by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
Sept. 30, 2009
TV LACKS THE HUMAN TOUCH
BRADENTON, Fla., Sept. 30, 2009 -- Just follow along with me as I attempt to send a note to the author of a story on the New York Times Website. I want to contact Julie Bosman, the author of a story on their homepage about one of the winners in the race for public advocate (an elective office post I didn't even know existed).
First I click on the story and read it, and find my interest piqued by the name of Bill de Blasio, the winner of that race. Is he related to a Republican district leader I knew 33 years ago? Maybe she knows, I think, so I want to write her. How hard is that?
Not very. I simply click on her hyperlinked name beneath the headline, and up comes a link to click on if you want to email her. Then you get an email form that asks only your name and email address. You fill in those and write your message, and there's an optional box for entering the URL of the story. Away it goes. I find the Times staffers and most newspaper people respond within a day or so. Update: Julie Bosman responded before 9 A.M. the next morning).
Now let's go to CNN. Let's pick the story on yesterday's huge 8.0 earthquake in American Samoa.
In very light blue type so faded and so small I can't read it, there is a brief note at the end of the CNN-originated story that says "CNN's Augie Martin, Mariano Castillo, Tess Eastment and Nick Valencia contributed to this report." You can't click on any of the names, so I'll look for another way to contact Augie Martin and ask where survivors are being treated, something the story left out.
At the standard 100% Zoom level that's a new feature of IE8.0, much of CCN's type remains tiny, and CNN's story page - unlike the homepage - doesn't offer a site search option. There are at least 26 links at the top, but none involve contacting reporters. There are 23 more links at the bottom to CNN sites ranging from the Home, Tools & Widgets to Podcasts and a site map. These are in the small 6pt type CNN Web designers prefer. Beneath those is a Google search dialogue box, and then, where the long white part of the page ends, is more light blue type against a slightly darker blue background. Below that, finally, beside Terms of Service and About Us, there it is: "Contact Us."
Oh, what a nightmare! The link brings up "seven different main links and 26 small ones to choose from - News Tips, CNN TV, HeadlineNews, CNN International, Other Networks (?), CNN.com and CNN.com Products. Since I saw the item on their Website, I'll try CNN.com.
"Staffed 24 hours, seven days a week in CNN's world headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, CNN.com relies heavily on CNN's global newsgathering team of almost 4,000 professionals. And we want to hear what you think. If you have a comment, suggestion or have spotted a mistake, please select one of the links on this page," the note at the top of the CONTACT US/CNN.COM site says. Just below that is a helpful link: "Do you have a specific question about something you read on CNN.com?" Let's click on that.
"Please DON'T submit comments, suggestions or story ideas to this form," the mail form says. "Links to suggestions and comment mailboxes are listed at the top of the page."
Since I don't have a comment, suggestion or story idea, I would go to the form - except that there's no way to contact Augie Martin unless you want the whole newsroom to see your note, which I don't. The form is fairly simple, asking your name, email address and phone number (blessedly optional), the subject of your question, and then asks, "What is your question? (Please be as specific and detailed as possible.)" Below that, you're prompted for "Web address of the question." I guess they meant to say "of the story that prompted your question."
Below that, though, is a helpful search dialogue that lets you search for Augie Martin on CNN.com: I type in his name. There are a couple of "sponsored links" about someone named Martin Augustine, and then two CNN stories that presumably will carry Augie's byline. But the first of those is a remembrance of people who died in 2005 written by someone named Bruce Morton (which is like "Martin," I suppose), and the second is a long Oct. 2003 CNN story about the Scott Peterson murder case. Down at the end of that, in readable type this time, is a note: "CNN correspondent Rusty Dormin and producers Augie Martin and Huck Afferbach contributed to this report." It's a dead end. Click back to the search results and there are Web results for the nation's first black airline pilot, also named "Augie" Martin, a book at Amazon.com on "How to Become a Millionaire in 5 Easy Lessons," and yes, the brief note from the end of the earthquake story. "View 47,800 results," the bottom of the page says. I'll pass.
