Winter 2000

Interactivity—Via E-Mail—Is Just What Journalism Needs

At The Christian Science Monitor, reporters welcome contact with readers.

By Tom Regan
It’s time we were brutally honest with ourselves. Journalists hate the idea of regular contact with readers/listeners/viewers. Oh, we want them to interact with us enough to keep our papers in print or our stations on the air. But we RELATED ARTICLE
"E-Mail Deluge"
- Excerpted from a story by D.C. Denison
don’t like them, well, talking to us. We would just prefer that they allow us to do stories about them and their lives and then move on. We want to tell them what to think, or what the news is, but we’re not crazy about the idea of them giving us feedback about our choices.

But I’m here to tell you that interactivity is for real. And it’s the best thing to happen to journalism in a long, long time. At a conference in Camden, Maine, called “Being Human in the Digital Age,” one of the speakers was John Perry Barlow, cofounder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation and an outspoken defender of the First Amendment in all its manifestations. Barlow believes that we are entering the era of the relationship-based economy. The period of one-to-many production is ending and the time for one-to-one (or peer-to-peer as some Interactivity—Via E-Mail—Is Just What Journalism Needs At The Christian Science Monitor, reporters welcome contact with readers. call it) production is beginning. Napster, the software that allows one user to share music with another or many other users, is an example of peer-to-peer production.

For many of us in journalism, this new paradigm will require that we rethink the definition of our jobs. Interactivity, or regular interaction with the people who read/watch/listen to us, will become a key part of what every reporter will do.

Some reporters will want constant interaction, such as writers like Jon Katz or Steve Outing, whose work depends on constantly conversing with the people who read them. Other reporters will set up intelligent filters, so that they’ll get more of the mail that’s important to them to answer and less spam. An interim step would be for media outlets to hire an e-mail administrator, who would screen all e-mail. Most e-mail could be dealt with quickly, with an e-mail template answer. Important e-mail that should be responded to by the actual reporter would be sent to the appropriate party.

We’ve used a combination of these methods for several years at the Monitor. Almost all staff, including senior editors, have their e-mail addresses on the Web site, including all stories. We’ve also got a “customer service response” person who acts very much like the filter mentioned above. In the three years we’ve been doing this, we’ve not had a single reporter ask to have their e-mail address removed. In fact, the only time we hear from reporters is when there are problems and they are not getting e-mail from readers.

Hosting forums, or taking part in event-like chats, will also become a regular part of every reporter’s job. The Washington Post’s Online Live forum is an excellent example of this. But as the technology changes, so will the ways we interact. Several sites are starting to use voice chats. Video chats are about two to three years away.

The reason I believe so strongly in interactivity is that I believe it will help remove the wall that exists between media and their audience. This is particularly true for newspapers, the medium the stands to gain the most from this kind of interactivity and contact.

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