Charlotte Observer forces city to release e-mail subscriber list
The City of Charlotte has given residents on its e-mail list a heads-up about the Charlotte Observer obtaining the city list through an open records request. The paper’s Director of Strategic Products and Audience Development says the Observer requested the listings “because we believe that many of the engaged citizens on the lists would be interested in helping us improve our journalism by telling us about stories they see.”
TIM LONG writes to Romenesko:

I got the following email from the city of Charlotte yesterday.

“This is a courtesy notification that The Charlotte Observer has requested the City’s email subscriber list.

The City must provide this information under the North Carolina Public Records law. Please direct any questions or concerns to the Charlotte Observer c/o Steve Gunn, Director of Strategic Products and Audience Development at or 704-358-5077 or 600 S. Tryon St., Charlotte, NC, 28202.”

Apparently, the Charlotte Observer is using N.C. Public Records law to gain access to subscribers of the city’s email alerts. But this isn’t for an article or an investigative piece: The person at the Observer who is seeking the email addresses has the title of “Director of Strategic Products and Audience Development,” hardly a journalist-like
job title.

One former Mecklenburg County Commissioner has already sounded off about the possible abuse of the public records law.

Here’s what he said to Mr. Gunn:

“Mr. Gunn. I have received a number of emails stating the Charlotte Observer is requesting email list from government bodies. I must let you know I am borderline outraged. I had a solid reputation while in office of complete openness as relates to media. I took a verbal beating in a closed session from the Board of Education over the board member’s belief that I had spoken out of place concerning business they would have rather kept secret. I left a closed session meeting to meet with press regarding what I considered inappropriate use of the Superintendent using his “personal review” as a cover to forward unpopular policy. I know of no one more supportive of the media’s “right to know”. That said, if the Charlotte Observer is going to use the law in an attempt to gather information not relevant to the public’s right to know, I fully support the elected bodies doing EVERYTHING possible up to and including stretching and interpreting the law such that you are excluded from as much information as possible. You do not have a right to information from private citizens who engage with or contact the government. When I held elected office I understood and accepted that I had freely given up much of my privacy but as a private citizen my information is sacrosanct.

In my opinion if the nature of the request by the Observer is as presented, to collect private email addresses, you have lost your standing as a legitimate media outlet and have now become a marketing tool for your advertisers, no different than commercial television hawking mindless programming. You present news as a cover to collect information to further your marketing efforts. If true, shame on you.”

Just thought you might be interested.

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  • Anonymous

    Another update on this story: On Tuesday, Jan. 25, Charlotte Observer Editor Rick Thames published an apology and pledged that the paper would not send emails to citizens whose names are on the public email lists.

  • Matt Schafer

    Seriously, how is this different from getting access to sign in sheets at city council meetings?

  • Anonymous

    Here’s additional coverage:

    Jan. 24, 2011,, “Update: Editor says Observer may decide not to send emails.”

    Jan. 21. 2011, – “Town puzzles over Observer’s request for citizen emails.”

    Jan. 21, 2011, WFAE-FM/, “Observer taps city, county email distribution lists.” – WFAE’s Julie Rose reports on the issue.

  • P

    This is ABSOLUTELY outside the intent of the FOIA. The Charlotte Observer should be ashamed. Its clear that this information will be used in an attempt to boost circulation or online readership. Not surprised considering the recent trajectory of this paper, but still…amazing.

  • Anonymous

    Despite sounding like a ridiculous use of public records law (I have no idea how having an email list will serve the public good), the privacy policy of the Charlotte states the following:

    “Under current North Carolina law, these email lists are public records and we must provide them to anyone who makes a public records request, except to the extent they contain public enterprise billing information or other information protected from disclosure by law.”

    If the Charlotte paper were to use the email list to send emails that weren’t requested, it would be a violation of federal spam laws anyway.