Wrapping up Find The Web Editor's Name And E-Mail Address Week

Written by Adrian Holovaty on June 9, 2003

Find The Web Editor's Name And E-Mail Address Week, during which I chronicled my efforts to find staff contact information on six news Web sites (latimes.com, ABCNEWS.com, FortWayne.com, sacbee.com, MSNBC.com and NYTimes.com), has come to an end. What, if anything, can we take away from this?

Well, the conclusion is that finding contact information on these news sites tended to be difficult. Of the six sites surveyed, only one -- sacbee.com -- made it easy for me to get contact information quickly. Of the remaining five, two -- ABCNEWS.com and MSNBC.com -- did not appear to feature contact information at all, and the other three buried it so deeply that any reader who wasn't a dorky online-news blogger doing some crazy experiment (or reader of said dorky online-news blogger's site) likely wouldn't have the patience to search for it.

Are these six sites representative of news Web sites as a whole? I believe they are. Despite the fact that staff members of various news Web operations e-mailed me throughout the week to plug their own sites -- "you won't have trouble finding that information on our site" -- my experience has taught me that news sites with readily available contact pages are the exception to the rule.

The overwhelming question is: Why? Here, in no particular order, are the reasons I've come up with. Please do comment below if you have anything to add.

Why sites don't publish contact information

  • Spam concerns. Steve Outing pointed out in a recent E-Media Tidbits post: "Could it be that when news sites publish staff names and e-mail addresses, spammers collect the addresses and inundate them with junk e-mail?" Certainly this is a valid concern, but there are several ways to hide e-mail addresses from spam bots, including character encoding, JavaScript hacking and rewriting addresses in plain English. As I described in Saturday's entry, The New York Times uses a novel approach: It sends you a staff contact directory via e-mail when you send a blank message to staff [at] nytimes [dot] com.
  • Lack of design skill and/or usability testing. Ironically, one of the aforementioned editors who e-mailed me to say "you won't have trouble finding that information on our site" was, well, wrong. I took him up on the challenge, and it took me about seven clicks to find the information. I think lots of times Web folks will become so acclimated to how their site works that they assume users have that same knowledge. And, in other cases, it just boils down to bad design decisions and poorly worded links.
  • Fear of raving lunatics. Some people just plain don't want to be contacted. Mark, who commented on my latimes.com entry, wrote this: "Frankly I don't blame them for making it difficult. I can say as as a webmaster of a news site, I don't want to be contacted. When a site did have my name on it, I would get the most bizzare email, because people simply do not read the job title of the recipient they send to." In response, I'll point you to Sara's and Nathan Ashby-Kuhlman's comments on that same page. I'll also say that, as a former employee of a high-traffic metropolitan news site, I know that the signal-to-noise ratio for "generic" e-mail boxes at such sites is low; but the few "non-noise" reader e-mails make it worthwhile.
  • Holier-than-thou attitude. This is closely related to the previous reason. I honestly believe some news site operators don't want to be contacted simply because they think they know better than readers do. This is an ugly throwback to the age of news-disseminators-as-gatekeepers; I would think we'd gotten past that. Reader Robert Skole sent me these related thoughts: "I think that editors create the position of 'Readers' Ombudsman' in order to avoid speaking directly to readers. Perhaps if the NY Times made it easy to get feed-back from readers, they would have been suffiently warned about Jayson Blair to take action long ago."
  • Staff shifts make it a hassle to change contact information. Oh, it's a hassle to change the information on a single page of your site?

Why publishing contact information is important

There wouldn't be a point to this exercise if contact information weren't an essential part of a news site. Here are my thoughts on why it's important -- and why the results of this little experiment are disturbing:

  • Contact information adds credibility and a "human element." Two of the 10 Stanford Guidelines for Web Credibility are important to consider here: "Show that honest and trustworthy people stand behind your site" and "Make it easy to contact you." As Julie put it in a comment on Tuesday's entry, it's important to underline the fact that your site's journalism is produced by real, accountable humans -- "not just some anonymous, news-producing machine." And speaking of machines, isn't it ironic that the same journalists who decried the new Google News service late last year for making news judgments with no human intervention, don't post readily available contact information on their own sites? Without contact information, your site might as well be computer-generated.
  • Reader feedback is a good thing. Without readers, we'd be nothing. The least we can do is listen to what they want -- and provide easy ways for them to tell us what that is.
  • Lacking contact information sends a negative message -- that your Web staff doesn't want to hear feedback. That's not a good vibe to be sending, particularly in this age of public distrust in the media.
  • A blanket "contact us" Web form or generic e-mail address isn't for everybody. Yes, the anonymity of such a form is attractive to some (and I'm all in favor of those types of forms, because some folks wouldn't comment otherwise), but, on the flipside, readers might be turned off for that same reason. It's one thing to be able to submit site feedback via a blanket form that will send your message God-knows-where; it's another to have the full name and direct e-mail address of the person you know is most likely to help you.
  • Believe it or not, there are legitimate uses for the names and e-mail addresses of staff members. Examples: A job hunter might like to be able to address her cover letter to a real person, not to "Whom It May Concern." A humble online-news blogger might want to e-mail a news site's designer to congratulate him or her on a great use of CSS. Tony Wright of Weber Shandwick needs to contact editors of news sites to conduct business; Mr. Wright wrote, on the online-news discussion list, that his job regularly requires him to find such contact information but that news sites don't make it easy for him, leading to wasted time and frustration.

