E-mail Avalanche  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   January/February 2001

E-mail Avalanche   

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      



IT'S SO EASY TO hit the send button. What's more difficult is digging through the e-mail pile, sorting the good from the bad, as readers across the country weigh in on post-Election Day 2000.
Some staffers were hit particularly hard. Like Bill Rose, Palm Beach Post deputy managing editor, who says he's been "totally overwhelmed." One morning, he faced 439 unopened e-mails.
"I confess that I looked at the source of some of them and killed them outright," he says. "But I...have opened about 90 percent of them."
Some messages were from Rose's own staff; others propounded theories of men in a secret room, punching ballots; a few offensively questioned the intelligence of voters in Palm Beach County; others were obviously from a mass mailing. Then there were the "election weirdos," says Rose. "These were the people who felt compelled to give me their statistical analysis...of what the overvotes and undervotes were."
Highly interested people, armed with the power of the Internet, easily dashed off remarks to news organizations, perhaps even ones they had never heard of.
There was plenty of muck--Rose received one message that contained the entire Declaration of Independence. "No explanation," he says. "It's just the Declaration of Independence." But some proved useful. "There were a lot of very helpful e-mails where people tipped us to a problem in the election process and people suggested that we examine things," says Rose. The problem was pulling those out from the heap of worthless clutter.
Rose's 439, however, is nothing compared with what Curtis Morgan confronted on December 8: 957 unopened e-mails. That was five days after the Miami Herald reporter coauthored a piece that analyzed what the Florida count would have been if all voters had submitted error-free ballots. Gore, reported the Herald, could have won by 23,000 votes.
Morgan's e-mail address accompanied the Web and print versions of the story, and in addition to that 957, he had already responded to about 200. What did the messages say? Most were along the lines of "Oh? Bullshit and pure crap and fuzzy math and only in your dreams," Morgan says. "Angry people write far more often than people who are happy."
Normally the Herald's environmental reporter, Morgan was tapped for election coverage. "This is probably 20 times more e-mail than I've gotten on anything, easily," he says; he wonders whether there's been a single other story at the Herald that's garnered as much electronic reaction. About 50 of the messages in his inbox had nothing to do with the presidential election, and he says there were a good number that asked fair questions about the story.
Rafael Lorente, Washington correspondent for South Florida's Sun-Sentinel, says most of the e-mails he received were mild. "It hasn't been a huge flood," he says of the increase, "just from pockets I've never expected."
People from all over--"a lot of lawyers," he says--wrote to him after ballot counting stories, asking to see his spreadsheets. Lorente's local readers don't provide feedback very often, he says. Unless, that is, he writes about Cuba.
For Rose and Morgan, the volume created hurdles. Morgan wrote a form letter to try to respond to multiple messages at once. But his "sent mail" box made a duplicate copy of everything he e-mailed, eventually overloading his system and prohibiting him from sending out any messages.
"It was more an irritant than anything else," Rose says. He would leave his respond-and-delete duties for a meeting and inevitably be asked, "Didn't you read your e-mail?" Rose would say, with a sigh: "You know, I have 235 e-mails I haven't read."

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