Can our readers find us? Do we want them to?

Why aren’t some journalists easier to get in touch with?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this year, as I’ve spent time trying to find email addresses or phone numbers for journalists I want to interview about engagement. In several cases, I’ve had to rely on asking friends and colleagues for help in reaching people directly. It’s frustrating for me as a professional journalist. What if I were a reader with a news tip?

Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve returned to it to mull it over. Here’s part of what he said:

… given the promise and potential of the Internet — hyperconnectivity, easy and direct person-to-person access in a densely networked environment — it should be as easy for each newsroom as …
1. Go to the media outlet’s homepage.
2. Click on the “contact” or “directory” link.
3. Cut and paste the list.
Of course any of you who have ever tried to reach a reporter or editor directly know that it’s almost never that easy.

He’s right, in theory. But the issue isn’t black or white.

The tough folks for me to track down are usually the ones at large, national organizations, like the interviews I did with NPR, the Wall Street Journal and The Associated Press. And I truly can’t imagine how many emails and voicemails they would get per day if the whole country knew where to find them. (Though Bob Boilen at All Songs Considered says he spends a lot of time writing to listeners.)

My friend and former colleague Suzanne Tobias, reporter and columnist at The Wichita Eagle, has responded to me on Twitter a couple of times about this, and I got in touch for more details.

She said it’s not uncommon when she writes a column or school board budget story that particularly resonates with folks for her to spend pretty much her entire morning the next day responding to reader feedback. Readers get to the end of the story, have something to say, see a phone number and dial it. Even if they really should be calling the Opinion Line, they just want someone to hear what they have to say. Suzanne makes a point to get back to every reader. Actually, it’s a newsroom goal, as stated by the editor. And while that seems logical and important, it also is time not spent reporting and writing.

I’ve written about the kind of relationship community papers have with their readers. And it’s clearly logical to think journalists at those papers would be personally accountable to individual readers.

At the Wall Street Journal, though? How much work would their columnists and reporters get done if their phone numbers were at the end of the column like Suzanne’s is?

So is it a matter of audience size? Is there a tipping point at which the expectation of being accountable to individual readers lessens?

Should it be a priority no matter where you work?

Or is there a way to be responsive besides publishing contact info with every story?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

This was originally posted on the blog of the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I am a 2010-2011 fellow.

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