Monday, January 24, 2011

We heard your concerns on e-mail lists

The Observer has decided that it will not use e-mail address lists obtained from local municipalities to invite citizens’ input on news coverage.

We are shelving this idea after hearing concerns from some on the lists that the e-mails would not be welcome. Please reconsider, you said.

And so we did. The last thing we want to do is to discourage anyone who actively seeks information from his or her government. That kind of interest is good for our community, and should only be encouraged.

We apologize to all who were offended. While we did not view these invitations as a “commercial use” of the e-mail lists, we respect the concerns of those who did.

For those new to this issue, here is some background: On Saturday, I wrote that we have made public records requests for lists of e-mail addresses compiled by Mecklenburg County municipalities. The owners of those addresses submitted them so they could receive alerts, updates and newsletters.

We made our requests after the city announced early this month that it would seek to restrict access to the lists. The city’s lobbyist said there was concern that e-mail spammers might seek to use them. The lists would still be public record, but governments would not have to provide electronic or paper copies.

As I said Saturday, we feel a responsibility to see this “public record” before legislators move to restrict access to it. Very often, you only understand the value of a record being public once you’ve seen it. And this is something we have never examined before.

This was, and still is, our primary reason for asking for the e-mail lists.

But I also noted that we presumed the people on the lists to be especially civic-minded. And we had considered inviting them to become part of a growing pool of citizens who advise us on our news coverage. This idea especially offended some e-mail subscribers.

“I signed up for information about road closings from the city,” one subscriber wrote. “This is emergency information. To even receive one unsolicited e-mail from The Observer, even just asking for input, is unacceptable.”

We hear you. Most people who signed up for government e-mails did not know that their addresses would become part of the public record. Information alerting them of this either didn’t exist or was hard to find on the municipal sites. In fact, one town’s site erroneously told people who signed up that their addresses could be kept confidential.

We have many other ways to invite people to advise us on our journalism. If you are interested, please e-mail reader engagement editor Cindy Montgomery at

I also want to reiterate that the Observer will not convert these lists for commercial purposes or share them with others. They will be used solely for journalism, namely to determine their relevance as a public record.

Thanks to all who weighed in with your thoughts on this. We heard you, and we promise to keep listening.

Reach Rick Thames at or 704-358-5001.

Friday, January 21, 2011

E-mail lists used only for journalism

Did you know that when you sign up for e-mail alerts from your local government, your e-mail address becomes a public record?

To be honest, we had not thought about that, either. In fact, this only occurred to our newsroom when the City of Charlotte announced earlier this month that it would ask the N.C. legislature to restrict access to such e-mail lists in its upcoming session.

The city’s lobbyist, Dana Fenton, said the city would propose that the list remain public record, but a record that could only be inspected on site. The city could turn down requests for electronic or paper copies.

This, said Fenton, would make it more difficult for an e-mail spammer to use the addresses.

We’re all for less spam. But we felt a responsibility to at least see this "public record" before legislators moved to restrict access to it. Why?

In many cases, you can only understand the value of a record being public once you’ve seen it. And this was something we had never examined before.

It also occurred to us that many people who signed up were clearly engaged with their communities, given that they were interested in receiving government e-mails. We immediately thought of two ways they could help us in our coverage of their public officials:

They could tell us from experience if this government e-mail service was useful. Did it provide the information that they need?

If they were interested, they could also become part of a growing number of citizens who are lending their perspectives and expertise to help us produce better journalism.

To date, nearly 1,500 people have accepted our invitation to be part of the Carolinas Public Insight Journalism Network. They have assisted us on a variety of stories, including the quality of local cell phone service, the state of the economy, the upcoming revaluation of Mecklenburg County property and last November’s election. (For more on this program, go to

If people were not interested in advising us, we simply wouldn’t contact them again. And in no instance would their e-mail addresses be published in our newspaper or on our website, used commercially or passed on to anyone else. This was solely about journalism.

In hindsight, we should have been clearer as we made our requests, and we apologize for raising concerns.

While the state’s open records law does not require citizens to explain why they want a public record, several governments that we contacted feared that we wanted the lists for commercial purposes. This led some governments to warn people that their e-mail addresses were being given to the Observer.

