E-mail and Journalism: Mix with Care

July 13, 2007
Category: Uncategorized

In his day job, David Shipley serves as editor for The New York Times’ editorial and op-ed pages. But after hours he moonlights as expert in digital etiquette. He and Will Schwalbe, a senior vice president and editor-in-chief for Hyperion Books, wrote the recently published “Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home.” Shipley brought together what he knows about journalism and e-mail in the following responses — delivered via e-mail, of course — to some work-related questions.

In every newsroom there’s always someone who forwards wire pieces and other miscellany they find interesting to their colleagues. Is this a breach of e-mail etiquette?

It’s not a breach of etiquette, but it can be an imposition. One reason many of us are fed up or frustrated with e-mail is because we get too much of it. So the question to ask, I think, before you send a link or a piece of information is: Why am I sending this? Am I sending it because it will be of use to a colleague who’s writing a story? Or am I sending it because it’s amusing, or because I’m bored, or because it will make me look smart (or funny)? Every e-mail is an interruption. It’s worth keeping that in mind — and asking ourselves if that link we’re about to send is really worth an interruption.

A related thought: If you do decide to send that link, you might want to add “No Reply Necessary” to your message — provided a reply isn’t required. Doing so will save the link’s recipient from having to send you an e-mail thanking you for sending the link; it will also probably save you from at least being tempted to reply to that thank you with a thank you of your own!

Obviously, interviewing by e-mail has limits: You can’t do follow-up questions based on the subject’s answers, and the reporter can’t take body language into account. So when is this a good idea?

First, disclosure: I have never been a reporter. I have always been an editor. But why let that get in the way? Having seen how hard a lot of reporters work, and often what they’re up against, my guess is that most reporters are eager to have as many different avenues to a prospective interviewee as possible. And while there are those obvious drawbacks to e-mail as an interview tool, there are also some obvious (and not-so-obvious) virtues. With e-mail, some out-of-reach people are suddenly within reach. E-mail gives you a virtually indelible electronic record; you can hold people to what they’ve written. In some instances, I imagine, e-mail can make people more comfortable. You don’t feel grilled. You feel like you have time to reply. I understand how that can lead to canned or overly calculated responses, but I also believe it can lead people to be more relaxed and therefore more forthcoming. What’s more, I don’t think it’s possible to underestimate our capacity to screw up on e-mail — to say things we didn’t mean to say. When people get comfortable, they also get careless; that giant “Send” key can lure anyone into sending a message before it’s fully cooked. My guess is that more than a few scoops have been built around — or triggered by — people who said more than they meant to say in an e-mail interview.

That ringing defense aside, I do think that the e-mail interview should most always be the interview of last resort — the method you choose when nothing else is possible.

What are some ways of building rapport with your subject through e-mail?

Well, try not to offend your subject! Start from a place of formality — Mr., Ms. and so on — and work down. If you’re asking someone you’ve never met for an interview, it’s probably best not to begin with “Hiya, Dave” — or something along those lines. (Or to send out a mass e-mail: “Dear Subject … “) Most of the reporters I know wouldn’t make those mistakes. In fact, most of the reporters I know do a pretty great job on e-mail. They bring to bear in their e-mails the interpersonal skills they’ve developed over the years in face-to-face interviews. They generally know how to build rapport by knowing their subjects. They know how to build rapport by mirroring — or picking up on the written cues of their subjects (i.e. using the same sign-off, responding at the same pace and at the same length and so on). And they know how to build rapport by finding ways to let personality (humanity) show through.

As you point out, the Internet gives people enough distance to break down their inhibitions. Should a journalist cut an interviewee some slack or adjust for this?

E-mail has been around for some time. While people make really boneheaded mistakes on it (see above), at this point they should know what they’re getting into. My feeling, then, is that there should be no special adjustments. But a reporter should do what he or she does before any interview in any medium: spell out the rules — and spell them out with extra care if the subject is someone who is not accustomed to dealing with the press.

Should what appears in print indicate that the quote came from an e-mail interview?

I think it should.

How about using e-mail as a form of rough draft — i.e., after you’ve done initial reporting, is there anything wrong with summarizing where you’re headed for the editor and saving it as a nut graph for yourself?

Nothing at all — so long as both parties (writers and editors) consider this to be a productive way to work.

A couple of thoughts, though.

First, it’s important to keep in mind that e-mail has a powerful ability to simulate forward progress. E-mails are flying around! Something is happening! We’re moving forward! But are we?

Second, it’s equally important to remember that email is not terrific for sorting out issues of great complexity. In this respect, an actual conversation can do wonders.

Among your seven reasons to love e-mail is that it gives you a searchable record. But later you quote Eliot Spitzer, New York’s former fire-eating attorney general: “Never talk when you can nod. And never write when you can talk. My only addendum is never put it in e-mail.” When should journalists be cautious about leaving a paper trail?

Always. Not just journalists, of course — everyone. We have to remember to be aware that e-mails stay around for a very long time. I work under the presumption that everything I write using my New York Times e-mail address represents the paper.

Surprisingly, you and your co-author are fond of emoticons, those smiley and not-so-smiley faces that can be added to messages. When are they appropriate in the workplace?

Emoticons are not for every inter-office interaction. But with close colleagues — sure. Look, e-mail is an affectless medium. You have to work hard to insert tone. This takes time. (Plus, how many e-mails do you get a day?) Emoticons are wonderful because they offer a really, really, really quick way to insert positive tone in an email.

A big word of warning: Emoticons should not be used to temper sarcasm; if you write something mean, a little smiley face will not cushion the blow.

Ellen Heltzel can be found on the Internet at www.thebookbabes.com.