When newspaper staffers don’t answer their e-mail

Why does The Miami Herald publish the email addresses of reporters if the reporters aren’t going to respond when readers write?

This is a longstanding complaint from readers. Four have landed in my inbox in just the last month.

“There must be a social norm at the Herald that justifies and rationalizes indifference to readers’ comments,” surmised Morris Sunshine of Miami Beach in a letter to Executive Editor Aminda Marques, copied to me.

Guillermo Munder wrote that he was so upset that he was taking time out from a Notre Dame basketball game, on which he was playing ESPN’s Streak for the Cash game, to complain. He said that he had written earlier to Sports Editor Jorge Rojas on late spreads and missing scores in the paper. “Of course my email was never answered,” he said, “and the problem continues.”

Not all readers may agree with Munder’s urgency, but the sports staff in fact seems to get more reader mail than any other—and more complaints, too, about messages going unanswered.

What to do?

“It’s always been a given that we respond to readers,” Marques told me. “They are our customers. I think it’s become even more important in recent years as the industry is shifting and we are balancing old and new media.”

The problem, of course, is that many reporters and editors are overwhelmed to get out stories—and the paper itself—in service of all readers that they have little time to respond to mail from individual ones.

I myself try to answer all of my reader mail, but sometimes can’t. That doesn’t mean that I—and I suspect most reporters and editors—don’t read almost everything and absorb the message. Ideas for more stories come.

Among editors, Managing Editor Rick Hirsch is responsible for responding to most reader mail that goes to top levels, though Marques does, too. It was 11:02 p.m. Wednesday night when she responded to my query. In other words, she was still working. At 8:55 a.m. Thursday, I got another note from her. She was back on the job.

I think that most readers would agree that responding personally to all mail while working those sorts of hours is asking too much of any individual. And not just her. Rojas responded to me at 9 p.m. while on vacation. He said he answers 90 percent of his letters and phone calls and knows many readers by name.

You can argue that perhaps the priorities of editors and reporters should be changed to better fulfill customer satisfaction and you wouldn’t be wrong. But it seems to me, as an independent ombudsman looking at the issue from the outside, that you wouldn’t be totally right either.

Marques, Hirsch and others at the paper are being brave in demanding that they and their staff respond to all mail, but I also think that reader Sunshine was on to something more realistic when he called for a “new deal” between The Herald and its readers. His focus was on expectations.

Wrote Sunshine: “If the writer supplies his email address at the head of his story, he agrees to respond to any non-abusive, pertinent e-mail reply that the story inspires within 24 hours, even if it is just a word or two. If you made that a rule, and publicized it, it would adjust performance to expectations with benefits to everyone.”

I think that is still too broad. Some leading newspapers, such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, don’t give e-mail addresses at all, thus creating no expectations.

The Herald itself didn’t publish reporter e-mail addresses until about a decade ago, Hirsch said. Before then, a reader had to go through the more laborious and formal process of writing a letter, and even then reporters were poor at responding. Other readers telephoned.

The Herald began publishing e-mail addresses at the dawn of an optimistic new era in which technology was seen as a way to reinforce a sense of community among readers. But the e-mail issue is just one more example of how the technology has also led to information overload for all of us.

The promise, however, is still there, and it seems to me that a solution is, too. It lies in being selective. One way is Sunshine’s formula, by putting email addresses only on a few stories each day, with the reporter primed to respond within 24 hours. The other way is with advertised online chats with reporters about their story or series of stories, plus blogs and even Facebook postings.

Popular columnists, such as Leonard Pitts and Greg Cote, already run weekly chats. (Pitts and Dave Barry also share an assistant who responds to e-mails, too, but no reporter has that, and won’t.)

Another solution is to eliminate anonymous comments at the end of articles online, and turn the comment section into the civilized interchange among readers, identified by name, that it was originally supposed to be.

E-mail itself is being replaced by social networking sites like Facebook. These solutions better harness the changing technology. But you may have other ideas. I would love to hear them in trying to shape this “new deal” between you and the newspaper.

This column was originally published in The Miami Herald on March 10, 2011.

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