To further confuse matters, our requests were submitted by Steve Gunn, who formerly worked exclusively in our newsroom, but in January moved to the Observer’s Interactive Division.
In his new role, Steve works with the newsroom as well as with other divisions in the company.

The city’s notice about our equest went to about 20,000 e-mail addresses Thursday. By Friday, about 100 people had contacted us, asking for more explanation. About half of them asked that we not contact them.

"I still find this an unethical use of the law," wrote one e-mailer who didn’t want to be contacted.

However, many appeared satisfied once they understood our intentions.

"Based on what you shared there is no need to put my name on the ‘remove’ list," said another. "I’ll review what you send and take it from there."

If you have concerns, Steve would like to hear from you. You can reach him at or 704-358-5077.

If you want to join our Public Insight Journalism network, please e-mail Cindy Montgomery at

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

View the Observer in our E-edition

Our offer of free access to the electronic edition of the Charlotte Observer has proven so popular that we are extending it one more day.

No need to go without your morning newspaper even if icy roads delay delivery today. Or, for that matter, if you’d rather not skate down your driveway.

Simply call up our E-edition. It is an exact replica of today’s newspaper, adapted to your computer screen. See the easy instructions below.

More than 2,000 readers took advantage of the E-edition by early Tuesday afternoon. Most who contacted me about the experience said they still like the look and feel of real paper, but the E-edition was an intriguing alternative.

“Thank you,” said one commenter. “After flipping through it (the E-edition) I do find it to be user friendly – and I like the look of a “real” newspaper.”

There was some disappointment. Wouldn’t you know, our vendor for the E-edition experienced a brief server problem at mid-morning, which prevented some from signing on until later. Also, some readers were chagrined that the E-edition is designed for PCs, but not smartphones or iPads.

“I want to read on iPad and iPhone,” said one commenter. “Get that going and you may have something.”

The iPad, maybe. But remember, the E-edition is a replica of an actual newspaper. For screens the size of an iPhone you are better off with a special iPhone application of the Observer. We released that a few weeks ago and it is enormously popular (you can download it to your iPhone at Apple’s app store at no charge).

We are developing an iPad application, but it won’t appear as a replica of the newspaper, either.

What’s the advantage of an E-edition? For many people, a newspaper remains the most representative record of that day’s events. They like how it is organized. They like its definitive nature.

Think about it. When we experience a historic day, people don’t fall all over themselves to take a snapshot of their favorite news web site. They want their own copy of that day’s newspaper. The printed front page still reflects their place and time.

The E-edition holds this same edge. On top of that, you can electronically search it and print out any portion of it. You can even shrink or enlarge what you print. If the Sudoku or crossword puzzle give you writer's cramp, make them bigger!

Here’s how to make use of the E-edition today. Go to:

When asked for a phone number, type in 704-358-0108. For the home address, type the number 600. Then apply the security code as provided.

If you need further assistance, operators are waiting at 800-532-5350.

I again want to thank our carriers for driving bravely through the snow and ice to get the Observer delivered. I also want to thank you for your patience in instances when we have experienced problems.

And we can all be thankful for the sun as soon as it returns.

(The E-edition is regularly available to print subscribers for an additional $1 a month, and to non-print subscribers for $5.99 a month.)

Monday, January 10, 2011

Observer E-edition is free today

If the icy weather disrupted delivery of your printed Charlotte Observer today, we invite you to try our electronic edition at NO charge.

That also goes for single copy buyers who can’t get to a news rack.

Our E-edition is an exact replica of that day’s printed newspaper. If you have not tried it, I think you will be pleased at how easy it is to virtually “turn the pages.” It also has the added advantage of search.

It is easy to get the E-edition on your home computer. Simply go to:

When asked for a phone number, type in 704-358-0108. For the home address, type the number 600. Then apply the security code as provided.

If you need further assistance, operators are waiting at 800-532-5350.

While our carriers are working hard to maintain delivery, it is inevitable that we will experience problems in some areas as a result of the ice. We sincerely apologize if this happens to you.

Please feel free to try the E-edition as an alternative. And if it is your first time, let me know what you think of the experience.

(The E-edition, by the way, is regularly available to print subscribers for an additional $1 a month, and to non-print subscribers for $5.99 a month.)