking news, you have to give people as many ways to reach you as possible, says Tracy Record, editor of West Seattle Blog. Her site’s Contact page doesn’t include names, but it lists a telephone number (which Record says she answers “24/7″), a few email addresses, a snail mail address and a number readers can send text messages to.

Texting is second nature for many people, so it’s a helpful option.

“Some people don’t really want to talk to you, they just want to give you a snippet of info (‘bad traffic jam on the bridge’), and this is the perfect way,” said Record, who gets about half a dozen texts from readers each day. On the receiving end, texts are a simple way of getting alerts without adding clutter to your email inbox.

Given that her site covers hyperlocal news, Record relies on readers’ input for many story ideas and tips. If she didn’t list contact information, she said, she’d likely end up with fewer stories each day.

“The old attempts at putting a barrier between the messiness of direct communication with the public and the Capital-J Journalists was well-intended in some cases — protect the folks who are doing the hard work from having to deal with whatever’s on the other end of the cold call, be it a crazy person, an upset person, or whatever,” Record said via email. “But it had the unintended effect of also keeping them away from true community collaboration.”

Some journalists hesitate to publicly share their contact information for fear that they’ll get bombarded with messages. They may feel as though they don’t have time to respond to news consumers’ inquiries, or they may not care to do so. Andy Rooney said in his farewell earlier this month that he gets lots of mail but hardly ever responds. “Who would wanna answer an idiot who has the bad sense to write me a letter?” the curmudgeonly TV commentator asked. “I mean, it’s a certain kind of person who writes and they’re not my kind of people, usually.”

No doubt, readers, listeners and viewers can be harsh. Jennifer Gish, a Times-Union sports columnist and feature writer, was reminded of this after writing a column recently questioning whether Bills fans had a right to demand respect after a 2-0 start. At the end of the column, she included her phone number and email address with a note that said: “Keep it clean, Bills fans.”

Numerous readers sent her nasty emails in response, saying she’s proof that “females shouldn’t be allowed to write articles about sports,” and that she should  “stay in the kitchen next time.” Despite the hate mail she received, Gish still advocates for including contact information in stories.

“The downside to putting email addresses out there, of course, is that people are a lot braver when they get in front of computers than they are when they dial their phones, so the discourse isn’t always as fruitful or respectful,” she said via email, noting that the Times-Union started including reporters’ contact information in stories about five years ago. “But I’m still in support of making our contact information very easy to find. In the past, it’s allowed me to start helpful dialogues with readers and find story ideas.”

Seeing the value in accessibility

If your news site doesn’t publish contact information, advocate for it. Let site editors know that you want to be contacted, and show them examples of sites that you think do a good job of presenting staffers’ information.

If I were to create an ideal Contact page (for Poynter.org and other sites), here’s what it would entail:

  • A list of staffers’ names, broken down by department.
  • All staffers’ names would link to a bio that includes their most recent work, email address, phone number and Twitter handle.
  • Staffers’ bylines on article pages would also link to this bio. (If the bylines don’t link to a bio, then ideally all article pages would include the writer’s email address, phone number and Twitter handle.)

Gone are the days when we could close ourselves off to our audience, or pretend not to hear them. Given how much news organizations are struggling, we need to make ourselves as accessible as possible so we can build our relationship with news consumers and engage in conversations with them about the work we do.

As the Journal Register’s Brady told me: “I think more and more news sites have figured out the obvious — which is that we need each individual reader more than they need us.”

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  • Afonso Pimenta

    I am not a journalist, i am not od at all and i think all this talk about conectivity and “collaboration” is non-sense and a stupid trend that limits privacy and puts eveybody being vampires of each other. Let them work. I don´t respect journalists that are searvents to this extent. Get some pride! Use your time in writting well instead of wanting to be so trendy.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    I would agree, Lauren, that the good generally outweighs the bad. Being more accessible can make it easier for your critics to reach out to you, but that’s not always a bad thing. I try to look at the benefits of accessibility — more feedback and interaction with readers, which can open us up to new story ideas and sources.

    ~Mallary

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks, David. Glad you enjoyed the story.

    ~Mallary

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    If you click on this writer’s profile, there is no individual telephone contact number — only Twitter and e-mail accounts. There is a # for Poynter at the bottom, but my guess is it will lead to a voice-mail message tree. We’ll find out later.

    Tip: If you’re writing about other writers being non-accessible, then you might want to be, you know, sort of accessible.

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    Of course, those same editors will fault you for not finding the information. They’re probably the same people who demand no calls or e-mail attachments. The no-call policy is probably necessary, but the opposition to e-mail attachments never made much sense. (One person who had this policy writes for Poynter, by the way.)

