The U.S. Mail once arrived in a stuffed sack worthy of Santa on Christmas Eve.
When I started in journalism five decades ago, the daily mail bag delivered news tips, letters from readers and press releases that often provided background information and ideas for stories.
When the big bag landed in the newsroom, a clerk would sort each piece, putting the letters and envelopes in rows of pigeon holes, one for each staffer.
My first beats included the loosely connected topics of agriculture, courts in Benton and Sherburne counties and the county boards that met in Foley and Elk River. So my mail cubicle was filled with news releases from the Farm Bureau, the NFO and Farmers Union. I also found county board agendas and helpful hints from the Extension Office.
And then along came the fax machine and the mail bag shrunk. All day, the fax machine, a beast seemingly designed to kill trees, cranked out reams of messages.
Thankfully for forests, email came along and with it spam and scams and the mailbag shrunk to a daily handful of letters.
Email is great. It arrives quickly, although some folks should count to 10 before hitting the send key. News tips, press releases, and questions and comments from readers can be dealt with and answered. Email works great for setting up interviews and quickly confirming facts on deadline.
But email has drawbacks too. In place of an interview, new sources, especially politicians, ask that reporters email questions and the interview source will email back answers.
Most newsrooms prohibit that practice for a number of reasons. First, who knows who is really answering the question? Are the words and thoughts really the words and thoughts of the source or a public relations staffer? An interview is really a conversation that allows for followup questions. One of a reporter’s most effective interview tools is silence as a source is answering the question and contemplating what to say next. There’s no silence key on a keyboard.
Even at a small operation such as the Newsleaders, we receive hundreds of emails a day. Deciding what to keep and read often depends on the sender and the subject line.
We get our share of scams….people in foreign lands offering money and all we have to do is send our bank account information. Offers of low-interest loans (no thanks, we have a local bank that handles our accounts). How about a 10-foot plastic canopy with our name on it? (I think that may come crashing down under the weight of heavy, wet snow.)
Scams come in all forms. Consider this one: “I need to get a Gamestop Gift Card for my nephew, It’s his birthday but I can’t do this now because I’m currently traveling. Can you get it from any store around you? I’ll pay back as soon as I get back. Kindly let me know if you can handle this.” We’ll get right on that.
How about an All Access Jet Card? It’s designed to simplify our travel needs. With a minimum purchase of $250,000, I think we’ll pass. No need to jet from St. Stephen to St. Joseph.
Whether it’s an election year or not, politicians are robust users of email. Most of them send press releases that are written in the style of news stories, with clear headlines and text, although the focus is more on the who rather than the what or why.
But on the far ends of the political spectrum…left and right…the email writers feel they must get attention with dramatic claims and presumably shocking revelations.
My recent favorite, written in red: “Democrats are Freaking Out Over Citizenship on the Census Because They Want Non-Citizens Voting.”
This one cleverly combines two Republican obsessions, asking about citizenship on the Census and election fraud, in one rhetorical blast. I didn’t have to read too far into that one to get the point.
While communication tools change throughout the years, the basics of reporting and writing the news stay the same.