October 19, 2011

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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As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website, Poynter.org, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the…
Mallary Jean Tenore

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