Ombudsman: It's hard for online readers to find Post people

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By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, November 29, 2009

You're reading The Post online, something strikes you as interesting, and you'd like to offer some feedback to a top editor. So you start searching for a name, an e-mail address, a phone number . . . anything.

Chances are you'll find Waldo before you locate the contact information you need.

Almost daily, readers tell me of their frustration in trying to reach someone in the newsroom. Most merely want to ask a question, make a suggestion or relay a story tip. It shouldn't be so complicated. With The Post struggling financially, the bond between readers and the newsroom should be strengthened, not strained.

Lately, fewer print-only readers have complained after the newspaper made it easier to reach journalists. E-mail addresses and phone numbers for news departments were recently made more visible on Page A2. And e-mail addresses for reporters now appear at the bottom of their stories.

But finding contact information on The Post's Web site can be a maddening, time-consuming chore. Much of it is there, but it's difficult to locate.

"Hard is not the word to describe it," said Fran Severn of Salisbury, who spent more than 20 minutes on the site searching in vain for the names of the editors of the books and Food pages.

Like many readers, she eventually discovered a tiny "Contact Us" link at the very bottom of the main page. She clicked and found a staff directory of more than 700 names in alphabetical order. "You can click on a name, but that only gives you their e-mail," Severn said. "It doesn't tell you what they do or what their specialty is."

The staff directory page includes department e-mail addresses and information on "Common Requests," but parts of it are out of date. Department listings include the Sunday Source, a weekend supplement that was dropped nearly a year ago. Another hyperlink explains how to submit information about community events for publication in The Post's weekly tabloid Extras, but they no longer exist.

A separate "Customer Care Center," accessed through "Contact Us" or an adjacent "Help" link, provides answers to 242 questions about The Post in print or online. They're arranged randomly, with no clustering by topic. Many are ancient. One offers information for tracking presidential campaign polls -- for the 2004 race. Several are about the acclaimed "Being a Black Man" series that ran in The Post years ago. Readers with inquiries about the series are urged to submit questions to an e-mail address. I did, but days passed with no response.

The "Customer Care Center" offers an e-mail "drop box" for inquiries. It also provides a "keyword" search function so readers don't have to wade through all 242 questions. Type "Executive Editor" and up pops James M. Brady. He was the top editor of the Web site but resigned about a year ago. There is no listing for Post Executive Editor Marcus W. Brauchli.

Other newspaper Web sites provide more contact information that is better organized with more intuitive navigation. Some prominently list newsroom managers, with e-mail addresses and direct-dial phone numbers. Many group similar features (such as the crossword puzzle, comics, the bridge column) in a frequently-asked-questions format, providing e-mail addresses for additional inquiries. Several clearly display an e-mail link for submitting news tips.

Many readers don't realize that clicking on the byline in an online story brings up an archive of the reporter's stories. It also generates a form for them to send a message directly to the reporter. It's more convenient than typing an e-mail address. And reporters wading through hundreds of reader e-mails instantly distinguish these "form" messages from those that might be part of a computer-generated mass "spam" attack.

Clicking on the byline on many newspaper sites provides more information. Many show a photo and a profile of the reporter, sometimes offering personal information. And some provide the reporter's direct dial phone number; The Post doesn't.

The key to any good site is to "make sure contact info is easy to find, not just that it's posted somewhere," said Steve Myers of the Poynter Institute on media studies in Florida.

My ombudsman contact information is prominently displayed on Page A2 of the newspaper and on the main page of the Web site. The e-mail address is: ombudsman@washpost.com. The phone number is 202-334-7582.

It's also displayed on the "Contact Us" portion of the Web site, just above a hyperlink for readers who want to subscribe to the newspaper. Alas, the link was broken during three days I tested it this past week.

For daily updates from Andrew Alexander, read the Omblog.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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