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


Anonymous said...

So how is a blanket email to these listserv folks inviting them to join your Insight group any different than other commercial endeavors using the email addresses? The Observer is a business, just like Banana Republic. Why not add a line asking them to buy your paper while you're at it?

Anonymous said...

I feel that was nothing more than an attempt to obtain a list of email addresses for FREE. What Editor Rick fails to mention is the Steve Gunn's title includes "Audience Development." Editor Rick says it won't be used for spam. But wouldn't an unsolicited email be considered spam?

Just because the Freedom of Information Act gives the Observer access to the list, does not make it ethical to utilize this list for their own use. The FoIA is there for news organizations to gain access to documents for journalism, not for marketing.

I suggest that if the Observer wants to find participants for its "Carolinas Public Insight Journalism Network" that they do so by promoting the program on their website and in their paper. Grow the list organically. Don't use a government loophole to better your own agenda! It is a desperate move. How the mighty have fallen.

Anonymous said...

Not that you're not believable on this, but you're just not. Shouldn't have asked for the e-mail addresses.

Anonymous said...

How is the "interactive division" related to the advertising department? I do not trust you, Charlotte Observer.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I feel that even one unsolicited email is spam, regardless of whether it is labeled marketing or information gathering.

This a slippery slope. No matter what your stated intent is today, you'll no doubt retain all of the data and reserve the right to change your mind later.

We all know that people pay real money for email distribution lists. Your company basically just found a legal loophole that allows you to harvest thousands of addresses. Who's kidding who? You;ll do whatever you darn-well please with these addresses. Maybe if your company starts hitting tougher times you'll decide to leverage this asset by offering access to the list with some of your advertisers.

In any case, this whole thing stinks. Surely you can see how someone might feel that you're a for-profit company that is hiding behind the letter of the law, "journalism", and acting in the community's best interest?

Hans said...

The point that the Observer may have the legal right to the e-mail subscription lists of local governments (like in my case for Davidson's eCrier) does not justify it's bullying and self-serving behavior. Mr. Thames claims that the Observer will not use these e-mail lists for spam - but wouldn't sending unsolicited e-mails about the Obserserver’s "Carolinas Public Insight Journalism Network" be just that: spam? I am appalled at the Observer's willingness to disrespect the privacy of the subscribers to local government information services, which to me casts an unexpected shadow over the Observer's journalistic integrity.
Hans Diessel

Anonymous said...

ALWAYS use a separate email address for anything that you sign up on for or whatever for on the net.

One that has spam control.

We have had the same Yahoo email address since they started.


Rick Thames said...

I should underscore here that we have not decided to send people on these email lists anything. Our primary purpose in asking for the lists is to see if they reveal anything that is publicly relevant. That speaks to their usefulness, or lack thereof, as a public record. The idea of inviting people to participate in Public Insight Journalism is a distant second as I see it. While we think many people who are on the lists would find this appealing, we have many other ways of reaching them. And if we find that using these lists as a resource is not welcomed in general, we won't do it.

Rick Thames said...

I understand your point. To some, spam can any message that arrives unsolicited. On the other hand, if its a message you find valuable, you probably consider it something other than spam. As a newspaper, we reach out to people, unsolicited, on a regular basis for the sake of journalism. As we considered this, it was only in that spirit. If most people saw it as simply spam, it obviously would be inappropriate.

Anonymous said...

I'm one of the folks in question here and I personally don't appreciate the observer obtaining my email address or sending me any emails for any reason. I hope they close this loophole so people like me who are involved in the community don't have to worry about being spammed like this. The observer is in business to make money and they requested this info so they can do their job better. I'd rather Halliburton get this info than the Observer.

Cynthia A. Manshack said...

You can call it "journalism", but it's your commercial activity, nonetheless. Will the resulting articles be used to sell more papers? Drive more traffic to your website? Increase profits? That's commerce, pure and simple, and journalism has nothing to do with it. While the release of the emails as public records is legitimate, your use of them for commercial activity is not.

Rick Thames said...

Cynthia, good question. What's the point? It's simply our effort to produce better journalism, drawing from the rich knowledge base of our community. I'd hope that better journalism is better business, but that's not at all the goal. Often, great journalism has no bearing on how many people come to our Web site. On our home page, you can see what stories are among the 10 best read at any given time. Often, that list does not include some of the best journalism on the site. But through this network, we tackle substantial stories about the most pressing issues of our times. And because citizens have input, those stories are much better. That's our only desired outcome.

Anonymous said...

I haven't given the Observer a penny in five years. And I never will again. It's similar to other mainstream news sources that have convinced themselves and, unfortunately, many in the masses, that they are unbiased.

Journalism will always be around, but the trend will shift toward trying to entertain, disgust, shock... Then, they'll wonder why we laugh when they occasionally try to inform us.

The larger the number of "experts" brought in -- in this case via citizen watchdogs and, let's be honest -- unpaid reporters being exploited by the Observer -- the bigger cesspool we create for ourselves to swim in.

Mr. Thames, just because something might be legal, it doesn't mean its right. For the sake of journalism, you say?

One man's spam is another's prime rib. But thankfully, we have the good 'ol Observer and its brainiacs to help us decipher which is which.

Even under the most well-intentioned, utopian, perfect-world scenarios you can conjure up, you're still human, and it's inevitable that your bullying (or taking advantage of) readers in the name of justice (and profit) will lead to more harm than good.

Anonymous said...

You've got to be kidding me! You honestly think better journalism is going to result from having the public do the work instead of your reporters?

What next? An editorial about how Tom, Dick and Harry are better equipped to run Bank of America than the current staff?

The rich knowledge base of our community? Quit patronizing us. For many years, the Observer has tried to tell us how stupid we are to want neighborhood schools, to not want a Coliseum or a NASCAR Hall of Fame, etc., etc. ...

