washingtonpost.com
Too hard to reach, too slow to fix

By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, June 20, 2010; A17

If a modern day Deep Throat phones The Post with a hot news tip, will the message get through?

Last month, a reader called to complain that he had been unable to alert the newsroom to a killing in Southeast. He'd telephoned The Post's main number the previous day, he said, but "gave up" after listening to a lengthy recorded list of options that failed to include local news. Inexplicably, the menu offers access to more than 20 departments -- everything from death notices to foreign news -- but doesn't mention the sprawling Metro section. It's The Post's largest news staff, responsible for all local coverage. The anecdote points to a growing challenge. Through e-mail, online commenting and social networking, The Post has never had greater interaction with its audience. But increasingly, readers are complaining that when they most need to communicate with The Post, it's simply too difficult. It's not just news tips. In recent months, scores have contacted the ombudsman in frustration because they couldn't find a way to notify The Post's Web site about problems with content. Most weren't aware of the tiny "Help" link at the bottom of each page, which invites them to "Submit a Ticket" to a service desk. But when a photo and caption are mismatched, or a story link is broken, that isn't fast enough. About a week ago, Diana Kunkel of Chevy Chase expressed irritation after scouring the Web site for a way to report that an editorial page link hadn't been updated. She ended up phoning The Post's main number, she said, but "there was no 'web master.' And when I was forwarded to the operator, I was disconnected." Mary Jo Comer of Charles County had a similar complaint last Monday after trying to tell the Web staff that two stories in that morning's newspaper weren't showing up online. "Why is there no easy way to let the appropriate persons know when a glitch occurs?" she asked.

Many readers have also complained that the Web site doesn't offer an effortless way to report journalistic errors. They're right. A small "corrections" link appears under the site's "News" section. But it provides only an address for e-mailing correction requests (corrections@washpost.com), or encourages readers to phone The Post's main number and "ask to be connected to the desk involved." Many have told me the process is simply too cumbersome.

When readers somehow manage to get a message to The Post's Universal Desk, which processes all print and Web content, editors are quick to correct obvious errors online. But requests submitted through the normal e-mail address can linger for days before a decision is made on whether a correction should appear in the paper, which would automatically trigger a correction online. In an era when inaccurate information can go viral, that delay is unacceptable.

Senior Editor Milton Coleman, who oversees corrections, acknowledged the problem and said a remedy is in the works to "streamline" the process so that "many, if not most, corrections will be made online before we make them in the newspaper." The Post also should consider providing online readers with a more prominent link to report errors or technical glitches. Editors could be immediately alerted if every page on the site clearly displayed a link urging readers to "Report problems on this page." Raju Narisetti, the managing editor who oversees The Post's online operations, said ideas such as these are being considered as part of a Web site redesign that is underway. He said a recent spike in reader complaints might be due partly to a "significant uptick" in online traffic. Replacing "aging technology" and redesigning the site "should help reduce the current dissonance," he added.

The Post also should make it simple for readers to offer news tips. Like other newspapers, it should establish a dedicated 24-hour "tip hotline" phone number. Its Web site should provide a simple one-click icon for sending tips. And a number should be established for texting tips. All should be prominently displayed in the newspaper and on the site.

To survive amid today's cutthroat media competition, Post customers need to be king. Those who can't easily communicate with the Web site will quickly shift their loyalty. Those who can't relay a news tip will go elsewhere. By the way, The Post did finally report that homicide in Southeast. A short story appeared online more than a day later. And the paper carried the story a day after that. But by then, it wasn't really "news."

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog.

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