How contact information should be presented

A few final thoughts on best practices, after a week's worth of bouncing around a handful of sites:

  • Use the phrase "Contact us." In every experiment this past week, I found myself scanning the pages for that exact phrase. And it's no secret why: "Contact us" is the de facto standard Web way to link to a contact page. It's what we've all been conditioned to look for. See Jakob's Law of the Internet User Experience. Non-traditional wordings -- "E-mail us," "Send a message to our staff," "Staff contact information" -- tended to trip me up.
  • Put the "Contact us" link in a standard location. In other words, it shouldn't go smack-dab in the middle of the navigation. I've been conditioned into believing that "Contact us," like "About us," is secondary-level information: It's not the main focus of a site, so it shouldn't necessarily be displayed front and center, but it should be easily found in a secondary location. Good places: The bottom of a vertical navigation bar, the right of a horizontal navigation bar, the bottom of a page.
  • After I've found the "Contact us" link, reward me; don't make me search more. Too often I found that a "Contact us" link was deceiving -- instead of taking me to contact information, it took me to a disorganized page on which I was forced to search again for the information I wanted. Clicking "Contact us" on the New York Times' home page, for example, takes me to a monster of a page that presents dozens of choices, seemingly spewed on the page with little or no thought given to organization.

My favorite contact page on a news Web site is the one on The Maneater, the University of Missouri's student newspaper. The page, which I made during my tenure there, is short, to-the-point and offers a wealth of well-organized information. I'm sure there are other good news-site contact pages out there; I encourage you to post a comment with links to pages -- your own, or otherwise -- that are especially well done.

Comments

Posted by Brian on June 9, 2003, at 3:09 p.m.:

I'm the Creative director for ColoradoSprings.com and on our contact page you can find my email address and even my phone number in just one click. I get contacted about twice a week or so by users for help with the site. I "try" to always take their feedback as constructive.

Posted by kpaul on June 9, 2003, at 10:53 p.m.:

I got an email once asking how to stop the person's tooth from hurting. ;)

My desk # is in the paper everyday and I don't get too many calls, so I can't really see the spam excuse.

You only have so much time to assist people that usually click on the email thinking they can get their picnic announcement in the paper.

Nice experiment all the way around. Congrats and thanks.

p.s. please don't come to my newspaper site and call me out. we're in midst of a server switch and redesign. ;)

Posted by Lou Quillio on June 10, 2003, at 12:12 a.m.:

I wonder if, for all their broken info-designs and intentionally Byzantine labryrinths to the backoffice and its personalities, there isn't a quiet, under-heard voice at even (or especially) NYTimes.com who hasn't been arguing for openness all along.

When they've said "We get too much junk already" he or she has (quietly) proposed SpamAssassin and training in email client filtering schemes. And, for a short while at least, there's leverage in browser-scripted email links, isn't there?

Probably these outlets come at the deep exposure question from a closed starting point and can't break out because of bandwidth, spam and info-overload considerations.

If I were that small, under-heard voice I'd have a hard time definitively countering such objections. The trouble is that if Tom Friedman declared an open fax line for reader feedback almost nobody would get through and those who did would be unrepresentatitve and barely useful: a stupid signal-to-noise ratio on the NYT's dime, quickly ignored and soon dropped. Email links to everybody are no different. Repeat, no different. Really.

We know this, wish it weren't so, but can't wish it away.

LQ

Posted by Bob on June 13, 2003, at 9:55 a.m.:

Beyond an email address, it's interesting to note how difficult it is on many newspapers' websites to get a physical address or phone number. Something they seemingly would want to make easy to find is many times difficult to find or just not there.

Posted by Anon. on June 16, 2003, at 12:28 p.m.:

My news Web site (in the Top 20 in the Neilsens) makes it easy for users to send us comments via a form that hides the e-mail address. There's a link on every page on the site.

We intentionally do not list a staff directory on the site. We're in one of the top dot-com markets in the U.S., and frankly got tired of headhunters using our own Web site to recruit away our staff.

Posted by Greg Tingle on June 16, 2003, at 6:40 p.m.:

Perhaps many news media folks are becoming "scared" of spam.

The news media business is somewhat of a "closed" business, and editors and the like may not want to become to assessable to "punters" and "any old" journalist or "hack" looking for a job.

Our news media website has a contact us page with 5 e-mail addresses listed, but I can tell you...there is a price to pay, and its the "S" word SPAM.

Many online publishers are using the "contact us" approach, utilising scripts, where the website visitors will complete an online form. This does dramatically reduce spam.

As long as there are unscrupulous people, and plain out "pests" out there, news media operators are entitled to take steps to "gatekeeper" their websites by not making it easy to exploit their proprietary, or otherwise, commercially sensitive information.

I am interested to hear what others think.

Greg Tingle

www.mediaman.com.au

Posted by anonymous on July 4, 2003, at 5:53 p.m.:

I am trying to find the web for the editorial page editor of the NYTimes. No luck on the internet. I will have to resort to letter writing. TRy to make it easy for the inexperienced computer user.

Posted by Grandma Lee Murphy on March 24, 2004, at 5:51 p.m.:

Dear Editor:

You aren't kidding about burying the ability of the public to address concerns on the news!!! For two days I have been trying to e-mail an incriminating bit of news about a Senator through a personal experience, and not one bit! I am at a loss, how to be a "Carrie Nation" for the elderly. The only way I can win the battle of every American vote counting in November, meaning the one before mine, my own, and the one following it...is by newspaper print and exposure of facts. Have you any suggestions on how to get public attention for American This Can Happen To You?

Thanks,

Grandma Lee

greatauthorlee@yahoo.com

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