Patrick B. Pexton
Patrick B. Pexton
Ombudsman

Post readers feel ignored

The Post is making a lot of effort to increase reader “engagement,” a new-media word that means getting readers to become something more than that — more like participants in journalism. Readers engage by making online comments on stories, following favorite writers on Twitter or Facebook, or serving as sources themselves through social media “crowdsourcing.”

Increasing reader engagement is one of the keys to The Post’s future. I support it.

Patrick B. Pexton

Pexton served as Post ombudsman from March 2011-March 2013.

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But there’s another part of The Post experience that also involves reader engagement, one that is too often ignored in the newsroom.

Let me first be indelicate about this, and then I’ll return to my senses.

Post editors, reporters, bloggers and copy aides: Return the blessed phone calls and e-mails from readers! And do it with courtesy, respect and politeness, even when the caller, or writer, is persistent or even unpleasant. Please.

By doing so, you’ll do more to keep, satisfy and engage readers than anything you say in your next 20 tweets.

Here are some recent tales from readers:

A Virginia reader copied me on three e-mail queries in the past year to various Post writers, none of which were acknowledged. The e-mails were polite, uncomplicated and probably could have been answered in 30 seconds. After the third one, he wrote me this: “Another Post prima donna who does not answer a reasonable e-mail comment.”

Here’s another, from a reader in the District: “I find that it’s really good for business when the people who answer your phone, and don’t like your opinion, hang up on you. Not once but twice I was hung up on by your Metro department. So now, instead of just canceling my daily paper, I’ll be canceling the Sunday paper as well.”

Now, most journalists here — the great majority — are conscientious about responding to reader inquiries. In fact, they take it as a point of pride. I salute them.

But others in the newsroom aren’t so good about this; the adjectives I get from readers to describe them are arrogant, dismissive and unfriendly.

When a reader cares enough to call or e-mail — even a complaint — that, to me, is like serving “engagement” on a silver platter. It’s a journalist’s opportunity to turn that reader into a loyal fan.

James Grimaldi, a veteran investigative reporter, said, “I’m old school. I try to respond to every one, even the online comments. It’s part of engagement. I get tips, I get another point of view, and I discover that maybe I could have worded a story a different way or I left something out that I should have put in. It’s all a good thing. . . . If you’re not paying attention to readers, you’re not doing your job as an old-fashioned newspaperman.”

Now, journalists shouldn’t be doormats. If you disagree with the complainer, say so firmly, but with courtesy and a good reason. If the request is too time-consuming, say you’re sorry, and explain your deadlines and workday.

Readers, meanwhile, should bear in mind that journalists are expected to do more than ever before, are more on-call to their bosses and are slaves to near-constant deadlines and the incessant blink, chirp and toot of their smartphones.

Some of the most responsible reporters in the newsroom say they no longer can answer every reader inquiry, even though they try, because the volume of e-mails and queries through social media is rising.

Given that, readers, it’s not practical to expect journalists to answer you promptly. You might have to call or write a second time. Most of them will screen your phone calls and return your call later. Be patient and be brief; don’t ramble. Leave your number and your e-mail address.

And readers, be civil. “The more thoughtful and sincere the reader response is, the more expansive, timely, or generous with brainpower I am in responding to it,” said a national-desk reporter. “For example, a simple ‘you suck’ will probably get nothing, or possibly a curt ‘Thanks for letting me know.’ ”

Even the ombudsman is far from perfect on returning every call and e-mail because of the volume. But a quick call or reply — “Hey, thanks, I really appreciate the input” — engages readers and makes them feel part of something they care very much about: Post journalism.

In my March 4 column on D.C. homicide closure statistics, I mistakenly said that Police Chief Cathy L. Lanierincluded the “in-year” homicide closure rate in her annual reports. A check of her annual reports from 2007 through 2010 shows that she did not.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For updates, read the omblog at www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/omblog.

 
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