About the Author
Ken Sands, former online publisher of The Spokesman-Review, the daily newspaper in Spokane, Washington, was one of the first editors in the country to employ e-mail as a newsgathering and reporting tool. He is an advocate for how it can help reporters do their jobs faster and better. He offers this primer on how his news organization and others collect and use e-mails of local readers.
Citizen media operations typically don’t have a lot of reporters who can be assigned stories or a lot of volunteers who have the time to do person-on-the-street interviews.
Even professional journalists, pressed by 24/7 deadlines, are finding a way to help jump-start their reporting on breaking news stories and find excellent examples to illustrate more ambitious enterprise stories.
The secret? Building an e-mail database that gives citizens a way to comment on a story, offer their expertise, or direct you to good people to interview.
Once they are organized, a reporter can then send out 300 to 500 targeted e-mails with a query asking for input on a particular story and hope to get back perhaps 30 or 50 responses.
In the last several years, news organizations around the country have discovered the value of collecting e-mails that come in to reporters, editors, web producers and others and organizing them in a way that they can be searched — by geography, age, gender. Once they are organized, a reporter can then send out 300 to 500 targeted e-mails with a query asking for input on a particular story and hope to get back perhaps 30 or 50 responses. They’ve also discovered the value of openly inviting people to sign up to be part of a “reader advisory network,” as several newspapers call them, making themselves available to weigh in on a story, as needed.
Whether you’re a professional journalist, a blogger or a person adding some news to your community’s information landscape, credibility is important. By using e-mail as a reporting tool, you can help be sure that you not only get the story right but that you also get the right story. Plus, you build an important avenue for helping your readers interact with you.
How does this differ from more traditional forms of audience feedback, such as letters to the editor or person-on-the-street interviews? One, the interaction occurs before publication, during the information-gathering process; and, two, by actively reaching out to people, you get a different, broader reaction than you do by waiting for people who are compelled by passion to contact you.
Editors are amazed at how quickly I can get good, concise comments from our readers on any topic,” said one editor in South Carolina who set up a reader e-mail database at his daily newspaper.
How effective is e-mail interaction? One editor is effusive in his praise.
“Editors are amazed at how quickly I can get good, concise comments from our readers on any topic,” said one editor in South Carolina who set up a reader e-mail database at his daily newspaper. “We’ve had reader comments on such diverse topics as Strom Thurmond, cell phone usage in schools, and … whether Rock Hill is a bedroom community to Charlotte.”