Charlotte Observer shows how news orgs should mix journalism and business

Editors at the Charlotte Observer have taken some heat for using the North Carolina public records law to seek the e-mail addresses of about 23,000 people who signed up for alerts related to city services. But I want to congratulate them.

People figured the paper would spam them. Some said the paper was improperly using public records law for commercial purposes. And many considered this an invasion of their privacy.

But here's what I see:

  • A newsroom trying to tap into a community to help it do better journalism
  • A business trying to reach an audience that may be interested in its product

And here's why that deserves congratulations: In pursuing those two goals, the paper is breaking down the longstanding wall between its journalism and the business of supporting that journalism.

Mixing journalism and business

Observer Executive Editor Rick Thames explained to readers – a bit late, unfortunately – why the paper wanted the e-mail addresses and ZIP codes of the people who registered for e-mail alerts from their local governments, including the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.

Thames' first reason fit neatly into the journalism category: There was talk of excluding this subscriber information from public records law, and the paper wanted to see what was being recorded. Maybe the information would help the newspaper see who signs up for such alerts and whether they find them useful.

The “distant second” reason, as Thames called it, is where the journalism got mixed up with the business:

“It also occurred to us that many people who signed up were clearly engaged with their communities, given that they were interested in receiving government e-mails. We immediately thought of two ways they could help us in our coverage of their public officials:

“They could tell us from experience if this government e-mail service was useful. Did it provide the information that they need?

“If they were interested, they could also become part of a growing number of citizens who are lending their perspectives and expertise to help us produce better journalism.”

He was referring to the Observer's “Public Insight Network,” a program to build the newspaper's body of sources by asking people to tell them what they are knowledgeable about. So far 1,500 people have signed up.

After people complained, the paper decided that it would still review the records, but it wouldn't use them to solicit sources or for any other reason.

That's too bad, because the distinction raised by the Observers' critics — the difference between seeking this information for Journalism and seeking it for Commercialism — is a false one.

The newspaper stood by the obviously journalistic inquiry, which was to review the records to see if there was something newsworthy. But it relented on the reason that mixed journalism and business, which was to build up its network of sources and create a better news product.

Rather than accepting the public's belief that Journalism is a proper goal, but Commercialism is not, newspapers like the Observer need to explain how those interests are intertwined.

Finding new audiences

The public records request came from Steve Gunn, who once worked in the newsroom but moved to the Observer's Interactive division as “Director of Strategic Products and Audience Development.”

Thames told me that in Gunn's new role, "he is working across divisions to help us find and grow new audiences. ... That can take him into circulation, it could take him into Interactive, it could take him into advertising." And it could take him into the newsroom.

Now, some online commenters said they feared the Observer would use those e-mail addresses to peddle the newspaper. That would be a pretty clumsy use of a targeted list of people who had expressed interest in city bids, street closings or economic stimulus news.

But how about a smart phone app that that functioned like SeeClickFix, which would enable people to notify the Observer about potholes, garbage and other problems in their communities? What about regular, online chats about local public policy? What if the Observer set up a text-alert system to inform people of traffic backups and problems along their commutes? Would people be interested in an easy way to track road maintenance projects near their homes?

Some of the same people who have no use for the newspaper may find that one of those other tools do fit into their lives. And it's up to the newspaper to figure those things out. More precisely, it's up to people like Gunn. In years past, someone with his title may have focused on printed advertorial products; now, the potential is in segmented, information-based tools.

Making the case for disclosure

Which brings us back to the e-mail addresses.

An outraged former county commissioner, Jim Puckett, said the request “was a blatant misuse of the 'right-to-know' laws by a for-profit company that is looking to expand its readership.” But there's nothing illegal or unethical about what the Observer did.

North Carolina's public records law doesn't draw any distinction between noble and slimy purposes. In fact, it prevents government bodies from basing their response on the purpose of the information. Kim McMillan, the Charlotte official who handled the public information request, said that businesses commonly seek information from the city (though generally not as much information as this time, and not e-mail addresses).

Still, that doesn't mean all those residents knew their contact information could be disclosed. Although the privacy policy for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg website is quite direct about this (it's under the heading "Privacy of Email lists"), McMillan said the vendor that handles these alerts had a contradictory privacy policy. The city will correct that, she said.

"In this case," Thames told me, "I have a lot of empathy for those who registered because most of them had no idea they were making their addresses public record. They might have chosen otherwise if they had known that."

Yet in talking with Thames and McMillan, I do see some ways that the paper could have changed its approach. It may not have changed what happened here, but perhaps it could change the outcome when another news org tries to do this — and I hope one will.

  • Tell the government what you plan to do with the information. McMillan told me that it wasn't clear from the public records request what the paper planned to do with the information. Again, such disclosure isn't required by law. But as many people who deal with public records laws know, sometimes it helps to bend a little on the technicalities in order to coax public officials into opening up their files.
  • Post something on your website telling people what you're seeking and why. Though contrary to reporters' instincts, this may have tempered people's surprise when they received a notice from the city telling them that the Observer had requested the information. (About 300 of the 22,865 people soon unsubscribed.)Thames told me that the paper didn't know what it would do with the information, which sounds reasonable from a journalist's perspective, but not from a consumer's. At the very least, tell people what you won't do. Will you at least commit not to send them e-mails about the summer boat show or your Groupon imitator? Tell them.
  • Before you request the data, review it in person. McMillan told me that the city wouldn't have alerted everyone on the list if someone from the paper had just reviewed the information to see what was there. Perhaps this would have helped the paper decide if it was worthwhile to file a request.
  • See if the government will help you explain what you're up to. When Charlotte sent that notice to all of its users, it provided Gunn's contact info but nothing else explaining why the paper wanted this information. I asked McMillan whether the city would've included a statement from the newspaper explaining its purpose. Probably not, she said, because the city would have to decide whether it would treat other obviously commercial requests the same. Perhaps your own government will be more willing to work with you.

Some of the Observer's critics said they didn't see why the Observer was digging into the governments' files in order to reach people. The company publishes the biggest daily paper around, and it runs a well-known website.

As someone who helps run an online news site, I know there are two groups of people: those who consume your content and those who don't. I don't know anyone who is satisfied with the size of that first group, which means we all must figure out why people are in the second group.

The most successful salespeople convince their customers that they truly believe in their products. Journalists believe their work is vital, but they could employ some salesmanship to convince a reluctant public.

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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