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    The standard Mallary Tenore response — “I’ve done that before, and you’re wrong.” No specifics.

    But this is someone who has NEVER taken one call in at least 25 tries.

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    Interesting that Mallary Tenore would post this. A couple of years ago, when she insisted in another comment thread that copy editors should ALWAYS have full discussions with reporters when making changes, I mentioned that while that was a good policy, it could not always be implemented for various reasons. The response I received, in my opinion, was somewhat condescending.

    I made perhaps two dozen attempts over the course of several weeks to contact this writer at the number listed on the Poynter site. Voice mail was always the response. No calls were ever returned. Other Poynter staffers also use this screening process.

    Seems to me like the person accusing others of not wanting to have a dialogue is guilty of that shortcoming. Also, I see the standard “I’ve been in a newsroom on deadline” response here. Not really an answer.

  • Lauren Rozyla

    This piece really rings true for me! It is SO difficult sometimes to try and find other journalists’ contact info – or even sometimes their bio page! I can’t even imagine how frustrating that is for readers and viewers.

    We should be accessible. Ever since I really started using social media to explore story ideas, it’s really helped me. Sometimes, you do get horrible comments and emails. But generally, the good outweighs the bad. 

  • Anonymous

    Excellent piece, which prompted me to add the contact info already at my web site to my Twitter profile.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks, @N. I’ve worked in a newsroom on deadline, and I can’t say I agree. I understand what you’re saying, though. The burden of having to respond to people can be great. But I think the more we respond, the more our audience is likely to engage in a healthy dialogue with us — maybe not at first, but eventually.

    ~Mallary

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks, Joy. That’s a great resource you linked to. Responding to readers, listeners and viewers can definitely eat up time. One of the things I like about Twitter is that I can respond to several people at once, so it helps save time. Plus, the 140-character limit forces me to be succinct. I used to have a tendency to write long emails, so I had to train myself to respond to readers with short and sweet notes. Like you, I come down on the side of conversation. I want to respond to readers, but I don’t want to spend my whole morning or afternoon responding.

    ~Mallary

  • Nicki Mayo

    I like the increased accessibility since a growing number of sources are more comfortable reaching out to journalists via the social media. This gives viewers a chance to “check you out” and get to know you. My social media presence has made a difference in my career since I snagged several exclusive interviews via Facebook and Twitter tips.

    Market hopping makes you “the new reporter” so often, that social media cuts down the face time interactions we may not have the energy to do in this ever demanding multimedia field. My mantra is “Google me and I bet you’ll ‘like’ me too.”

    On the downside… I’m not anti-accessibility on a professional level. However I am anti-stalker and violating my personal safe space. Men seem a little extra confident and aggressive approaching me via social media.
    Also thanks to social media, I’ve had more racist items sent directly to my inbox compared to when we were just operating on phones and emails.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_JI2MBY6SYRL5BH6QMLJKRMGURI N.

    Only someone who has never actually worked in a news organization, on deadline, would see value in making a reporter’s direct phone line widely available and encouraging everyone to use it. This notion of wide “accessibility” is a byproduct of the reader consultancy industry, not journalism. 

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the thoughtful look at a really important issue. It’s such a
    pet peeve of mine. It should be so simple to find contact info for a
    specific journalist, or for a generic job (sports editor, for example). I
    wrote about this last year:
    http://joymayer.com/2011/03/09/can-our-readers-find-us-do-we-want-them-to/

    The flip side, of course, is asking whether we’re willing to make the
    time commitment to respond to people. After I published that post, I
    heard from journalists about the tradeoff they were making in
    accessibility. Spending the morning responding to emails and phone calls
    means another story doesn’t get done. The folks who got in touch with me had mixed feelings about whether it was worth it.

    I come down on the side of the conversation, though I also realize it’s a matter of scale. What works for community newsrooms wouldn’t work for national ones.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks, Pamela. That is a good contact page. From what I can tell, though, there’s not a link to it on dallasnews.com. And that’s part of the problem; readers shouldn’t have to do Google searches to find the contact information they’re looking for. It should be readily available (and easy to find) on news sites.

    ~Mallary

  • Pamela Engel

    “The site has a Contact page, but it includes just two phone numbers. The page advises people to first read a (18,000-word) FAQ and then fill out a generic email form if they can’t find the answers they’re looking for.”

    The Dallas Morning News actually does have a pretty good contact page, but I found it through Google, not through their site.

    http://mediaaccess.dallasnews.com/contacts/tdmn.html

    Great article, though, I’ve had a lot of trouble digging up editors’ contact info when I’m applying to internships and want to ask questions about the program/application.