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.


Anonymous said...

How would an email address's relevance as a public record be determined? My email address would give you absolutely no clue as to who I am.

Hoagie58 said...

Smart choice! In this electronic age, a person's email is very much similar to their home or cell phone numbers. How the government ever decided to make them public records is beyond me. And, regardless of the intention, to request these records for any sort of gain is simply wrong!

John said...

The message is to think first, then act!

When you think, think not as you would from the paper's perspective... ask how YOU would feel, if someone were doing this to you.

We live in the world of Do Not Call and spam blocking... somebody simply did not take the time to think this through.

Anonymous said...

Rick - I've heard that CharMeck decided to revise their policy only after someone requested the list. Supposedly they were shocked to discover that legally, they had to provide it. Is that true? If so, who is this person that obtained the list prior to the Observer's request?

Rick Thames said...

Anon 8:28: I can understand the question. It's hard to say without seeing the whole record. But the relevance could be less about identities and more about patterns, for example.

Rick Thames said...

Hoagie58: Just want to repeat here that we requested these records to determine their public relevance. The idea of inviting people on the lists to advise us was not the priority, but an afterthought. As for the public status of these records, state law presumes all information in the possession of the state is public unless it is specifically exempted. That's the spirit of open government, and it generally serves us all very well by keeping government transparent.

Rick Thames said...

Anon. 8:55: City spokeswoman Kim McMillan told me today that she believed that the last time they had this kind of request was in 2002 or 2003. A citizen activist asked for email lists, but then did not come by and claim them, she said.

Anonymous said...

"How would an email address's relevance as a public record be determined? My email address would give you absolutely no clue as to who I am."
Full name and address are required to sign up for the e-mail alerts. Some of the alerts are based on having accurate address information. All of the contact information is assigned to the users profile and all of the info is public record. So The Observer essentially has a very accurate marketing list

Anonymous said...

"To determine their public relevance" ? Who died and made you the arbiter of public relevance? And what was in the records except the actual email address?

If there is nothing in the record except the address, of what possible use could it be to the so-called newspaper? If there is additional information. then the Observer is prying and trying to obtain information for other reasons such as spam.

The most troubling aspect to this prying by you is the chilling effect this prying will have on interactions with citizens and their government. If every interaction we have with government is a matter of public record, how can we feel comfortable that some jerk "journalist" won't print anything in the paper?

RodT said...

Rick, I applaud your choice not to use these email addresses for solicitation. I only wish many other business leaders exhibited your level of integrity and sensitivity.

Anonymous said...

Oh I See you only wanted to "examine" the list and to explore its value.

I did not realize that it was a "non commercial" goal.

I thought you wanted to EMAIL the list.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad that you have decided not to use these email addresses to contact citizens. However, it does appear that you will still be examining the list "for journalism, mainly to determine their relevance as a public record". Huh??? Exactly what does that mean?

I would add that, although you have at least partially responded to citizens' concerns in this case, one has to wonder exactly who is running the show at the Observer. Who made the very questionable decision to obtain these email addresses to begin with and who approved that decision? With the paper in such dire straits, so many policies seem to be providing exactly the opposite outcome of what I assume you desire--stronger readership and support. The editorial board (which I know is totally separate from the news arm) continues its war with suburban and Republican readers and absolutely nothing is done to at least give one voice on the board to a different viewpoint. Several weeks ago the board actually wrote an editorial supporting and praising a corrupt politician (the editorial even admitted his ethical issues). The lead story in Sunday's living section was certainly of questionable value and taste. All of this and more has left many of us scratching our heads and asking--who is letting this whole operation spiral out of control? Is everyone so panicked that good sound judgment has gone out the window?

SSGPat said...

I am glad that the CO is doing the right thing by not spamming. If the people whose email it was didn't ask to be signed up with the CO, then it is spam.

I'm also glad that the government is following the law, but not providing electronic or paper lists. This will make the spammers have to hand write every name and make it not worth the time.

Bryan said...

A simple reading of the Public Records Act 132 would reveal that these lists were clearly public record. One of the fundamental premises of the Act is that government is not allowed to ask the requester for what purpose the record is being sought. The Municipalities are to blame for creating an unreasonable/unlawful expectation that these lists would be confidential. I am glad the Observer is not going to use the lists for any commercial purpose, and that I can be informed by my town about relevant public notices. However, it is a dangerous and slippery slope to begin to change the laws that empower people and allow the government (local and state) to determine which legitimate public records should be released and to whom and for what purpose. This situation and the legislative reaction must be looked at with a wider historical and future view and not with just these embarrasing facts.

cltindependent said...

I contacted they city of charlotte and took my name off the lists after hearing someone from the observer say the paper wasn't going to do anything with the list, but didn't know what OTHERS might do with this information. I'm annoyed that the observer would cause all this trouble just because someone had a dumb idea that went unchallenged. I'm not going to contact the city to get back on the lists I was on. I'll just check the website when I think about it to get the information I was signed up for.

Anonymous said...

thanks to the disturber, i unsubscribed from all of such email lists because i didn't want you contacting me to subsribe to the lousy paper.

Anonymous said...

So you if you only want to "examine the e-mail addresses, phone numbers and addresses for their potential journalistic value" (whatever THAT means!) then you should have no problem coming onsite to examine the records rather than asking for them in a hard copy or electonric form.

Anonymous said...

State law is state law, so the municipalities had to comply. What is interesting to me is how Wake County got a variance on the law that kept them from having to provide electronic copies of the list whereas most other counties did not. Why is Wake special in the view of the Legislature?

Adam said...

"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."

Very often? Perhaps. Always (and, more importantly, in this circumstance)? Hardly. How could a list of email addresses that subscribe to public government announcements be of any conceivable public interest? 70% of email blast subscribers contain a punctuation mark in their email addresses! Someone stop the presses! I don't mean to be overly snarky here, but this just looks too much like a transparently self-serving act. Can you posit even one conceivable relevant data point that could come from this, aside from those that could impact the Observer's marketing budget?

The only responsible thing that the Observer can do at this point is destroy every copy of the list that that they've taken possession of and apologize for seeking it in the first place.

The lesson to be learned here is that government entities should be using a third-party communication service so that they aren't emailing citizens directly.

Anonymous said...

I don't see the issue. Companies use FOI to access names and e-mail addresses from government entities all the time to better promote their own businesses.

Anonymous said...

With respect...Doublespeak! You give the impression that you heard us! Have you formally withdrawn Steve Gunn's (Observer marketing division) request for my information because I do not want it or any piece of it given to you? I don't hear that in your editorial. "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." So my read is that you are sorry you incensed everyone and you promise not to abuse the information you still are seeking hiding your marketing intention under cover of "journalism." Government is expected to protect my information and I trust that they will when I sign up for sports, classes, newsletters, etc...identity theft IS a terrible thing you are doing it in plain sight as "journalism." The public law is being abused here and should be tightened to protect, citizens from this...I am seriously considering canceling my long time Observer subscription over this. It is wrong....but I may have misinterpreted and you actually HAVE formally withdrawn your request?