Buried In A Sea Of E-mails

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By John Carney

Am I the only small-town newspaper person swamped with useless e-mail? I imagine I’m not.

The Shelbyville Times-Gazette is a daily (Sunday-Friday) newspaper serving a rural community in southern Middle Tennessee. We’re pretty locally-oriented, and most of what we run that isn’t directly connected to Bedford County comes either from AP or our very limited array of syndication packages. But each day, I get hundreds of e-mail press releases, from all over the country. In some cases, the release is clearly not relevant to anyone more than 50 or 100 miles away from the point of origin. But, hey, it doesn’t cost any more to send it to every single dad-gum newspaper in the country. So, why not?

While I was preparing this essay — I kid you not — I got a routine press release from an Oregon state legislator. Why?

When we first started our web site, many years ago, our trade-out deal with a local dial-up ISP gave us only five or six e-mail addresses, and we set up news (at) t-g.com for the newsroom. In the intervening years, that has been put on countless mailing lists as our official e-mail address for receiving press releases. Later, after we were bought by a chain, we all got individual e-mail addresses. But the news address was so widely used that I had to continue to monitor it. Now, it just forwards directly into my personal e-mail account. So I have the legacy of receiving all of those e-mails.

From time to time, PR firms looking to update their address listings will call me. If they can’t tell me exactly whom they represent, I have stopped giving them an e-mail address. But that’s like spitting into the wind. Our old e-mail address is still out there, drifting from place to place, and even though I try to discourage others at the newspaper from giving it out it sometimes still gets entered into questionnaires and directory listings as our generic newsroom e-mail address. It’s also on our masthead, right above the list of news staffers.

This week, we got new newsroom computers, and as I’ve tried to set up my e-mail in the new system I have tried to be a little more pro-active about dealing with some of the e-mail. I scan to the bottom of press releases to see if there’s an “unsubscribe” link. But again, it’s too little, too late, and I have no real hope of holding back the tide.

The trouble is that there are still a few local people using the bad old address, and I’m afraid that if I ignore it entirely I will miss something legitimate, something local, something that actually relates to our newspaper.

Some of the submissions are from businesses or organizations. Others, of course, are letters to the editor, from people who apparently feel that their opinion is so valuable that it must be published, not just in the letters column of their local paper, but in the letters column of every newspaper in America.

In the past week or two, an individual with an AOL e-mail account has started sending me such little opinion pieces. I’ve e-mailed him/her twice asking him/her to stop. Today, I got a message back telling me, in effect, that the fact that the T-G is a media organization makes us fair game for such mass e-mails. He said that he does not have the technical capability to handle individual unsubscribe requests, and that I should just ignore future e-mails if I don’t want to receive them. That made me angry, and I fired off a note to the abuse department at AOL explaining the situation. I don’t know if they’ll act on it or not.

If you want to send regular e-mails to every newspaper in America with your message of vital importance, you need to at least spend the money on a decent mailing list service or software, one which knows how to handle unsubscribe requests.

John I. Carney is city editor of the Shelbyville (Tenn.) Times-Gazette, where he has been employed since 1985, and works with its web site. He’s also has a personal blog at lakeneuron.com and is the author of a self-published novel, “Soapstone,” inspired by his foreign mission trips.

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8 Comments

  1. Jennifer Peebles said January 25, 2009 | Permalink

    John,

    I’m with you 100%. When I was state editor at The Tennessean, I was on the press release list for:
    A U.S. Congressman from Idaho, the California secretary of state’s office and countless loonies who didn’t live anywhere near Tennessee but wanted to spam me with their crazed rants.

    Will your e-mail software allow you to set up a “junk senders” list, which would allow you to permanently forward those mass e-mailers’ stuff to the trash (before you even see it in your inbox)?

    — Jennifer Peebles
    Houston, TX
    jennifer@texaswatchdog.org

  2. Dave Barnes said January 27, 2009 | Permalink

    God invented email filters for a reason.
    Learn to use them.

  3. John Carney said January 27, 2009 | Permalink

    I think you misunderstand the problem. I do, in fact, use a SPAM filter at work. And I’m well aware of how to filter messages from a specific sender or with specific keywords or what have you. But what I’m swamped with isn’t technically SPAM, it comes from a variety of different and constantly-changing sources, and I’m not sure what common criteria I would use to put it into an e-mail filter.

  4. John Carney said January 27, 2009 | Permalink

    Junk snail mail at least has the virtue of helping to underwrite the operation of the postal system. Unwanted e-mail is just the opposite; the idea that you can easily send out 50,000 e-mails hoping for one response places a burden on the Internet backbone that ultimately all of us have to maintain. I realize that SPAMmers will always be with us but I think that people with supposedly “legitimate” e-mail lists have a responsibility to at the very minimum allow people to unsubscribe. If I were to set up a new, separate e-mail filter for each and every unwanted piece of e-mail I receive, I’d have hundreds of different filters in just a few weeks — which I’m guessing would pretty quickly turn into a performance issue for my e-mail software. The burden should be on the sender, not the recipient.

  5. newscoma said January 27, 2009 | Permalink

    We have a spam filter at our newspaper’s email and it constantly is filled with crazy spam. We started tracking it, and like John said, and so many of the unwanted emails had no way to unsubscribe.
    If you aren’t given the option to unsubscribe, it shows a lack of credibility of that company, Dave.
    We know how to use them, but unscrupulous companies know how to get around them.
    It’s a time waster not as much for us, but for our readers as well, because we need to be accessible to them.
    I thought you marketing guys knew that. 😉
    Maybe you have some positive feedback on how not just journalists, but everyone, can deal with this unpleasant task.

  6. Dave Barnes said January 27, 2009 | Permalink

    John,

    1. Set your SPAM filters high enough to filter out the crap.

    2. Learn to live with the idea of false positives.

    3. Don’t even look at your spam folder.

  7. Perry Gaskill said January 28, 2009 | Permalink

    Getting rid of unwanted email can be tricky, Here are three tools you can use to bring it under control:

    1. Pass along to whoever runs your mail server this link to

    http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2007/8/29/232031/383

    This is a long technical piece titled The Fight Against Spam that boils down to some useful sane rules about getting rid of unwanted bulk mail at the server level before you ever see it.

    2. The email client software you use should have some means of Bayesian filtering. What this means is that it can use heuristics to self-learn over time what is and is not wanted. The process in day-to-day use is much easier than generating individual rulesets. I know the Thunderbird email client can do this; I’m not sure about others such as Outlook.

    3. Yet another server-level tool is to use a Tagged Message Delivery Agent (TMDA) which compares email to a blacklist (obvious junk), and a whitelist (you want it). Anything else generates an auto-responder back to the sender asking for confirmation of the sent email.

  8. suzy wandson said February 11, 2009 | Permalink

    I did not get your point on this.

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