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Why readers' e-mails aren't always answered

THE GLOBE STANDS accused of false advertising of a sort -- or at least of creating false hope among readers. "If the Globe's writers are not going to respond to their e-mail when their address is clearly printed, thus inviting such mail, the Globe should stop printing the addresses," says one irritated reader, echoing the view of others.

It's tempting to agree. After all, newspapers weren't designed to be interactive; leave that to chat rooms and talk shows. And there is no way that a reporter on a hot story can, or should, stop pursuing the news just to respond to the mail. Yet the inevitable non-responses can, understandably, hurt readers' feelings, and make the Globe seem rude. All told, it's a dicey venture.

But the results of a newsroom/editorial survey I conducted on this topic last week suggest there's more good than bad in the current, albeit imperfect, arrangement.

All Globe writers were asked -- confidentially -- just what percent of readers' e-mail they reply to.

Between 90 and 100 percent, said the majority of the nearly 80 writers (almost half the writing staff) who responded. Many said they reply to any e-mail that doesn't include name-calling or vulgarity, with thoughtful criticism getting top priority.

So why do so many readers complain about not getting an answer to their heartfelt e-mails?

The explanation may be that a few writers, whose columns and stories generate the biggest volume of e-mail, respond to a smaller percentage, starting at zero on some days.

One columnist, who answers about a third of his e-mail, lamented: "Every hour spent replying to mail is an hour not spent on producing more of the writing that readers respond to." A reasonable point.

But there are also writers who try to answer every reader. For example, the recent "Barbara's Story" series on a mother's struggle to take care of her sons prompted nearly 300 readers to write to reporter Patricia Wen. Responding to each one was exhausting, she said, but "I just couldn't bear the thought of these readers hearing nothing from me at all." The survey also asked: "Is reader comment useful?" A few responses were negative or non-committal, but a majority said yes, and many answered with the kind of superlatives rarely used by jaded scribes: "I love it;" "it's my lifeblood; "one of my favorite parts of my job."

Some said readers' comments had sometimes changed their perspective on a story, or shaped the reporting. Solid news tips, although not common, are especially valuable, and the conversation with readers is personally satisfying. Said one: "Putting our e-mail addresses at the end of our stories breaks down barriers between us and readers, and to a certain extent creates a sense of intimacy that otherwise wouldn't be there."

It is Globe policy to, in most cases, let individual writers decide whether to add their e-mail address at the end of a story. Most do. In a few departments -- the Business section, for example, and the op ed page -- staff writers are expected to.

There are no directives about having to reply, and no special provisions are made for those who take, or make, the time to do so. Some staffers write back on their own time.

So what does the survey tell us?

If you presume the results reflect the writing staff overall (and are not skewed toward those more inclined to respond) it suggests that many readers hear from Globe staffers, and that the paper values the exchange. It's a mutual plus and worth continuing -- if readers can forgive writers their occasional lapses in etiquette.

Toward that end, a little fine-tuning may be in order.

One option -- although not without drawbacks -- is an automated response for writers who get lots of reader e-mail and can respond to very little of it. It might say something like: "Sorry I can't respond personally to each e-mail, but please know your thoughts are being read and considered."

The problem is not just that automated responses are impersonal -- after all, an impersonal response is better than no response -- but by responding indiscriminately to e-mail spammers as well as readers, they trigger more spam. That's something no writer wants.

One way around it is to set up a separate, temporary e-mail address, with an automated response, to take readers' thoughts on a particular topic. When the story ends, so does the temporary address and the spam it has attracted.

It's not a perfect fix, but it if keeps hundreds of readers from feeling ignored and insulted, it may be worth trying.

Readers, too, can help the e-mail relationship by clearly noting in the subject field which article they are corresponding about. Without that, their e-mail is too easily lost in the flood of spam that greets (and is deleted by) writers each morning. This happens too frequently, writers said.

For all the difficulties, the correspondence is worth it. "Because of deadline pressures and the Morrissey Boulevard building's somewhat isolated location, many of us don't get out of the mother ship as often as we'd like," confided one reporter. "So e-mail correspondence with readers becomes a key way for us to keep in touch with public opinion."

The ombudsman represents the readers. Her opinions and conclusions are her own. Phone 617-929-3020 or, to leave a message, 929-3022. Our e-mail address is

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