Well, click back to the CONTACT US/CNN.COM page. "Give Us Your Feedback," says the first section. "Do you want to advertise on CNN.com?" ; "Send general comments." ; "Tell us what you think of the evolution of CNN.com" - from prehistoric times?, I wonder - and "Send us your ideas for CNN.com projects." Get a life. Nothing there.
Then comes "Submit Web Site Errors," tediously broken down into Editorial, Grammar, Audio, Technical and CNN.com Products. And now I could get my question answered, but not by Augie Martin, because after the word Editorial, the line says, "Wrong information, information left out," such as where hospitalized survivors are. They might ask my question of Augie or any of his colleagues, but I wanted to send him a personal note. That's not an option, yet.
I move on to "Comment By Section," and here we're offered a button CNN.com Home Page, World, U.S., Weather, Business at CNN Money, Sports at SI.com, Politics, Law, Technology, Science & Space, Health, Entertainment, Travel, Living, Special Reports, CNN Student News - with four subheads, including General Comments, About Today's Show, ShoutOut Requests ("Hey, Augie!"), Technical Questions, CNN.com Products and QuickVote. No contacts.
Beneath that? "Visit our extensive FAQs for answers to all of your questions." Here's a couple: Is there a God? If so, where is Augie Martin?
Truth be told, I'm tired of searching for a CNN.com link that will let me send a note to Augie. I bet he's grateful.
Now let's try the authors of the leading story on the Washington Post, "Success Against al-Qaeda Cited." They are Karen De Young and Walter Pincus; I don't know De Young, but she and Pincus, who is one of the most respected reporters in the world, are assigned to the National Desk. Okay. You click on the story link, and their names appear as a hyperlink beneath the headline.
Since they are co-authors, both are mentioned on the contact page that immediately comes up when you click on their names. Click on either De Young or Pincus and an email form comes up instantly that asks your name, email address, the subject of your message and provides a comment box and a Send button.
Unlike on the New York Times site, the authors' names are not on the homepage summary of the story, but also unlike CNN, the Post's writers get top billing, just below the headline, while CNN writer/producer credits appear in illegibly faint type at the bottom.
All right, you ask: What's the point?
Don't you see it? The people at the newspapers are accessible and responsive to the public when they write. The people at CNN are virtually anonymous. You can't contact them by email in a direct, easy way, if at all.
And when you really get down to it, you can't really contact CNN at all, except by Tweeting daytime anchor Rick Sanchez, who runs snippets from Tweets (but rarely responds) as he reports during the mid-afternoon. I still haven't figured that out.
If you have a substantive story and call CNN headquarters in Atlanta (they have a listed phone number in Atlanta, but not on their Website) you have to leave a voicemail message after working through a bewildering bunch of options. One of the things you can ask is, "Why are those headlines crawling beneath the anchor three days old, and why didn't you report on them?"
Frankly, if CNN hasn't read about it on the AP newswire, it doesn't want to know you. The job of the Web managers is to keep people from making contact, not facilitating it. Apparently. CNN believes its reporters should be working, not talking to confused and bedazzled viewers.
The site's approach is almost like the Nixon response to the FOI request for secretly-recorded tapes toward the end of his second term: they simply gave the requestors so much information that it took months to digest it all. You get so many links at CNN you'll never exhaust them - and never get the simple information you want.
Why does this give me the willies? Well, think about it, please. Newspapers, at least according to their accountants and the stockbrokers, are on their way out; some great ones, like the Los Angeles Times (which simply lists the email address of the reporter at the end of each story, making it the most accessible major news site of all), Chicago Sun-Times and Boston Globe, are holding on by the skin of their teeth. And when they go, where will the people who carefully read the news. and question it, be left?
They'll be lost in the maze - or is it the web? - at CNN and other network news shows, probably praying in vain for a human connection to the story of their lives.
The American Reporter lets writers provide contact information in a brief biographical note beneath their names, at their election. American Reporter Correspondent Joe Shea can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.