Now, all of a sudden, we're experts with a rich knowledge base?

You say your only desired outcome is better stories?

And you expect us to believe that?

You've gotten rid of hundreds of journalists in the past three years. But you want better stories?

Your actions and your words are not matching up here, Mr. Thames.

DMorrisPE said...

I believe that the "alerts" are the notifications that are requested when the City/County web page has been updated. As such, it is an innocuous, helpful, feature provided by the folks. In my experience, I have found that many pages that I "subscribed" to have been changed, but never received a notification. From that standpoint, the alerts seem to be a bust.

When I moved to Charlotte in '88, one of the first things I learned was that when somebody hollered "Watch this,y'all!" nothing good happened. I'm afraid that the Observer just had their Watch This moment. Regardless of your seemingly altruistic intentions, y'all have taken a hard left turn and are headed toward the precipice untrustworthiness.

Rick Thames said...

Anon 9:55 a.m.: I'm glad you are are reader, even if it's only on the Web. We certainly didn't make a public records request to be a "bully." The fact is, any citizen has a right to this same information under the open records law. Any citizen can ask for this information and receive it. The law makes no special allowances for media. We will not use this information for commercial purposes. But businesss use public records to the benefit of their businesses all the time. Real estate agents rely on records to track the sale and purchase of homes and other property. Many businesses track bankruptcies,foreclosures, accident reports, crime reports, births, deaths and divorces. They do this solely to help their business. And this is believed to be good for society, even though it often touches on extremely personal information.

Rick Thames said...

DMorrisPE: Thanks for your insight into how the email service works for you. We're interested in hearing from others. I also appreciate your observation on trustworthiness.

Anonymous said...

"Real estate agents rely on records to track the sale and purchase of homes and other property. Many businesses track bankruptcies,foreclosures, accident reports, crime reports, births, deaths and divorces. They do this solely to help their business."

I guess the difference is that these records are literally "their business", whereas these email addresses are literally none of yours.

Anonymous said...

Does the Observer not understand how this eats away at the rights we all enjoy. When you use a great system (FoIA) to get personal e-mails I now think what other times you used the FoIA inappropriately. Not good judgement. WOW - are you guys hurting that much for subscribers that you must stoop to this level. Only one solution - apologize and have an idependent firm verify that you have not and will not use private e-mails.
This will put a damper on citizens participating in government - BAD, BAD, BAD.

Rod T said...

Full disclosure: the writer is a former Observer employee.

Technically, the Observer's intended use for these email addresses is not spam. Unsolicited email is not spam unless it is a commercial message, i.e., asking you to buy something.

However, I question the use of the Freedom of Information Act in this case. In my (admittedly-uninformed) opinion, it is not substantive governmental information. This use seems to fall within the letter of the law, but not the original intent. I would not have made the same choice.

To those commenters saying "I don't trust you", I just wish you could know Rick Thames personally as I do. If I published a dictionary, I'd put his photo beside the word "integrity".

Anonymous said...

The Observer is a commercial venture - for-profit. This isn't NPR or PBS. At the end of the day, the "good journalism" the Observer says they're striving to achieve is in the service of making money for The McClatchy company. (Hope I spelled that correctly.) If the information is going to be used to drive more subscriptions or more traffic to the website, that information is naturally going to be used by the sales and marketing department to attract more ad dollars to The Observer. This is absolutely NOT the intention of the Freedom of Information Act, and for the Observer to use it for this purpose (and then try to defend it) shows just how far the standards of this organization have fallen. Admit you were wrong, and give back the list. This is unethical at BEST.

Anonymous said...

Potentially the greater repercussion is that now the Observer has made it known to other commercial endeavors that local governments have email address lists that are ripe for harvesting.

A change in state law to protect citizens who want to be kept informed by their government cannot happen soon enough.

Anonymous said...

As a citizen, I was able to sign up for the ALERTS/EMAIL Topics that I wanted from the City NotifyMe service. I didn't see the Observer on that list anywhere.

Thank goodness CATS is exempt from this ridiculousness or I would no longer get my Rider's Alerts. Good work CATS for making sure my email address remains safe from the scoundrels.

Anonymous said...

Now that the Observer has felt the need to have the list to "determine" if the emails are useful or not, citizens may be less likely to sign up in the future. If you wanted to know how useful the system was then subscribe and read what is sent and make a determination that way.

Especially since people were told their emails would not be utilized for the purpose in which you have now done.

Anonymous said...

I think the Observer would be a lot better off if you would just say "Sorry, this was a bad idea. We will not proceed with it.". Instead you are trying to justify your actions with statements like "we felt a responsibility to look at this "public record" and "in many cases you can only understand the value of a record being public once you've seen it." Come on, this is an email list--why would you need to see it to judge its importance? I don't think many are buying your explanation.
Also, have you considered that by requesting the email list you may be quashing civic engagement--your actions may discourage some from signing up for email notifications from the city.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the others. This is taking open government too far when you decide to interfere with the lives of individuals. Shame on you.

Anonymous said...

I'm just not getting how this is such an infringement on anyone's rights. I'm also not getting how, as someone suggested, that this is done for shock value? Some people find offense no matter what. Fight on, Observer.

Mark Sullivan said...

While I understand most people's unwillingness to divulge their e-mail addresses, I find their reasoning fearful, uneducated and irrational. Most people don't realize when you either send to or subscribe to a government entity that your information and everything you word you send in an e-mail becomes public record. Just use another email address and quit whining about it. So I'll start now; My email address is If I don't like what you send I'll just divert it to my SPAM folder and delete it. Come on people, get over yourselves already. The government gave you a Social Security number so they know everything about you anyway. There are more important things in life to get worked up about.