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:
- 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.