Have You E-Mailed The Post Lately?

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, May 21, 2006

Reporters today get more daily feedback from readers than any journalists in history. E-mail is the reason, and the advent this year of clickable bylines on washingtonpost.com -- click on the byline and a "submit e-mail" form pops up -- makes the feedback even more immediate.

Reader e-mails bring valuable comments, story tips, sources, angst and sometimes disgust in the newsroom. Before clickable bylines, readers complained there was no easy way to find a reporter's e-mail address. Though some reporters list e-mail addresses on the Web site, Post editors do not want to attach addresses to stories, as some newspapers do.

If a reader writes to point out an important omission or factual error, that reader deserves a prompt answer. Most reporters and editors out of the 50 or so who answered my query say they read and try to answer most e-mail. A few said they read no e-mail from persons they do not know.

Post Magazine Editor Tom Shroder said: "I feel a powerful obligation to be responsive to both readers and freelance writers. I think it's essential for people to feel The Post isn't some impersonal, indifferent institution, but one that takes their concerns seriously, and responds promptly."

Style reporter and funny man Gene Weingarten tries to answer all of his e-mail. "Almost without exception, people are surprised and sometimes flattered to receive a response. Almost invariably when I am responding to an abusive or hostile letter -- even if my response gives no ground -- they soften. Often they apologize, saying they were having a bad day. But at the least, they express . . . gratitude for receiving a response. Apparently, they expect us to be arrogant and high-handed and unapproachable. It doesn't take much to make a small inroad into this perception."

E-mailers catch errors. Brooke Masters, a reporter in the New York bureau, said, "Three different times, early-bird readers have alerted me to errors associated with the Web's use of my stories from the newspaper (wrong photo, error in headline) and we have been able to correct them before most people were awake."

E-mailers help editors. Travel Editor K.C. Summers said: "Readers also write to us if they've been mistreated by an airline or suffered some other kind of travel trauma, and that's a great way for us to keep tabs on the industry and the sorts of things that are going down. We get great story ideas from readers' tales and complaints."

Then there's the angst. Some reporters don't want to be unfriendly to readers but say that e-mail, along with online chats and now radio reports, are enormously time-consuming. One reporter says that critical e-mail can dampen a reporter's enthusiasm for controversial stories.

Style reporter Teresa Wiltz is not a fan of clickable bylines. "I do love hearing from readers, but in general, the byline-clickers tend to be the ones who are responding without a filter. And they tend to be vicious. Some writers are thoughtful, but overall, it seems to encourage the ones that are quick to fly off the handle."

Economics reporter Nell Henderson expressed the view of several: "The danger . . . is that it creates the unrealistic expectation that reporters will have time to read and answer every single e-mail. . . . I do not. I could not, even if I wanted to. I try to do so when I can, because I benefit from the feedback and want to thank people for reading and taking the time. And the whole thing upsets me to think there are readers . . . mad at me because I haven't replied."

Columnist Marc Fisher says he answers all but the most abusive mail, because "that's clearly part of a columnist's job, and . . . can easily eat up two or three hours a day. But there is a payoff. I get a solid third of my columns from readers who pass along ideas. . . . And I like responding to the abusive stuff, too, because it's fun to watch folks back off from their insults as soon as they realize that an actual human is reading their bilious words."

Robin Givhan, The Post's fashion critic, is no stranger to criticism. Last week, my inbox had angry e-mails related to her May 12 column about "American Idol," which said that those contestants left "lack any distinctive personal style." Givhan said: "The clickable bylines are a service to readers. It allows them to easily talk back -- or yell back. I suppose that's a good thing. But I do wish that they would understand that an actual live human being is on the receiving end and that foul language does not make their point more emphatically and neither do two or three screens worth of ranting."

She hit a sore point that many mentioned: There is distress about rude, crude, sexist, racist and anti-Semitic e-mail. That e-mail is rarely answered. And e-mail generated by partisan Web sites also is not answered; it's impossible with hundreds popping up on your screen.

Asian economic correspondent Peter Goodman said he "was adamantly against ever having my byline clickable to e-mail, but I've flipped. My recent [Chinese] adoption story . . . certainly brought a flood of mostly negative e-mail, but I actually enjoyed the back and forth, and I got the feeling that some of the adoptive parents who were so enraged were at least somewhat disarmed by having a real person write back."

E-mails also bring compliments. Howard County editorial aide Josh Zumbrun heard from B.D. Moran of Loudoun County that his Style story on Texas school kids visiting Washington was "outstanding . . . inspirational . . . exceptional." An Anne Arundel County reporter, Daniel de Vise, helped Joan India Fraser of Vienna find a way to see "West Wing" (he had written about it) after a taping glitch. "It is one thing to report the news intelligently and entertainingly, but to follow up graciously in answering questions from a reader is above and beyond the call of duty," Fraser said.

Answering e-mail shouldn't trump doing good journalism. Reading thoughtful e-mail tells journalists what readers think about their work. The opinions can be accepted or not, but knowing them is important. And replying -- even quickly -- to local subscribers lets them know they're needed. We blow them off at our peril.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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